Seeing the Sheep in the Midst of Church Scandal
I remember the day our pastor resigned—it was not a good day. For a year-and-a-half, various scandals in which he was involved continuously played themselves out for both our church and the public eye, and he decided to walk away. It wasn’t at all what I’d hoped and prayed would happen. Then my phone started buzzing; it was the local paper. I had done an interview for them before when we opened our new building, and now they wanted my opinions on the latest development. But I didn’t feel like talking. As a member of a church of roughly 14,000, I wasn’t close enough to the action to have any real knowledge anyway. All I knew was that our church was a mess, our pastor was gone, and the future was uncertain.
A Hurting Church
I had hoped for repentance, forgiveness, healing, and eventually restoration. I had prayed that our pastor, our elders, and our church would walk through this mess with radical humility, painting a picture of God’s grace to broken people and his desire for reconciliation. (That would come later in a way that I couldn’t see at the time). At that moment, we were sheep without a shepherd, and it felt like we were wandering around in a wide-open field where everyone could see us—fluffy white targets on a green background. Everyone had an opinion, and everyone wanted to be first to give it.
I expected the scathing remarks and cries of triumph at the demise of our church from the unbelieving world. What was hard to make sense of was the response of the larger Church. It wasn’t mean-spirited like the secular response, but it was, for the most part, clinical. Article after article popped up in my Facebook and Twitter feeds analyzing what lessons could be learned from the sins of our pastor, how the flaws of our church structure led to this crisis, or how other churches could avoid our church’s fate. For the remaining 6,000 or so folks that had stuck it out hoping we would somehow avoid the impending cliff, it felt like the larger Church didn’t care that we’d finally reached the edge. They just wanted to watch us tumble over, ponder all the reasons why, and see how much they could improve their social media stats in the process.
I couldn’t help but wonder how the responses might have been different if we really believed we’re all part of the same flock.
Remember the Sheep
Since our church’s collapse, several other prominent (and some probably not-so-prominent) pastors and churches have faced sin and scandal in different ways. In most of these churches, it’s the few that have affected the many. The people who hand out bulletins and teach Sunday school generally aren’t privy to all the problems church leaders may be confronting, and without warning they find themselves wandering through a dry and grassless valley. They are real people, real brothers and sisters in Christ who find themselves pastorless or churchless. They are likely shocked and confused and nowhere near ready for articles titled “Three Things You Can Learn from the Mistakes of Fill-in-the-Blank Church” to show up in their social media feeds.
In matters of scandal, our attention usually centers on the most visible members of a congregation, which makes sense. Leaders bear great responsibility, so God holds them to a higher level of accountability. Just look at David in the Bible.
In his middle years, David fell into sin and scandal. What is most prominent in Scripture about David’s sin is it resulted in heavy consequences, not just for him, but for all those directly impacted by his sin as well. Although perhaps not as obvious, his sin affected the whole nation. David’s judgement in leading Israel was clouded, and several times he exposed the nation to great peril. However, we tend to focus on David and put the people he was leading in the background. In contrast, God is exceedingly mindful of his sheep (Ezekiel 34). They matter to him just as much as the people he raises up to lead them. It would do us good to remember them in these situations.
Mourn with the Sheep
None of us should be happy or smug about the moral failure of a prominent pastor or leader or the closing down of a church. Is God sovereign over these things? Yes. Does another’s failure provide lessons and warnings we should heed? Yes. But when the witness of the church is damaged and God’s people are hurting, his heart breaks. And ours should, too.
As the remaining sheep in our flock, we watched people we loved leave, pastors we loved get fired, buildings we worshipped in get sold, and our shepherd walk out the door without a word. We were grieving, and we needed comfort, not critique.
Just days after our pastor resigned, a Christian writer posted an article about lessons that could be learned through the fall of our church. He’s a writer I truly respect, and he got a lot of things right in that article. But condensing what happened to our church into four simple points left me feeling cold, and honestly, the timing was lousy. What was encouraging was that when I respectfully brought these things up with him, he was quick to acknowledge that mourning was indeed the proper response and that the larger church should be praying for our body. When sin deconstructs things, we should take some time to mourn with our brothers and sisters.
The Good Shepherd
The good news in all of this is that Jesus is the Chief Shepherd. Though we felt like we were wandering, he was with us. He turned our mourning to joy and gave us beauty for ashes. He saw fit for some of our church’s satellite locations to become independent churches. He placed many of the wounded in other loving churches where they could begin healing. And my hope is that he has grown us as the universal Church in our ability to be compassionate to each other and, above all, love one another earnestly (1 Pet. 4:8). We must remember that we are part of a larger flock—a flock dearly loved by Jesus—and we must always let that knowledge shape our responses to one another.