Circling the Wagons Around Sin

Written by Alexander W. G. Seidel

Many years ago, a pastor of a prominent regional congregation was caught having moral indiscretions in another state. This pastor received significant attention for his actions, which subsequently served as the catalyst for an eventual split. A congregation of close to 10,000 people sunk below the 1,000 mark. What was notable was not the sudden exodus of attenders. It was how the elder board circled the wagons in what appeared to be damage control.

This was an independent church that had split from a denomination. It had an active elder board which formed a structure of accountability for the long-time pastor. Many of these men had known the pastor for many years. Yet for many years, he had hidden his dark side from them very effectively. Then, in the face of moral downfall, embarrassment, bad publicity and a sudden drop in attendance and giving, these men saw fit to appoint and internal investigator to make sense of the messy situation and subsequently make recommendations for discipline and restoration. The key unfortunate word here is “internal”.

The Christian scriptures make a strong case for fully-functioning ecclesial government. They support the idea of confrontation, discipline and restoration within the community in ways that lead to grace and new life rather than self-destruction. Yet, for this church, things became so internalized that any sense of loving objectivity and accountability was all but impossible to achieve. In fact, it seemed questionable that the elder board itself was accountable to anything but itself. From all the personal accounts related to me at the time, the board had been swayed by a personality, not a pastor. They were loyal to the man while they remained disloyal to the greater community and worse, the cause of Christ. They protected rather than exhorted. They sought to shine the proverbial pile rather than let the light shine on it.

An outsider looking in might judge this elder group as one that sought to prop up their leader and spin the situation such that a tithing congregation might be preserved. This might sound cynical, but consider the dynamic: The personality of this well-loved pastor was the magnet, and if he left, it could mean financial ruin for the church. And so it was. But not for the reasons the board perhaps considered. Once the community sensed the internalized, near covered-up nature of the proceedings, they did not suffer it long.

Eventually, the pastor was defrocked and the church was left a battered war zone that some still speak of with a level of lament and bitterness. The loving and difficult exhortation (and hopefully resulting restoration process) that would have served as the necessary surgery for the deep wounds perpetrated on this church by its so-called pastor were skirted for shortcuts that merely served to exacerbate the injuries. I have heard other such stories on a variety of scales. They are all deeply sad.

These situations should have pastors asking those that hold them accountable about the nature of how they are accountable. Do you merely keep a group of yes men around them to prop you up when you take a harsh fall? Have you unwittingly created structures that serve to protect you from the consequences of your inevitable depravity?

And, as fellow leaders serving with a head pastor, are we so enamored with our pastor that we have become veiled to the deep scars of his (or her) sin and the patterns that could presage a moral crash and burn? Are we in close enough relationship with our leader to even know that person, wounds and all? Have we become blinded by our own status and power as fellow pastors or board members?

These are all tough questions. I am challenging you, even now, to start asking them. What is the nature of your accountability? And what is the nature of your inner circle? In fact, why do you even have an inner circle? And if you do, would it circle the wagons to protect you from the consequences of your sin?

Perhaps you are struggling with the tasty temptation of sin or have even fallen deeply. Perhaps your accountability is shaky if you have any authentic accountability in the first place. Perhaps, at wits end, you feel you have nowhere to turn for someone to ask you the hard questions or to support you in a time of deep moral crisis. Whatever your challenging quandary, we are here to come alongside you and, hopefully, offer healing exhortations that nudge you towards the path of restoration. Please, feel safe dropping us a line. We’d love to support you on your journey.

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