Removing Fallen Leaders

I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention. Have you noticed that recent months and years have recorded the fall of some very prominent church leaders? And that’s just the prominent leaders. Beneath those headlines are a good number of lesser-known cases. And with each story there comes a litany of stories featuring betrayed congregations, broken hearts, stalled ministries and reproaches to Christ’s name.

One thing congregations should know but are seldom taught is when and how to remove an ungodly or fallen leader. It’s part of the membership’s job description and not doing it means either a disqualified person continues in an office hurting the church or a congregation is ripped apart in disunity and confusion.

I tried to give some attention to this in Reviving the Black Church. As the recent high-profile cases indicate, this is not a problem unique to any one church or ethnicity. So it’s something all churches sometimes face and all churches need a plan for addressing. Here’s an excerpt from Reviving that I hope will be helpful to congregations and fellow church leaders should they—the Lord forbid—have to remove fallen and ungodly leaders.

Some Practical Considerations When Removing a Fallen Leader

The process for actually effecting the removal is as important as the decision to remove a fallen or disqualified pastor. A few procedural principles can help make the difficult task of removal more effective and healthier for the congregation and the fallen.

First, congregations and denominations should establish very clear and strict policies for defining and sanctioning clergy misconduct. Some denominations have general policies but fail to specify sanctions or procedures. Many others, especially traditions that prize the autonomy of local congregations, have very little in the way of policies or guidance for churches to use. If a church makes hiring and firing decisions independent of denominational hierarchy, then conscientious pastors and informed church members should ensure their local churches stipulate in their bylaws, handbooks, personnel manuals, and employment contracts the biblical grounds for disqualifying and removing pastors. Not only should the policies and procedures be established, but they must also be dutifully followed in order to protect the church. The Catholic Church maintained policies and procedures during the entire period of the pedophile scandal. Those documents did little to protect children and families because they were not enforced.

Second, during and after reports of clergy misconduct, congregations should look to the plurality of leaders overseeing the church instead of looking solely to a senior pastor. One important benefit of plural leadership is its ability to keep a flock shepherded and tended during crisis. Multiple gifted and qualified elders at the helm, exercising and enjoying mutual responsibility for one another and the church as a whole, greatly improve the chances of properly correcting an erring leader and pursuing just biblical responses. Their role should be clearly defined in policies and procedures for correcting and removing erring leaders. Because they function as peers, they’re able to engage other leaders from a position of authority. Because they’re multiple in number, they’re also able to outweigh and overturn a charismatic leader’s actions through their collective strength. So, it’s imperative that churches adopt the biblical model of plural leadership (see chapter 7), learn to support each man’s ministry and authority during times of peace, and welcome their oversight in times of scandal and distress. Trusting a leadership team of multiple elders sharing authority can mean the difference between stunned silence and confusion or following the voice of the Chief Shepherd during a trying period of clergy failure.

Third, church leaders and congregations should resist the temptation to have accused or convicted pastors speak publicly to the congregation. Scandalized pastors often appear before their congregations shedding tears, vowing to fight the “slanderous charges” being brought against them, or pleading for forgiveness for their transgressions. Who can forget the weeping Jim Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggarts crooning out confessions to television cameras and large audiences? In the same way, Eddie Long stood before the members of New Birth vowing to fight the “slander” of his accusers and in the process waged a public campaign to sway the church’s opinion and support. Because of the pastor’s ability to manipulate and the congregation’s vulnerability to division, public statements before or during an investigation are highly inappropriate. Some will feel such a measure is unfair to the pastor charged. But, in fact, victims are most often the persons who experience unfairness, stigma, and retaliation while misbehaving leaders receive lenient responses. Keep in mind that the fallen pastor has already proven himself to be morally disqualified; congregations cannot expect him to suddenly behave uprightly during the height of his scandal. Keeping the pastor from the microphone protects victims, congregations, and pastors from inflammatory and misleading public comments.

Restore Very Carefully and Slowly[1]

When a congregation successfully removes a fallen leader from leadership, their work is still not complete. One remaining question congregations and denominational officials must answer is, “Can a fallen pastor be returned to pastoral leadership?” Answering the question is not as easy a task as one might imagine. Sometimes competing biblical values collide in efforts to think through the restoration of scandalized pastors and deacons.

John H. Armstrong organizes congregational responses into three typical approaches: immediate restoration (within 12 months of sexual misconduct), possible future restoration after counseling and an extended period of repentance, and personal restoration with no restoration to church leadership.[2] Advocates of immediate restoration emphasize God’s complete forgiveness and grace. Advocates of personal restoration without resuming church leadership emphasize the high standards of pastoral office and the public witnessing nature of church leadership. While Armstrong argues from church history and scripture for the third approach, most churches seem to fall into either the first or the second categories. Perhaps it’s best to recognize that denominations and autonomous local churches will continue to take differing positions. Instead of repeating those discussions here, the best service might be to simply raise some issues that will need to be addressed in whatever position a group takes.

First, it seems prudent for church leaders and congregations to ask and answer the questions, “Who needs to be restored” and “What do they need to be restored to.” United Methodist Church bishop William Willimon makes this a first principle in cases of restoration. “What are we after when we talk about restoration? Is it simply restoration to a position, or is it restoration in spirit and in the Christian life? The ultimate goal of any restoration process should be restoration to life in Christ, not just to a position.” [3] These are vital questions because different audiences have different needs in any given restoration process. Churches instinctively think of the fallen pastor or deacon. But we must also remember any offended spouse and hurting children. Victims have been harmed, their trust and lives broken by the pastor’s sin. Also, we must not forget that the entire church hurts deeply when a beloved leader’s transgressions are exposed. So, “who needs to be restored” and “what do they need to be restored to” actually turn out to be big questions with multiple answers. At bottom, we can safely assume that everyone—pastor, family, victim, and church family—needs to be restored in their walk with Jesus Christ. That’s primary—whether or not someone returns to public ministry. So churches need a plan for pursuing each party with the hope of reconciliation with Christ.

Second, leaders should also take care to preserve the unity and well-being of the church as a whole. Too often congregations receive too little counseling or opportunity to process the mix of feelings that inevitably flare up. The church body often “responds like a wife betrayed by her husband” while “the malignancy eats at laypeople’s worship, daily use of time, and devotional life.” The church risks deep splits, loss of members, and a decline in ministry activity. Elders should lead the congregation through a congregation-focused restoration process that emphasizes long-term, full disclosure instead of cover-ups or “putting it all behind” the church. Members will need an opportunity to talk safely with leaders in order to work through hurts, disappointment, anger, and resentment. If done well, this process can be an opportunity for members to grow spiritually and to examine their own lives for moral fault lines.[4]

Third, church leaders and congregations must develop a framework for deciding which offenses permanently disqualify a person from church office. Some infractions require life-long suspension from church leadership. Whenever a leader’s sin results in never being able to again satisfy the requirements of 3 that leader should be restored to Christ but not to the offices of the church. Moreover, if a leader’s sin requires church discipline for scandalous public sin (), continued failure to demonstrate repentance in personal sins (), or continued doctrinal errors () that leader should not be reinstated to church leadership. The best framework is simply to rely on the scripture to define which offenses permanently disqualify.

But other sins and transgressions might fall short of church discipline and excommunication and short of repeated failure to meet the qualifications of . For example, a teenage son or daughter might enter a period of rebelliousness requiring a break from ministry in order to ensure that relationships are repaired and the leader’s children obey him with proper respect. Or perhaps a church leader experiences marriage difficulties short of adultery and pornography that nevertheless require a season of counseling and healing. Perhaps he has neglected his wife and children in a way that does not break the marriage covenant but needs correction and attention. In such cases, we’re likely dealing with weakness rather than wickedness and, depending upon particular circumstances weighed and judged by the elders, men in this category might be restored to public leadership in the church. The point is that the denomination or elders of a local church must think through these definitional questions with Bible in hand so that when issues arise a framework for action exists.

Fourth, churches and elders must delineate the process by which someone may be restored to office. Eric Reed offers several questions for working through this issue, including:

  1. Which offenses require absence from ministry?
  2. Is use of pornography an equally serious offense as an actual sexual affair?
  3. How long is the pastor to be out of ministry?
  4. What are the requirements for counseling and who will oversee it?
  5. Will there be any financial support for the pastor and the family?
  6. Will the pastor’s spouse be included in counseling and in meetings with the denomination or restoration officials?
  7. After the restoration process, how will the pastor find a new position, if deemed qualified?
  8. And what will the new congregation be told about his indiscretion and period of removal from ministry?[5]

These are vital questions not only for the congregation experiencing the turmoil of leadership failure but also for any future congregations that might take interest in a pastor’s leadership. For too long men have been able to simply pick up where they left off by applying to another church or starting a new congregation.

Churches and denominations electing to restore fallen pastors will typically need to provide extensive counseling and ongoing oversight for the leader and their family. Steps should be taken to look for evidence of genuine repentance and reformation of the leader’s life. Men should not be rushed back into the fray of public ministry and responsibility. Those who manage the process have the difficult task of prayerfully discerning contrition, brokenness, and sufficient healing to be able to care for others again.


In a very real sense, churches can only be as healthy as their leaders. The Black Church has long valued charismatic leaders capable of organizing and inspiring the faithful. From time to time, we’ve found that some men capable of inspiring congregations lack sufficient character to hold office. Whenever a Black church must choose between character and gifts, she must choose character. As Samuel Proctor and Gardner Taylor remind us:

All in all, a summons to the ministry is no light calling. Those of us who have heard the call and have discerned within it the voice of God live daily with its profound impact. The work of communicating the gospel requires us to be more than what we are—to exceed who we are. Then by the grace of God we will be delivered of the gospel to a world which is perishing without it.[6]

Indeed, the vitality and flourishing of the Black Church depends upon the presence of leaders who “exceed who we are” by living above reproach, keeping an excellent reputation inside and outside the church. Sometimes we have to remove some bad apples to keep the entire bunch from spoiling. May the Lord give us grace to do so and revive His churches in the process!

[1] The literature and debate regarding restoration of fallen clergy is varied and wide. Representative works on the topic include: John H. Armstrong, The Stain That Stays: The Church’s Response to Sexual Misconduct (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2000). Armstrong argues that restoration is not desirable or possible in most cases. See also, Don Baker, Beyond Forgiveness: The Healing Touch of Church Discipline (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 1984) and Ray Carroll, Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World (San Jose, CA: Civitas Press, 2011). Baker and Carrol argue that men can be restored following counseling and evidence of repentance.

[2] John H. Armstrong, The Stain That Stays: The Church’s Response to Sexual Misconduct (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995)

[3] Quoted in Eric Reed, “Restoring Fallen Pastors,” Leadership Journal (Winter 2006). Downloaded on September 17, 2012 at http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2006/winter/22.21.html.

[4] Joe Maxwell, “Devastated by an Affair: How Churches Heal After the Pastor Commits Adultery,” Christianity Today (January 2007). Downloaded on September 17, 2012 at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/january/2.51.html?start=1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Proctor and Taylor with Gary V. Simpson, We Have This Ministry, p. 11.

3:1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. (ESV)

5:1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (ESV)

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (ESV)

10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, (ESV)

3:1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

C’mon Up!