Can offending pastors ever return to ordained ministry?
One of my readers wrote to me about his former pastor. After church leaders learned that he had sexually abused a female congregant, they immediately removed him from ministry. Apparently, the offender had been suffering from an untreated childhood trauma. In his letter of apology to the congregation, he assured them he was seeking appropriate treatment.
“Some of us are hoping the offender will return to ministry,” wrote my reader. “He has very good gifts for it. Apparently his therapists have all said he is a candidate for return to ministry, but he himself has refused. As a survivor yourself, I was wondering if you have an opinion on this matter.”
Wow. In fact, I do have an opinion on this matter, and a very strong one at that. But as I told this reader, “I don’t have the expertise to answer your question, and I don’t trust myself to be objective. I know the potential for harm too well.”
I don’t trust myself to answer the question objectively, but it’s too important to ignore. The stakes are too high. So I’ll ask it here. If an ordained minister takes sexual advantage of a congregant, can he or she ever be restored to ministry?
The question must be a thorny one, because so few people have attempted to tackle it. Looking through nearly a hundred online search results, I only found two articles.
In “Restoring the Fallen“ (Ministry Today, October 26, 2011), Douglas Weiss says, “Sometimes.” But first, offenders must meet all of these criteria:
1. Voluntarily disclose their offenses to the church.
2. Focus not on their gifts or importance, but on their brokenness and the harm they have done to the victim.
3. Take full responsibility, blaming nothing or no one but themselves.
4. Accept all consequences. Willingly submit to direction from a board, bishop, or human resources department.
5. Embrace accountability. Seek out a group of peers who will help them stay on the right course.
6. Submit to competent, professional counseling. It may reveal that their choices were influenced by an addiction, depression, or psychological disorder, but they still take full responsibility for those choices.
7. If they are married, voluntarily work to improve their marriages.
In “Should Fallen Pastors Be Restored?” (adapted from The Master’s Plan for the Church, 1991), John MacArthur says, “Never.” MacArthur says that some offenses are so serious that they make it impossible for the offender ever again to lead by example. Trust forfeited can be impossible to regain. The church should indeed seek forgiveness and restoration — but only restoration to fellowship, not to ministry.
Readers, what do you think? Can an offender ever be restored to ministry?
Please note: both articles use language that can be damaging to victims. Both articles refer to clergy sexual misconduct as “sexual immorality,” “adultery,” or “affairs.” I once sat with a survivor in front of a judge who told her sternly, “You were a consenting adult.” No, she wasn’t! As survivors of CSM, none of us are “consenting adults.” We were outranked by title (e.g. Rev. vs plain old Ms. or Mr.), position in the community (who is the congregation more likely to believe?), gender (most offenders are male; most victims female), age (most offenders are older than their victims), and sometimes by disability, poverty, immigration status, or a history of traumatic experiences. Our powerlessness makes it hard for us to say “No,” especially when our offenders start with “innocent” requests. And if we can’t say “no,” there’s no way we can ever give a meaningful “yes.”