Introduction (by Jim Newheiser)
Recently, the BCC presented a blog about “Helping Adult Victims of Clergy Sexual Abuse,” authored by Caroline Newheiser along with an anonymous victim. A fallen pastor who read Caroline’s blog contacted me and wanted to tell his story as a warning to church leaders, so we have written this blog together. I wrote the introduction and the last part, but the middle section is written by the pastor himself.
His desire to address us reminded me that when King David confessed his great sins, he promised God that, when forgiven, he would “teach transgressors your ways” (Ps. 51:13), a promise which seems to have been fulfilled in Psalm 32 (see especially verse 8).
My Story (by the former pastor)
For many years, I was a pastor who was faithful to my wife, raised children who are all believers in Christ today, and genuinely loved Christ and His people. In other words, I was not a fake Christian or a false shepherd. But after many years in ministry, I went through an extremely difficult season, during which I became disillusioned with pastoral ministry and life in general. I drifted away from God and my wife in my heart. This led to my failure to practice one of my basic rules of pastoral ministry, as I allowed myself to spend time alone with a woman from my church. I then became attracted to this woman and showed her inappropriate affection in words and actions. Eventually, I no longer had opportunity to spend time alone with her, so the problem didn’t continue to the same degree, but I never fully repented by confessing my sin to her, her husband, my wife, or the other church leaders, as I should have. (I didn’t want to “rock the boat.”)
Then, some months later, I began spending time alone with another woman and developed stronger feelings of attraction and showed even more inappropriate displays of affection. My sin made me delusional, thinking that I was “in love” with these women and that we were sharing a secret relationship that made us both feel happier in the midst of life’s difficulties. I knew it was wrong and would often confess to God and commit to stop doing it, but then I would rationalize my adulterous thoughts, feelings, and desires by telling myself that it “wasn’t really that bad” because it wasn’t actual adultery and no one else would know about it.
Eventually, my sin was exposed when these women spoke to their husbands, who then confronted me. Because I had been plagued by God’s warnings in my conscience and His loving hand of discipline in various circumstances, I repented and, with great relief, confessed all my sins to my wife and the others involved. I also immediately resigned because I knew I was not qualified to be a pastor. Thanks to God’s grace, my wife forgave me, and I have been walking with God and her for a number of years now. But the consequences of sin are severe. I have felt overwhelming shame and regret. My reputation was ruined. It also made it very difficult for me to provide for my family because I lacked sufficient vocational skills and experience. I know that I deserve whatever consequences I receive for my heinous, inexcusable sins against the Lord, my family, and the whole church. Still, I share all this so you can benefit from some of the lessons I’ve learned through my situation, which are outlined below:
1. Stay Close to God and Your Spouse
These problems all started when I failed to rightly respond to some difficult trials in my life. Dealing with them in a biblical way would have included helpful things like repenting from deep-seated heart idolatry and seeking counsel for marriage problems.
An example of the former is that I’ve realized pastoral ministry was an idol to me in a sense—a lot of my motivation for pursuing holiness, loving my wife, and staying away from temptation came from being a pastor. Why had I always followed the rule of never spending time alone with a woman but then broke it after so many years of ministry? It was because I no longer had the motivation of loving my job and wanting to stay far away from anything that could ruin it. But from the start, I should have kept myself from tempting situations only because of a love for Christ and others, not because I wanted to remain a pastor. Even good things can become dangerous idols if we’re not careful, and the ways Satan and the flesh make use of our trials can be very subtle and clever. I externally fulfilled my pastoral calling with competence, but I had allowed my personal walk with God to grow cold.
Another example is how my wife and I did not seek counsel for our marriage problems. We talked about seeking help many times but failed to ever do it because we felt that if we acknowledged our struggles, the disgruntled people who wanted us out of ministry would somehow be proven right. Furthermore, we were constantly trying to help others who seemed much worse off than we were, so why spend the time and money on ourselves? I now regretfully wish that we would have sought help from a biblical counselor when we first started drifting away from one another.
I also wish that I’d never started watching a cable TV show which had content in it that sparked and fueled adulterous thoughts and feelings in me and made it harder for me to control them when they reared their ugly heads. Romans 13:14 says, “Make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” We need to cut off any “supply lines” for sin (see also Matt. 5:27-30).
2. Don’t Be Overconfident in Your Ability to Resist Temptation
Over the years, I remember hearing many times about pastors who fell into sin and saying to myself, “I would never do that.” I honestly thought it could never happen to me, all the way up to the point where I broke my own “cardinal rule” of not spending time with women alone. I didn’t do that initially with the intention of engaging in immorality with either of them; in fact, one of the reasons I let my guard down was because they were friends and partners in ministry, and I didn’t think a fall could ever happen. But I found out that I’m way more weak and sinful than I ever imagined. Oh, how I wish I would have really heard and believed these words of Paul: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
In my delusion, I actually thought I was being kind and loving to these women. I never once thought that my affection was not welcomed by those to whom it was given. This was utterly unacceptable, foolish, and hurtful in every way, and I am fully responsible for all the damage I caused. “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13).
3. Those Subjected to Sexual Impropriety Should “Cry Out” as Soon as It Occurs
I would imagine that it is incredibly difficult it for women to confront a pastor (or any other authority figure) for being inappropriate. They don’t want to ruin the pastor’s life (or his wife’s), they are afraid of the impact on the church, and they are hesitant to face all the scrutiny that might come their way. Further, the pastor is likely a respected man, and perhaps they are misinterpreting his actions and motives that make them uncomfortable.
The church as a whole and individual believers should be involved in the important ministry of educating people, starting when they are young girls and boys, to raise their voices at first sight of sexual impropriety. Deuteronomy 22:23-27, teaches that a woman who is the object of unwanted sexual advances should “cry out.” One of the good things about the “Me Too” movement is that it has highlighted the need for this and encouraged women to do it.
4. Fallen Pastors Who Have Repented Need Help (added by Jim)
Much has been written about how to help victims of clergy malpractice and abuse. This emphasis on helping those who have been harmed is appropriate. But it is also right for the church to come alongside forgiven sinners to help restore them to fellowship with God and His people. This does not necessarily mean that fallen pastors will ever be restored to office in light of the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:1-7. But here are some ways you can minister to such a person:
- Help the fallen pastor to work through his repentance in relation to God and then with those whom he has harmed. Help him to take full responsibility for his sin as he sees how he sinfully deceived himself and others (Prov. 28:13). For characteristics of true repentance, see the repentance card. For how to seek forgiveness, see the “7 As of Confession” in The Peacemaker by Ken Sande.
- Help the fallen pastor to rebuild his relationship with the Lord, his family, and a church. He needs ongoing personal discipleship and biblical marriage counseling. My observation has been that many fallen pastors resist ongoing accountability and they often disappear into a different church where they have no close relationships. Often neither their former church nor their new church follows up, especially when they meet resistance. The former shepherd needs to be shepherded, and whatever church he joins should insist upon this.
- Protect the fallen pastor from gossip and rumors. While it is wrong to cover up the sins of a fallen leader, some may be slandered and falsely accused of things they never did. If he is honest and repentant, he should not be treated as a pariah.
- Help the fallen pastor to rebuild his life. He will need to find employment by which he can provide for himself and his family. This can be difficult for a man who has limited marketable job skills. He needs to see his new vocation as a calling from God (Eph. 6:4-8). He also should be involved in the church, with appropriate safeguards—home groups, helping ministries, etc. (1 Pet. 4:10-11). He needs friendship with other men who can keep him accountable and help to sharpen him (Prov. 27:17).
In David’s Psalm of confession, written after he repented of his great sins, he declares, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle or it will not stay near you. Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD” (Ps. 32:8-10). Just as we learn from David’s tragic failure, let us learn from those who have fallen in our day. In addition to heeding the warning of the deceitfulness of sin and the severity of its consequences, we also should rejoice in the grace and forgiveness our gracious God offers us in the gospel. “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Ps. 32:1-2).
Questions for Reflection
- What other advice would you give to pastors to help them avoid temptation and a potential fall?
- Have you considered the need for counseling the fallen leader in addition to the more apparent need for counseling the victim?