Insights and Principles For Dealing With Fallen Leaders and the Trauma of their Sins

At some point, you may need to address immorality in a leader. Unfortunately, we all know how frequently it is occurring, and the sad part is that only a small percentage are discovered or uncovered. In my years as a counselor and leadership/church consultant, I have collected principles from these horrific situations that may help those dealing with such a situation of a “fallen leader” to “think correctly” in the complexity of the messy jungle such a situation creates.


Everything I write here will have to be qualified by, 1) the extent and severity of the sin and 2) what saith the Lord. One of my favorite core values is, always follow wisdom, unless the word of the Lord circumvents wisdom by His higher wisdom or His specific will in the situation.


In my counseling and mentoring, I have been active in helping to bring sanity to unfortunate situations where leaders have fallen. At times I see authorities dealing with fallen leaders in a healthy way, and some times I grieve. In my opinion these situations seem to be mishandled far more than they are handled with skill and spiritual maturity. 


Some pre-thoughts:


  1. There are no ABC videos called “How To Resolve Fallen Leader Crises In Seven Days Or Your Money Back.” Well, they may be out there, but don’t buy them. The issue is this: even if you have had experience in dealing with such things, every situation is different. And though one gains wisdom on how to deal more effectively with such a situation, there are custom variables that will never repeat in any other situation.
  2. Thus, the only pathway is using wisdom, following general principles and lots of listening to the Holy Spirit.


I say this because the following insights are a general guideline, not a “do this every time” protocol. Excuse me, but for simplicity, I’ll use “he” instead of “he or she,” acknowledging fully that women are likewise often guilty of sexual indiscretion.


Basic Strategies


I.  The extent of the SIN must be uncovered. This may require private investigation, research, and direct, specific, questioning of the guilty party.

  • Be aware of two things: First, lying. Lying is associated with the spirit of adultery virtually 100% of the time, and without question, lying persists while the activity is going on. Lying is for cover-up and self-protection. Adulterers can be epic and convincing liars. Second, smoke-screening. Smoke screening is when the guilty party will voluntarily confess something, or things that he did, that nobody would ever know, in order to manipulate trust. This is so that something much worse is not uncovered. Smoke-screening can happen by answering a question “technically” in an attempt to use specific wording to avoid raw honesty. Contriteness is often a smoke screen to hide the lack of full disclosure.
  • The guilty leader must be required to divulge the full extent of the sin. This may take time, and for some, it may never happen, but any process cannot move forward until an effort has been directed to uncovering the extent of the sin.
  • The full damage to people, family, other leaders, directly or indirectly must be assessed in time, as much as possible. Discipline and public exposure must be aligned with the extent of the sin.
  • The sin cannot be covered or hidden from the victims of the sin.
  • In a case where the implications of the sin are severe and far-reaching, the fallen leader has no privilege of directing the corrective process or the restoration process. his opinion on how he is handled does not count. This sounds harsh, but without the leader submitting to a process for a situation that he created, it is unlikely that he will ever see full restoration.


II. The extent of the REPENTANCE must be uncovered.

  • An individual who has been caught, or one who confesses because he knows that being caught is inevitable, is a totally different case from someone who confesses outside of any chance of being caught. This is an important point. A person who confesses on his own has already exhibited a level of true repentance, but the repentance of one caught cannot be fully believed until trust is built up through time.
  • A quote by a famous preacher used by Charles Spurgeon says something like, “No minister of God who has aligned himself as a sinner shall ever be given a chance to utter a word in front of the congregation of God’s people until his repentance is as notorious as the sin.”
  • A sincerely repentant person will submit to the corrective process of his authorities without accusative questioning or an attempt to protect himself. (If his leaders are not equipped to deal with his correction, he should have found another covering before severe accountability was necessary.)
  • A repentant leader will care more about the people he hurt than what is happening to him.
  • A poor little ol’ me complex is a sign of lack of repentance.


Understanding True Repentance


The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. It means to change the mind. But the biblical concept of repentance does not mean a cheap change of opinion. It more means a conversion, a transformation, a reformation (re-formation) of the mind. Repentance is the energy behind the renewing of the mind. But one must understand—repentance is NOT a feeling of sorrow or regret. The Greek concept of repentance has nothing to do with how one feels. Now, let me qualify that: Feelings of regret and sorrow may accompany repentance, and they may actually motivate it, but the feelings are not the repentance. The renewing of the mind that changes one’s belief system at the core, that manifests in changed behavior—that is repentance.


Too often the sorry feeling is mistaken as repentance. Those of you who work with any type of addicts know well that feeling sorrow with a heavy measure of regret can occur all through one’s life, but the behavior is never permanently altered. When a Christian leader gets caught in immorality and must face his consequences, he commonly will, of course, feel regret, sorrow, etc. He may even hate what he did, but repentance changes the individual at the core. Second Corinthians 7:10 says, “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world produces death.”


III. The strategy of the RECOVERY PROCESS must be defined


         A. The aftermath of what is created by an influential leader caught in immorality can’t be fixed, but it can certainly be helped by exalting integrity in the process. In my recent trip referred to above, Ruthie and I, and a team of three mature ministers conducted group meetings with the staff and family (including extended family), for three hours every morning.

         B. Allow people to share their raw feelings, then take them to the cross. In these meetings, people were able to share their feelings and ask questions. Our goal was that each one becomes better instead of bitter, by teaching them “how to think” in this situation. From one day to the next, we had no clue where to go, but every day, and almost every hour, God revealed HIS agenda.

         C. We continued after the group meetings with one-on-ones with each person close to the situation in order to undo confusion, root bitterness, or any other element that would lead someone to become “bitter.”

         D. The ministry board had already made a wise decision to first contact primary supporters with the news of the violation. I believe a mistake often made is to become overprotective of the situation and try to cover up the sin in ways that become somewhat deceptive. Leaking out unnecessary details is not healthy, but concealing the truth from those who deserve to know the truth often lacks integrity. I am a believer in the rule, private sins confess privately, interpersonal sins, confess personally, and public sins, confess publicly. The serious indiscretions of leaders are not private. They affect others and are to be treated as such. A few words of caution first.

         Though I don’t believe a leader watching pornography is acceptable, or succumbing to drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis, or other unwise and carnal things, I don’t think they need to be handled publicly like somebody in serious adultery. In the work I do that is associated with sexual purity for men, I have had a host of leaders who confess that they struggle with lust at times. Many of these confessions are in safe public settings, or small groups, where men can pray for each other. This doesn’t lessen the sin issue, but, depending on the extent of the dependency, it doesn’t necessarily necessitate removing someone from leadership—but it might.

         Many years ago, I discovered privately that my worship leader in a church I pastored was ravenous for pornography, and very actively viewing it. I removed him from his position because of the spiritual “conflict of interest,” but I never told the elders and co-leaders why I removed him to protect the confidential nature of what I discovered. This put me in a position to have a “target” on my back for judgment and criticism, but nevertheless, I was committed to not reveal anything about this worship leader’s addiction, because I knew his heart was right. I told my elders, please just trust me in this. They did, and we were able to move on without many bumps.


Things to Consider In the Restoration Process


First and very important, the definition of restore. When you are working to clean up a mess made by a leader’s sin, the word restore may trigger a negative emotion. The reason is that the affected people may not view restoration as “being restored to what previously was.” If they have been under a controlling spirit, or have been lied to, or deceived, they want nothing to do with restoration. I am clear in these situations to define restoration as: Being restored to God’s original plan. To be aligned to what God’s design, perhaps not to anything that has ever previously existed. God’s restoration is fresh, new, good, healthy.


Restoration: Being transformed into God’s original plan!


It is dangerous, and usually counterproductive, to take a fallen leader directly from his sin to a formal restoration process at the onset of the process. You will never know the extent of the repentance, or if the roots were dealt with if restoration is the primary objective at the beginning. I will elaborate on the reason for this:


Restoration is the ultimate objective, but cheaply dealing with the offense may impair any restoration for the perpetrator. Also, restoration does not mean restoration to ministry. Again, this is often dependent on the extent of the sin.


A fallen leader must endure the “sackcloth and ashes” stage. The “rebuke” process cannot be circumvented. It will be circumvented if cheap grace is given too soon. I am not saying that the guilty person should not be treated with love, acceptance, and healing. I am saying that part of that process is enduring the “repentance/taking responsibility/rebuke” stage. Here is where believers often err—they move too quickly into a poor-you mindset, pouring on cheap encouragement, and dis-enabling the guilty one to experience the full extent of how his sin victimized others.


Only if the leader successfully embraces the extent of his sin, and is contrite before God and willing to make restitution to those he has hurt, will restoration ever come.


This stage is not a time to give credit to past successes, in that the leader has likely sabotaged his former successes, and is disqualified from being honored for former efforts as a leader. I will say, that after full restitution comes to pass, that the leader may once again be honored for past influences that have remained. The test of a leader’s heart will emerge in the face of shame, lack of encouragement, and humility—either good or bad. This period can be compared to a tribal initiation—back into authentic manhood.


During this stage, the hearts of those who have been victimized must be the focus more than (but not excluding the) heart of the leader who sinned. Serious mistakes are made when this emphasis is reversed. (You may want to re-read this statement.)


A balance of metrons is needed. (I explain the concept of “Metrons” extensively in my book Kingdom Culture.) Mistakes have been made when either “justice-oriented” people are guiding the process, or when “mercy-motivated” people are in charge. A blend of both and the in-betweens are needed on a corrective team—depending on the extent of the infraction. It can be noted that the “justice people” may have more influence in the beginning of the process, and the mercy people may have more influence in the final stages of the restoration process, but this is simply a generalization to consider.


Corrective processes and restoration processes are generally flawed because sometimes there are no perfect answers on how to handle sin in the life of a leader. Also, every situation is different, and the people involved are different. Because of that, there are no firm rules on what to do. Sometimes a corrective team has to choose the best of the bad. Many restoration processes are like being between a rock and a hard place—the Red Sea in front of us, and Pharaoh’s army behind us.


The reason they are flawed is that no matter what you do with a fallen leader, there will be strong differing opinions (in most cases) that will challenge the decisions made by the corrective team, either on the basis of mercy, or the basis of healthy judgment and taking responsibility. Churches have split over differing views of how to deal with a fallen leader, and individuals have lost friends. So I often have to realize that when I am guiding a restoration process in a sensitive sin crisis, there are arenas that I might end up damned if I do, and damned if I don’t. But, as leaders, we march forward having faith in our God who promises to make a way through the wilderness.


With sexual sins, it must be remembered that the problem is not the surface sin. A sexual sin is just a fruit of a root. One root is the lust for power: Tiger Woods said, “When you have such power, you get to a point where you think the rules don’t apply to you.” Rebellion, control, self-centeredness, independence, are usually at the root of sexual sins. The roots must be dealt with.


Reason does not mean excuse. You were wounded as a child. You have traumatic stress disorder. A tragedy happened to you. All reasons, but not excuses. Every person alive must be responsible for their own actions, and actions that victimize others are never acceptable.


Even if there are unhealed places of the guilty person’s heart, I would caution a restoration team to be careful of going to these places before the extent of repentance is realized. Going to root issues of the heart can create a “poor little old you” or a “poor little old me” attitude. These issues should be dealt with when the restoration stage is in full gear—after the stage of taking responsibility and healthy shame is successfully endured.


A disciplinary and restorative authority must be overseen by official positional authorities, not counselors or other disconnected relationships. A proper alignment with positional authority must be respected where those authorities exist. God moves through authority structures that are in alignment with Him.


Comments About Restoration For the Fallen Leader


God is a God of restoration—always. But one must be careful that the method of restoring the leader doesn’t re-victimize the victims. The issue is when and how God restores.


God is a restorative God. Ruthie’s and my ministry is all about restoring people in many ways. We get into crisis situations continuously. Yes, I believe restoring people is always God’s agenda, but in the restorative process, it is wise to always keep in proper perspective the big picture.

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