Pastoral restoration is possible, but challenging
Ontario, CALIF. -- Gateway Seminary President Jeff Iorg spoke on the tension of maintaining pastoral integrity, while practicing forgiveness and restoration for leaders who engage in egregious behavior in the school’s first chapel service of the spring semester.
“When a pastor behaves in an unethical or immoral way,” Iorg said, “our response must be biblical, practical, balanced, and measured.”
“Today’s message is more than an academic treatise or a theoretical exercise,” he said.
“It’s an acknowledgement of the painful, destructive, divisive results of leadership mistakes and how failing to respond to them appropriately compounds the problem.”
Iorg shared three biblical mandates and four warnings churches must consider when dealing with the moral or ethical failures of pastors.
The first mandate Iorg described was biblical forgiveness.
“The Christian doctrine of forgiveness is rich in content, radical in application, and comprehensive in reach,” he said.
Iorg referenced Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:14 and 1 Corinthians 6:9b-11a as examples of forgiveness of past sins at conversion. Following conversion, Christians are to confess their sins and depend on his promise to forgive sins as described in 1 John 1:9. Iorg said God expects his followers to also forgive fellow believers and referred to Colossians 3:13b and Matthew 18:21-22.
“All sin is forgivable by God and fellow believers, including any sins of any pastor,” he said.
The second mandate Iorg shared is to attempt restoration.
“When sin shatters Christian fellowship, we must make every effort to restore healthy relationships and preserve our connection with each other,” Iorg said.
Churches must be willing to both confront inappropriate behavior from pastors and support repentance. However, a key question Iorg asked was “restored to what?”
“The passage [Galatians 6:1-2] calls for restoring fallen brothers and sisters to Christian fellowship, not pastoral leadership. This is an important distinction,” Iorg said.
“While repentant pastors should be welcomed into fellowship and supported as they establish new life patterns, there is no obligation to return them to any leadership role.”
The third mandate Iorg called for was upholding biblical standards and the sanctity of the pastoral office.
“Pastors are held to higher standards than political, athletic, entertainment, and corporate leaders,” he said.
“While a womanizer can be an American president, an abuser can be a professional athlete, adulterers can be entertainment icons, and drunkards serve as corporate executives, these behaviors are unacceptable for pastors.”
Iorg said, unlike secular leaders, pastors are measured first by their character and then by their competencies. He said this distinction is often unrecognized, citing the inappropriate use of David as a biblical model of a flawed person restored to pastoral leadership.
“David was a political and military leader – not a pastor,” Iorg said. “The standards for a pastor of a local church are higher than anything we expect of political/military office holders – even those in the Bible.”
One important distinction to help avoid compromising the high standards of pastoral leadership is to separate the office from the person.
“The pastorate is different from and larger than any particular pastor,” he said.
“When a pastor sins, those actions diminish other people who serve in that role because it damages the status of the office – not just the personal reputation of the individual leader.”
Iorg then addressed the direct question: “Is restoration possible for pastors who commit ethical or moral sins?”
“My answer is a qualified yes, but with four cautions which are often not adequately considered today,” he said.
First, the totality of sin must be addressed, including the abuse of relational power and the impact of the sin on the church, the broader Christian community and the secular community.
“When a pastor behaves unethically or immorally, they also abuse the inherent power in their leadership relationships,” Iorg said.
“If a leader is unwilling to admit the totality of their sin and acknowledge its broad impact, confession and forgiveness are incomplete… they are not ready for restoration to church fellowship nor a candidate for restoration to any leadership role.”
The second caution for churches is to respond proportionally to the offense. He said criminal acts, immoral acts that continued over time or were purposefully hidden, or actions that created victims in the church or community almost always disqualify a person from future pastoral roles. Lesser offenses, in comparison, call for more measured responses.
The third caution is to appropriately include affected persons in any restoration process.
“When a church is working toward restoring a pastor, they must also strive to restore the people impacted by the pastor’s sins,” Iorg said.
This may include disciplining those who were complicit in the sin or providing care for victims and survivors.
“Restoring a pastor includes reestablishing trust and gaining the support of persons impacted negatively by their actions,” he said.
“When sins are particularly serious, reestablishing trust may be impossible – which is a good indicator a former pastor should not be restored to leadership after committing such egregious acts.”
The fourth caution is restoration is a slow process. Healing broken relationships, revising organizational restructuring, developing new lines of accountability - these tasks take time.
“It is disheartening when a fallen pastor returns to his pulpit only a few weeks after a moral or ethical failure,” he said.
“This kind of pseudo-restoration demeans the pastoral office and communicates a powerful message about the church’s willingness to tolerate abuse of power in ministerial relationships.”
Iorg concluded his message by recognizing how challenging the circumstances of a pastoral restoration can be and warning listeners to guard themselves.
“Every one of us is vulnerable to making serious leadership mistakes,” he said.
“May God give us grace and humility as we consider these issues – and the determination to live above reproach.”