When Christian Leaders Fall

Every time we turn around it seems that there is a new crisis facing the Church that erodes or reflects poorly on the values, standards, and integrity of Christians and especially leaders in the Church.  Embezzlement, mismanagement of funds, a televangelist caught in unbecoming activity, a high-profile divorce.  It seems that the accounts are never-ending.  Is it any wonder that recent reports by the Barna research team indicate that there is little behavioral difference between church-goers and non church goers across America?  Why are divorces among leaders so frequent?  Why do so many clergy leaders fail morally?  What’s going on?  More importantly, how do we respond?

Lately the spotlight has been focused upon the Catholic Church in its crisis of confidence.[1]  The Catholic Church is the largest Christian Church in America.  Although theologically there are points of difference with evangelicals, it has a powerful impact on our culture and has been seen as the epitome of Christian faith by much of our society.  Now to face the reality of failure at the highest levels causes doubt in many that what people have seen as holy, set apart, and sacred is nothing more than a façade.  This may be a national crisis among Catholic bishops, but it fairly well represents the kind of crisis that faces anyone in the Church when confronted with the faults and weaknesses of Christian leaders in any tradition. 

In response to current events, a lot of people have responded with a “holier than thou” attitude that dismisses the Catholic Church as corrupt, and unspiritual.  Evangelicals who fall prey to this trap are not only misguided, but, in fact, miss the opportunity to examine the true nature of the Church and a Godly response to failure.  This crisis is not something that is unique to the Catholic Church.  Discarding all the powerful ministry in the name of Christ that is done by thousands of priests each day is equally offensive to God as the sins committed by a few hiding behind the Church’s robes.[2]  The sad effect is the way in which many people think less of the vital ministry of many Church leaders because of the behavior of a few.

Actually, this is a wonderful opportunity to personally examine attitudes and approaches to dealing with public failure when you are confronted with it.  The bad news about the current crisis is that it further undermines credibility in Christianity and especially in leaders.  How much more can the Church in America take?  When will the Church lose so much respect that it will simply crumble?  The good news is that the Church will never crumble.  After all, it is not “our” Church, it is not “our” faith.  It is God’s Church.  It was created by Him, and although He has entrusted it to imperfect leaders, He will not abandon it nor allow it to fail in its mission. 

The headlines cause deep questioning regarding who or what the Church is.  To some it is synonymous with the denominations we have created to give order to ministry.  Yet in reality it is not an institution.  It is an organism that reflects the character and priorities of God.  To the extent that denominational church structures understand and fulfill that call they embody the Church among their people.  The failure of leaders within the Church, while grievous and painful, does not mean the failure of the Church itself.  Don’t assume that failure in one means failure in the other.

How should we then respond when this kind of crisis comes?  One option is to conclude that the Church is bad because some of the leaders have failed.  A more appropriate response is to recognize the pervasive, insidious effects of sinful nature and the threat it is to us all – lay and clergy alike. With that starting point, it’s helpful to observe the pattern of the Catholic bishops in shaping our own responses.  The two pillars that must always accompany such traumatic crises are confession and repentance.  

Though it is painful and usually not politically correct, confession is the first step in being truly Christian.  The bishops collectively make the right choice.  “As bishops, we acknowledge our mistakes and our role in that suffering, and we apologize and take responsibility for too often failing victims and our people in the past.”[3]  We live in a culture that defines confession as weak and unbecoming to success.  To confess means to admit failure, weakness, and inadequacy.  These are not things that our culture likes to see or show.  In the cultural press for independence, strength, confidence, and success, confession becomes a counter-cultural principle to be avoided.   Yet it is a Kingdom principle.  We are to “confess our sins to one another.”  And confession always precedes revival. 

In the case of the Catholic crisis, as in others, the sin is clear.  Scriptures do not equivocate on the kind of behavior that is expected and acceptable sexually.  What we have seen among a few Catholic leaders is sin. By naming it, it is drained of its power through the redemptive work of Christ.  Further, however, in the case of Church leaders there is always the matter of authority that is abused, trust that is broken with parishioners and fellow clergy, as well as broken vows of ordination.  The offense is clear and it is serious.  Although offenders may be restored to fellowship in Christian community, it is highly unlikely that leadership will again be conferred.

Although spiritual leaders in the Church should be revered as ones who are uniquely set apart for the work of leadership, they, above all people, should remember that this call is a holy trust. They, as all believers, are “jars of clay.”  In contrast to the beautiful marble vases used in Paul’s time by the wealthy to hold costly liquids, we are “clay pots.” None of us is exempt from the pressure of temptation that can crack such frail “earthen vessels.”  Inexpensive, common, and flawed though we may be, we hold the priceless light of Jesus.[4]  It is not the inherent quality of the pot that is valuable, but the light He has entrusted to us.  If there is a fatal flaw, it has been that the Church has allowed its leaders and its institution to be revered above the Lord whom they are called to serve.  While moral failure in the ministry is grave, it may serve to remind us that our eyes need to be more singularly focused upon Him in the pursuit of holiness, not the frail vessels whom God places in leadership.

While confession requires vulnerability, repentance demands change. It admits that what we’ve been doing is not right and therefore puts feet to the intent of confession.  One of the greatest difficulties for you in responding to sin in Church leaders is the unwillingness to allow for repentance.  A sad part of moral failure is watching people so frequently discard the offender or Church as irreparable.  They have been found flawed and that becomes the permanent description.  When a conversation turns toward the crisis, a sad shake of the head indicates there is no hope of change, and the loss is mourned as if nothing can alter the circumstances.  We often pull down the curtain and relegate the person or Church to the rubble heap of failures.  

Not only does that kind of response demonstrate our own propensity to judge prematurely, it reflects directly upon the grace of God.  By so concluding, we have written off God’s ability to heal and restore in the face of sincere repentance.  Surely moral failure in Church leaders shows flaws in Church order and may forever disqualify persons from leadership.  But it in no way means that God’s grace is not sufficient for rebuilding trust, holiness, and health.  In our weakness, He is made strong.

When confession is followed by repentance, a new day of Kingdom principles can result.  Confession always precedes revival because the self-sufficiency and inauthenticity is stripped away.  The healthy Kingdom principles of truth-telling, vulnerability, mutual submission, and authenticity are allowed to flourish under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Sin has a way of covering the brilliance of these Kingdom principles.  Confession and repentance raise them once again to the surface.  These are counter-cultural, to be sure.  But they are also authentically Christlike.

The Catholic bishops have modeled this repentance and commitment to Kingdom principles in their Charter.[5] It represents broad commitments to new or changed behavior.  Certainly, we cannot know the details of the internal patterns of behavior in the Catholic Church. However, the leadership they have taken in setting the priority of changed action demonstrates their desire to lift up the “light of Christ” as the center of the Church.[6]  They are not adversarial, which in itself starts the healing process in humility.   Ultimately, in the words of Cardinal William Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore, the Catholic bishops “hope that we will emerge with what Pope John Paul II calls ‘a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church.’”

When you are confronted with a painful failure in leadership, don’t assume that this is true of all who lead. Further, don’t discard the Church as ineffective and irrelevant.  It is the singular institution created by God to convey His message of forgiveness to the world.  The Church is His – His Body, His bride.  He loves it and will use it to effect His will on earth.  Recognize the ever-present influence of sin and the pressure it places especially upon leaders to fall prey to its insidious lure.  If the Enemy can ensnare leaders, he can cause agitation and doubt in the hearts of those who seek God.  That is his method.

When there is a crisis due to sin in leadership, do not abandon the truth of righteousness and holiness in the face of a defensive or adversarial heart.  If the leader fails to respond in confession and repentance, hold firm to that Kingdom principle of speaking in love.  And, in the face of authentic humility by a leader, respond with a Kingdom mind of grace and justice that allows the effects of confession and repentance to bear the fruit of health and wholeness to the glory of God. 

Kevin Mannoia

[1] A description given by the Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory in his Presidential Address to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, TX., June 13, 2002.

[2] The Bishops themselves acknowledge this and take the lead in recognizing the positive work done by the majority of priests.  In their July 2002 publication of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” they call on their faithful not to generalize thus damaging the good work and calling of most priests more than has already been done by “those who might exploit the priesthood for their own immoral and criminal purposes.” (pg. 14)

[3] Preamble to the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”

[4] In II Corinthians 4, Paul juxtaposes the value of the gospel of Christ and the ordinary vessels God has chosen to use to convey that message to the world.  See especially verse 17.

[5] The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is a 16 page document containing articles of intent describing actions to be implemented at the diocesan level to mitigate similar cases from arising in the future.

[6] In addition to the Charter, the USCCB has issued “Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests, Deacons, or Other Church Personnel” approved in June 2002 at its meeting in Dallas, TX.  Further, Bishop Tod Brown has provided guidelines for the Diocese of Orange, CA entitled “Respecting the Boundaries:  Keeping Ministerial Relationships Healthy and Holy” as an example of Diocesan action in response to the charge of the USCCB to implement change in addressing the crisis.