A study released by LifeWay Research reveals a divide among pastors as to properly dealing with sexual misconduct among peers.
When asked whether a pastor should permanently step down from public ministry after having an affair, 24 percent supported a permanent withdrawal while 25 percent weren’t sure. Around a third, 31 percent, said the pastor should step down for a period of three months to a year.
“Pastors believe church leaders should be held to high standards,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research. “They also want to protect themselves against allegations that could be false.”
The age of online communication has muddied the waters for an already-murky topic. While high-profile cases have happened before – think of the televangelist scandals of the 80s – and whispers of inappropriate pastoral relationships have dotted small-town squares for some time, platforms such as social media and texting have provided new avenues to secrecy, at least until that secret is revealed.
In addition to if a pastor should permanently step down after having an affair, LifeWay Research asked three more questions regarding moral failure of those occupying the pulpit.
If a charge is made of impropriety, should the pastor step aside for a season while the matter is investigated? Forty seven percent said yes, while 31 percent said he should remain innocent until proven guilty, and therefore remain in position. Twenty-one percent weren’t sure.
More older pastors (36 percent) and African American pastors (50 percent) said a colleague should stay in the pulpit than did pastors age 18-44 (27 percent) and white pastors (30 percent).
The legal side of an accusation of adultery can be tricky and is largely new territory, a Houston-based attorney said, as a false accusation could lead to a lawsuit for slander.
“You are walking a tightrope in those early days,” said Frank Sommerville. “It’s easy if the pastor says, ‘Yes, I had an affair.’ If the pastor denies the allegation, you need some kind of investigation to figure out who is most likely telling the truth.”
That investigation should last approximately ten days, with Sommerville advocating the pastor step down during that time. The shorter time span makes it easier to explain the pastor’s unavailability, he explained, versus a period of months.
He also suggested churches have a process in place in case there are allegations of misconduct. That includes taking possession of the pastor’s work email, cell phone, and computer.
Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of respondents said the allegations should be kept in confidence among responsible church leaders, while 13 percent said all church members should know and 14 percent weren’t sure.
An overwhelming majority, 86% of pastors, responded that once a peer had been disciplined for misconduct, church leaders must inform the congregation. Seven percent said no and eight percent weren’t sure.
As far as how much to share about the circumstance leading to the discipline, Stetzer said it’s still a struggle.
“We don’t have a lot of models of how to have transparent conversations,” he said.
An article for Christianity Today last September by R. Kent Hughes and John H. Armstrong also asked if adulterous pastors could be restored.
“No one argues that the fallen minister cannot be forgiven,” it said. “No one should argue that he cannot be brought back into the fellowship of Christ’s visible church. But to forgive a fallen pastor and to restore him to membership in the church is much different than restoring him to the pastoral office.”
The CT piece pointed to James 3:1, where there is a difference in perception – and thereby stricter judgement – of adultery committed by a church member as opposed to one in a position of leadership, especially pastors.
“Adultery is not the only sin that disqualifies a minister from office,” the authors contended, “but it is one of the more visible and confusing sins plaguing the church in our time.”