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5 Temptations: How ministry leaders should react to allegations

Unsplash/Adi Goldstein

When allegations of misconduct are made against a minister or other leader, it is naturally upsetting for everyone involved, including the minister’s friends, supporters and colleagues.

How ministry leadership responds to allegations could make the difference between building a healthy ministry, or long-lasting bitterness and hostility.

As leaders walk through this process, they face temptations. Jesus warned about the difference between those who are true shepherds of His flock, and those who are false or unfaithful shepherds. How well leaders and the accused minister respond to these temptations may indicate whether they are true shepherds — or not.

Temptation 1: Dismissing inquiries

When an allegation of misconduct is made, the credibility of the accusation will have to be evaluated. The first temptation of a shepherd is to assume that the allegations could not be true and dismiss or criticize the complainant. But automatically and impulsively putting too much trust in the minister’s character sends the message that the ministry holds the minister as infallible and incapable of mistakes. Thus, allegations will never be believed even if they are true. Brushing off the complainant creates an impression of cover-up and protecting the accused.

In evaluating allegations, leaders should ask themselves, “Irrespective of what we know or think we know about the character of our minister or the complainant, if these allegations were corroborated, would they amount to ethical misconduct or an abuse of power by our minister?” If the answer to this is yes, then leaders should unequivocally pledge to seek the truth wherever it may take them. Next steps will likely be gathering evidence and setting up an investigation or some kind of genuine inquiry.

Handling allegations well will show others in the ministry and the complainant that leaders are humble and honest. Failure to take allegations seriously could create suspicion and distrust among members.

Temptation 2: ‘A little help from my friends’

The second temptation of a shepherd is to let the accused minister (or his friends) manage or speak into the investigative process. Giving the minister access to the complainants or influence over the process may not only sabotage the investigation, it may also lead to retaliation claims. Even if the minister is totally innocent, if the minister and his or her allies are involved in the investigation, it gives the appearance of a corrupt process.

Throughout the investigation, the minister, his close friends, and any other biased party should be completely separated from any decision-making related to the allegations. Additionally, anyone who is close friends with the minister or who has bias one way, should be excluded. Practically speaking, in some cases, these individuals have been known to feed the minister information about the investigation. There could either be real collusion to influence the outcome, or an appearance of collusion, which is also bad.

Whether the minister should be placed on administrative leave or simply firewalled from the investigative process depends on the gravity of the charges and whether his or her presence during the preliminary investigative stages would give the appearance of impropriety or cause harm to others. But if there is evidence of misconduct that may create a scandal, the ministry should seriously consider administrative leave until after a complete investigation. 

Temptation 3: Influencing the outcome

If the minister is highly esteemed by a church or other ministry, then it is very difficult for supporters to watch helplessly as an investigation goes on. When the friends and supporters are also leaders, a third temptation of a shepherd is to try to influence the outcome.

How does this temptation play out? An example might be a public meeting that shows contempt for complainants and reiterates (by faith) the innocence of the minister. Another example is making blanket statements dismissing complaints as nonsensical. Sometimes this is done on faith without knowledge of the complaints. Worse, sometimes leaders who know of the complaints and know of substantiating evidence will still publicly support the minister.

Why is this a problem? The scriptural responsibility of the shepherd is to the sheep. If there has been a complaint, the first responsibility of leadership is to those who may have been harmed. Blindly supporting an accused minister betrays those who may have been harmed.

As with the accused and his or her allies, everyone else who has a clear bias for a particular outcome should be firewalled from the investigative process. This may mean recusing themselves. In very serious situations where leaders could be suspected of collaborating with the accused, they should also be placed on administrative leave or otherwise removed from the process pending the investigation.

Temptation 4: Manipulating the evidence

A fourth temptation of a shepherd is that those loyal to the accused may try to influence the investigation by manipulating the evidence. For example, leaders may encourage numerous witnesses to participate in an investigation to dilute the allegations with favorable, though often irrelevant, character evidence. These “character witnesses” may also deliberately attack the credibility of those who are raising allegations. This in turn discourages other individuals with legitimate concerns from coming forward. Why would people want to raise legitimate concerns if everyone is going to turn on them?

Of course, there is a proper place for character witnesses for or against the accused and the complainants in every investigation. There are also proper limitations on public discussion. But efforts to tip the evidentiary scales are unhelpful and even counterproductive. Besides needlessly prolonging the investigation and running up costs, this behavior puts a spotlight on improper motives, deception, and a culture of avoiding accountability.

Temptation 5: Manipulating decisions

Once the investigation is done, and the allegations have been substantiated, a fifth temptation of a shepherd is to manipulate the decision-making. Perhaps the investigative report will be suppressed, just under the eyes of a few loyal people. Perhaps information about the investigative report will be provided to the accused to help with a campaign to retain his or her position. Perhaps some wrongdoing will be acknowledged, but there will be a quick, cheap restoration process and thus not real reconciliation. Or someone may be left in a position of power who is no longer qualified for it because of moral shortcomings. If there are not real consequences for real wrongdoing, the sheep are again betrayed by false shepherds.

For a ministry embroiled in an investigation against a minister, the best course of action involves humility, patience, and a desire to have the truth be known. It is truly impressive when a minister being investigated demonstrates humility in the process, steps aside, and does what he or she can to cooperate with the investigation. All leaders should pray for both the accused and the complainants. They should arrange for pastoral care to be provided (by those who will not be making decisions) for all sides. They should encourage transparency and honesty without dismissing allegations or trying to manipulate the outcome of the investigation. They should arrange for the decision-makers to be unbiased individuals who will make just decisions and will seek healing for the ministry and individuals.

This will help to build a healthy ministry culture. And it will help people understand what Jesus meant when he said that a true shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Theresa Lynn Sidebotham is the founder of Telios Law, PLLC. She assists organizations in the U.S. and internationally, with a special focus on employment law, religious and nonprofit law, and child safety. She also advises on and conducts numerous misconduct investigations.

Daniel Geraghty joined Telios Law, PLLC, in 2021 after spending over thirteen years advocating for the constitutional rights of the indigent, underpvileged, and mentally ill as a Public Defender in Florida. He has a deep understanding of how to advocate for justice for those individuals in society who are most vulnerable and in need. He conducts numerous misconduct investigations.

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