When Pastors Are Caught…

wpid-2014-08-17-11.37.10.jpg.jpegWhile I am not interested in shaming anyone or any denomination as I see such actions as detrimental to building the Church, I am interested in learning from difficult situations. Today, I am examining a public statement about two pastors caught in infidelity with each other. Chump Lady passed along this situation to me via one of her blog readers. I raise it to point out what we can learn about how the evangelical Christian community responds to adultery and how to handle such situations better. Consider this a case study.

To be clear, I do not know these individuals and am not at all interested in tearing down the church or denomination with whom they are associated. However, I do think it is important to learn from these situations. If no one talks about such things, then how can we learn as a followers of Christ?

The full and official statement from the church (click here) lays out the situation: It informs the congregants and online community that these mega church pastors are stepping away from public ministry for a season of discipline due to being caught in infidelity. Here is the leadership’s full reasoning for this sabbatical:
On Tuesday, September 2, Pastor Pete Hise and Pastor Sharon Clements met with the leadership teams of Quest Community Church and confessed to an unhealthy emotional attachment that led to the crossing of physical boundaries while stopping short of sexual intercourse. This was inappropriate to their walk with God, their marriages, and their roles as pastoral leaders. This sin pattern repeated itself over an extended period of time and was concealed from their spouses, friends and church leadership. Upon discovery, QCC leadership took immediate action to care for all parties involved. In their confession, both expressed extreme sorrow and repentance for the impact of their choices to their families, friends, colleagues and church members, and also reaffirmed their commitments to their marriages.

As additional background, the Chump Lady blog reader wrote via email:

The Pastor and Co-Pastor (probably not their titles but the top 2 pastors) at Quest Community Church (5,000 attendees) admitted to a “long term unhealthy emotional attachment that crossed physical boundaries but stopped short of sexual intercourse….Rumors have circulated about this for SIX years.  The two families built $400,000 houses next door to each other, a few years back. You know, so it would be easier to do the Lord’s work.

Personally and pastorally, I am torn on this situation. I see both good and bad in the leadership’s response.

On one hand, I applaud the QCC leadership in taking swift action and calling this sin. This is more than some churches do in light of infidelity as some here and elsewhere have attested. So, I give the leadership credit for taking the sin seriously enough to force a leave of absence for these pastors.

On the other hand, the official statement strikes me as naive.

The statement admits this pattern of sinful behavior took place over a long period of time, and it was hidden from the closest people in these pastors’ lives–both personally and professionally. The Chump Lady reader suggests this relationship may have existed for six YEARS! That means a successful front was put in place for a long time, which is a nice way to say that these pastors are accomplished liars and deceivers.

Why believe these pastors now? Why believe that it did not go all the way to sexual intercourse? Because they look convincing in their sorrow? They already admitted to playing the leadership and their families. If ever it was the time to assume untruthfulness from individuals until proven otherwise, this is such a time.

Also, such admitted major moral failure and character deficit (as demonstrated by a “sin pattern repeated … over an extended period of time”) strikes me as not compatible with Biblical instructions for church leaders:

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach … He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. -I Timothy 3:1-2, 7, NIV

According to the official statement from the leadership, we can say a few things with certainty. Neither pastors are above reproach. Neither pastor were faithful to their spouses. Neither pastor now has a good reputation with outsiders now. And both now have fallen into disgrace. According to Scripture, they are not qualified to be pastors anymore. Perhaps in the future this will not be the case. However, it takes significant time to rebuild a reputation and demonstrate actual change in character. A removal from the pastorate (for now) as opposed to just a removal from “public ministry” seems more in line with Scripture.

Moving on to the close of the official statement:

Our goal in issuing this statement is to call our church to prayer, as well as to remind us that the name of Jesus Christ and the reputation of His church will be evident in how we handle this matter. We urge all Questers to reject the temptations of gossip, rumors and judgment, choosing instead to display mercy, love and compassion. Despite the hurt they have caused, two people that we love and care deeply about have never been more in need of our prayers and grace.

What about their faithful spouses? Their kids? Why not issue a statement protecting them? Why not instruct the church NOT to judge the faithful spouses? The lack of such an explicit protective statement strikes me as a pastoral failure.

These pastors created this mess by their sinful choices (to cheat and lie), and while I applaud forgiveness and mercy, I think we ought to consider the most vulnerable in these scenarios–i.e. the faithful spouses and their families. A statement to the effect that these pastors’ choices to cheat on their spouses and families is not at all the fault of their respective spouses or families is in order. Without that explicitly stated, the call to not judge comes across as not to judge the pastors as having sinned and failed in a morally significant fashion. This is not healthy and is inconsistent. Judgment has already been passed by the leadership on these pastors in this letter!

Are they back tracking on that judgement calling it sin? Are they saying such a pattern of sin can be justified? Are they suggesting that faithful spouses may have driven their spouses to cheat on them and lie to everyone? It’s confusing to say the least.

Yes, we all need grace. We all are called to refrain from gossip. And we all need compassion and forgiveness.

That said, church leadership is called to a higher level of moral accountability as church leaders are moral leaders. Moral failure and demonstrated character deficiencies are out of place for leaders in God’s Church.

I am glad to see some steps are being taken to address these problems here, yet more ought to be done in my opinion to be consistent with Biblical teachings on such matters. It is a start, though. That said, my hope is the evangelical community grows to consistently apply Scripture in these situations and learns to protect the vulnerable better.

5 thoughts on “When Pastors Are Caught…”

  1. Thank you so much. You may remember me from chumplady. My stbx carried on a giant EA eventually turned PA with a fellow theology student for years. Even though it was right under everyone’s noses – nothing was ever done. Both were ordained and continue to practise – without even a slap on the wrist.
    Both of these cheaters ended their marriages terribly. Two families were torn apart and I was left in a strange city with no support when suddenly he decided the marriage was DONE.
    The congregation barely blinked as I was fired from my position as his wife – even though we had just moved into the rectory 6 weeks before!!!
    The cheating couple continue to minister to others, perform weddings and offer MC to this date.
    And they are still together. It really boggles my mind and I have recently signed up for Divorce Care at another church to try to come to terms with it all.
    Thanks for your blog today!!

    1. Lisah- grrrrrrr that makes me mad. That is not right. I hope Divorce Care can be helpful for you. It was very helpful for DM.

  2. I would add that it’s impossible to not make judgements. Saying “hmm, that’s different” is a judgement. Calling it “sin” is passing a judgement. I think the letter should have stopped at just “try to refrain from gossip.” Props on at least taking a stance, but we need judgement in this situation. There needs to be a hard line taken with adultery. The cheaters and the faithful spouses and the families left in the aftermath need to hear/see judgement towards the cheater’s actions. Secondly, so there were rumors about this affair for 6 years yet they “stopped short of sexual intercourse?” I’m calling BS on that. One, that’s a way of minimizing the affair (they didn’t do x so it can’t be that bad) and two, like they’d really be able to keep it in their pants that long? Yea right. They were living side by side…. The 2 pastors that were caught not only have a proven track record of successfully lying and living double lives for the (seemingly) past 6 years, they also have no reason to be truthful now. As any survivor of adultery can attest to, (based on the stories shared here and on Chump Lady), the cheater’s first responses are to minimize their actions (deny that they crossed x line) and to follow that by saying they want to save their marriage. It’s image control, they want to remain in cake (having sexual/financial/other spousal benefits of marriage while getting something else on the side–see Chump Lady), and the faithful spouse (and pastors, friends, counselors etc) are most of the time going to buy it hook, line and sinker.

    These pastors were caught, their jobs and reputation are on the line. Of course they’re going to say they want to save their marriage. Of course they’re going to come across as remorseful. Do you really think when asked “Do you want to save your marriage?” that they’re honestly going to say “no?” They have something to lose and they will say whatever it is they need to say to stay comfortable. As DM says (and Chump Lady too), true remorse shows itself over time. Chances are much higher they’re sorry they got caught above all else. I agree that it would be more biblical to have them removed from the pastorate to really gauge authenticity.

    Furthermore, divorce is still seen as the bigger enemy within the church. Whether it’s the cheater or the faithful spouse, chances are higher (even more so when it’s the faithful spouse making the decision) that the church won’t take “no” as an answer and will proceed with some message of “God hates divorce,” (as is the most common teaching within the church in general). That’s especially important to look at b/c the church’s statement on the matter has just portrayed the cheating spouses as being remorseful. Who’s going to take the fall? The faithful spouses. They’ve just had their lives blown up for one. Two, they’re most likely going to get reprimanded if they want a divorce b/c they’re being unbiblical by not staying married to an adulterer (Look! They’re remorseful! Shame on you for leaving them!). Chances are also high they’re going to get reprimanded b/c the “shared responsibility” mentality is still so tightly engrained in secular as well as religious society that all judgement will get passed on them instead of the cheating spouse. All the attention on the letter was placed on the cheating spouses rather than those left in the wake of destruction. I don’t know what this particular church’s stance is on divorce and adultery but I really hope that they’re not in the majority camp with “shared responsibility” and “God hates divorce.” Props to them for taking some action. They’re on the right track. Now let’s hope they can take it a few more steps further.

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