When a pastor or other church leader falls into some kind of moral failure, how should the church respond? Several prominent and formerly prominent evangelical leaders sought to answer this and other questions during a recent Life-Giving Leadership Round Table event.
The event, attended by about 50 pastors, counselors and teachers, took place in Annapolis, Md. on Oct. 17. Ted Haggard, the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals who was forced to resign after it was revealed he had been involved in a sex scandal with a male prostitute, facilitated the event and was accompanied by his wife, Gayle.
"Love only happens on the bad days," Haggard said during the event, according to a tweet by Pastor Ed Gungor of Sanctuary Church in Tulsa, Okla. The quote, Gungor explained, was in reference to the idea that "real love" becomes evident only when "people want to run from you."
Fred Antonelli, founder of Life Counseling Center in Maryland, hosted the event and, in an article for Relevant Magazine, discussed what he says is a "double standard" within the church when it comes to the process of restoring leaders.
The church has not yet fully grasped "the death of the law," he says, and both church leaders and lay people who get caught up in sin are being punished as a result. "Christlike restoration," says Antonelli, simply can't occur if the church continues trying to combine the law of the Old Testament with the grace of the New.
"In short, the evangelical community's emphasis on the law has created, as a byproduct, a culture of fear when it comes to confessing personal sin. Yet it's time to create a new culture where transparency is encouraged, safety is assured and agape love is practiced," he said.
Another participant in the round-table discussion was author and speaker Ruth Graham, Billy Graham's daughter, who is open about the tremendous struggles – two failed marriages, suicidal thoughts and many parental challenges – she has faced in the past.
In a recent blog post, Graham said it can be difficult for Christians to confess their sins to one another, in part because they fear being "black-balled or marginalized" by others.
"It was great to be with folks that share my passion," Graham said about the round table event. "And each one had a story – we all do – some are messier than others but they are all messy – like mine. So many shared from their pain, their hearts – not for the sake of themselves but to showcase the outrageous grace of God."
Graham also said she believes Protestants need to get back into the practice of confession.
"We were made for it," she says.
Antonelli believes part of fixing the church's approach to restoring fallen leaders involves making a move from mere accountability to advocacy of those leaders who have been caught up in sin. Holding someone accountable involves pointing out their sin, but being an advocate lets the failed leader know he has an ally throughout the restoration process.
"No one should have to feel fearful and alone in Christ's community," said Antonelli. "Jesus did not leave people in this condition, rather He lovingly advocated for them to be set free from their sin."