How To React When a Pastor Or Other Leader Experiences a Serious Failing

During my career, I’ve dealt with many crisis situations with churches and ministries. Pastors who experience moral failings, staff members embezzling money, leaders who turn out to be pedophiles, serial adulterers, incompetence, and much more. Every situation is different, and the goals include healing the hurt, restoring the leader according to Biblical principles, and keeping the church healthy. Seeking God is critical, but along with that process, there are some immediate practical choices that have to be made. If you’re a church leader, elder, board member, or know someone who is, this is a critical list you should share and keep handy just in case a crisis happens in your church:

1. Prepare for a crisis ahead of time.  Research shows that organizations that have a crisis plan recover much more quickly (and with less cost) than those who don’t. And don’t think a crisis can’t happen to you. In today’s complex, Internet driven world, the chances your church or ministry will have problems has only increased. Pray, hope for the best, but always have a plan if something goes wrong.

2. Get an attorney’s advice immediately.  There are numerous legal issues surrounding these types of failings, and you don’t want to put the church at risk. A qualified attorney should be your first call.

3. Know your liability insurance policy.  In many cases, lawsuits happen, and a good insurance policy can literally save the church. It’s one thing for a leader to fail, but quite another for him or her to take the entire church down because of legal actions. So talk to your insurance agent as well as your attorney, and make sure you’re covered for these types of situations.

4. When a crisis happens, don’t cover it up.  In an instant message, texting, and email world, word travels fast. Today, we have to be more transparent than ever because we simply can’t hide anymore. Leaks happen, and they will happen to you.

5. Be honest.  You don’t have to reveal everything about the situation, but whatever you do, don’t make anything up or hide anything. Even when you think you’re trying to help the situation, lies will be found out. The worst situation is to have to change your story as new information is revealed. So be honest from the beginning.

6. If possible, break the news to your church family first.  This is indeed a family, and they need to be told in person. Don’t email the news, tell it to them live. Sometimes that’s difficult if the problem happens early in the week, because it’s tough to keep a lid on it until the weekend services. But if possible, and especially if the news comes to light toward the end of the week, I’m an advocate of sharing the truth with the congregation first. They deserve to hear the real story, not rumors, gossip, or through the local news.

7. Then go public and tell the story.  Through an official statement, press release, or local news story, I encourage the church to tell the story of what happened. You don’t need to go into inappropriate detail, but the story needs to be told. If you don’t, the press will report anything they can find including rumors, second hand gossip, and speculation. In an online world, if you don’t tell your side of what happened, the other story will remain forever.

8. Seek counseling, healing, and restoration for all parties. If the pastor or leader has had an affair, don’t just help the pastor and his family recover. Help the other person as well. It’s difficult to discern who started the relationship, so reach out to both sides. You should be impartial when it comes to helping everyone heal.

9. Pull the pastor or leader’s content from your website, print materials, church bookstore, and everywhere else.  After stepping down from leadership because of a failing, his or her presence in these and other places will only confuse the situation. Make a clean break and make it quickly. Sermon DVD’s, downloads, podcasts, broadcast radio or TV programming, books, etc, should all be pulled. Also, take down the leader’s personal websites and social media platforms. If you don’t, critics will use online photos and videos to make fun of the situation and it can get ugly.

10. Get communications advice from a professional.  Good attorneys can help with the legal issues, but an experienced crisis communications and media professional can help you know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. Writing official statements and press releases can be tricky. Setting up a press conference can backfire. Talk to someone who has been there and can help you plan. The cost will not only save an enormous amount down the road but it can save the church’s reputation.

11. Start moving the church forward immediately.  Members of your congregation will grieve, but for the church to survive, you need to keep moving forward. Tell your leaders, teachers, and small groups not to dwell on the failing, but talk about the future. Keep programs intact. Plan new events. Re-focus the congregation from the failing in the past, to the possibilities of the future.

Be ready for critics of all kinds, because even some Christians inexperienced in this matters will criticize a crisis plan as not being godly, or trying to manipulate the truth. But it’s not about manipulation, it’s about being honest. It’s not about contriving a story, it’s about revealing the truth. However – it needs to be handled in an appropriate way so more lives aren’t damaged, and the church doesn’t suffer even more.

God is a good God. Restoration and healing can happen. But taking the right steps from the beginning will make a big difference. God forbid anything like this will ever happen to your church, but just in case, share this with your church leadership so they’ll know what to do if and when that time comes.

If you’ve experienced a situation like this at your church or ministry in the past, where there other steps you took that helped?

 

This entry was posted on Sunday, April 27th, 2014 at 1:57 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • GregAtkinson

    Great post. All churches need to read this. I especially resonate with #4 and #8. I’ve seen churches drop the ball in these two areas big time. Thanks Phil.

  • Sam

    All great points and as an attorney who recently had to address a crisis on behalf of a ministry, I’d like to add a few points: 1. Prepare your Crisis Response with a Crisis Response Specialist, and 2. Engage a Crisis Response Specialist simultaneously and in combination with your attorney; their skill-sets are both necessary and need to be coordinated so they are complimentary. Everyone needs to be rowing in the same direction to address a crisis effectively. As Phil indicated rumors have a way of circulating quickly and not always maliciously, so if your own response team is communicating different or even seemingly different messages, it can further compound the situation.

  • Fred Applegate

    A real church can survive a crisis, but a cult of personality will not.

  • http://billgrandi.com/ Bill (cycleguy)

    Phil: We moved into our first church building (we bought an abandoned Mormon building in our small town) in the Fall of ’10. In January of ’11 I found out our Treasurer had embezzled a ton of money (no sense in giving details). We had about $310 to our name. We did about all the things you say pertaining to her and the situation, especially 2-6. it was THE BEST thing we did! Well said post and much needed.

  • http://www.msgpr.com/ Lee Miller

    Thanks for the post Phil. In the PR Crisis Communications business, we usually get the call way past the point of disaster in a disaster. Planning can make a significant difference. It is not if a crisis will happen – it is just a matter of when. And it doesn’t always have to be a staff member – just the failure of an everyday church member that just happens to be the guy that greets at the Children’s Ministry door or someone that was a former staff member. So many questions that can be answered and actions prepared in advance – why do churches gamble with this!?!

  • Darren

    This is so important Phil, because how we handle issues like this says so much to the watching world. Thanks for this information.

  • Jim Knaggs

    This is a good word, Phil and enormously important. Church leaders (particularly, non-pastors) should be prepared in this way.

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  • Stacey Campbell

    While there is much to like about this very practical article, there is also much that is problematic. Most of the points seem to pertain to large churches who have a pastor/leader with a large presence. However, the majority of churches do not have this and in my experience, the media is simply not interested in something if it’s not newsworthy. Also, the focus of much of the article is on protecting the church, rather than the restoration of those who have fallen. Yes, this is mentioned in #8, but that’s it. Instead, the first phone call should be to an attorney? Really? I hope this was just misplaced hyperbole. Remove any mention of the pastor/leader who has fallen–sermons, blogs, etc.? This is dangerously close to sounding like his entire ministry and usefulness is irrelevant because of his sin. What if God would have taken this approach with David? Or Noah? Or Moses? Or any of the disciples? Wouldn’t a better alternative be to teach our people the path of maturity, of loving and restoring a person, of seeing their incredible worth at their lowest point, instead of lopping them off and casting them away? Which path does the Bible speak?

    • http://philcooke.com Phil Cooke

      Actually Stacey I would give this same advice to churches of 30 people. I understand your reaction, but chances are you haven’t been through a situation like this. Restoration of the pastor (and women involved) is important as I point out, but particularly in small churches, a single lawsuit from an aggrieved party can bankrupt the entire church and it’s impact is then lost.
      Pastors can be restored, but unless they are moved out of that environment quickly, restoration becomes nearly impossible. It’s not about casting people away, it’s about clearly articulating all Biblical principles in an atmosphere where healing can really happen.
      Thanks for bringing up that important perspective!

      • Stacey Campbell

        Phil, thank you so much for your words. I understand you don’t know me or my background, but yes, I have been through situations like what you mentioned, both personally, and in a consulting role for churches and faith-based organizations. You are absolutely right that a lawsuit can be a major blow. I’m just wanting to offer the perspective that a church–by default–tends to focus on protecting itself as an organization instead of doing the much riskier and harder work of relational, spiritual, and vocational restoration. I do have to kindly disagree with you on pastors/leaders needing to be removed quickly, though. For greater health of the individuals, as well as the congregation, I have found that it is always better to keep them in community–as long as there is cooperation happening–so that deep healing and restoration can occur. It is difficult but often leads to greater degrees of maturity. Again, our knee-jerk reaction is to fire and remove and I would like to propose an alternative that is radical, yet redemptive.

        • http://philcooke.com Phil Cooke

          Fair enough Stacey. Thanks again for posting!