When leaders disappoint their followers
Questions about how our denomination responds to situations of marital difficulties among our leaders – be they denominational leaders, local church pastors, or missionaries – have swirled around our circles numerous times over the past five years or so. These concerns came to the forefront again this fall when Jim Holm resigned as MB Biblical Seminary (MBBS) president due to his involvement in an extramarital relationship. We realize these types of situations can cause us to lose trust in our leadership and church structures, so we felt it was important for our denominational periodicals to speak to the problem.
In early September, Valerie Rempel, MBBS associate academic dean, addressed the seminary student body and spoke candidly about the situation and the questions and emotions we encounter when a trusted leader admits to a moral failure. Her comments, while directed at one specific situation, also speak to the broader questions and so we asked her to adapt her address for publication. We also solicited comments on this specific situation from Jack Falk, chair of the MBBS board of directors, and our national conference executive directors Ed Boschman and David Wiebe.
With regard to the details of Holm’s resignation, we affirm the seminary’s efforts to balance the privacy of those involved with a desire to be open about the underlying reasons for the abrupt resignation. We find it helpful to know that Holm contacted the board of directors himself and confessed the affair, which did not involve a past or current student.
—Connie Faber, Christian Leader editor, and Laura Kalmar, MB Herald editor
The news that a trusted leader has disappointed us through personal or moral failure grieves us. We hurt when we learn of disintegrating marriages, sexual sin, or even criminal activity. Often, that grief plays out in multiple forms – shock, sorrow, outrage, disappointment, and fear.
We find ourselves asking questions: How could this happen? Why didn’t someone stop it? What should we do about it? What if it happens to me?
The questions reflect our curiosity but also our anxiety. If someone we view as spiritually mature fails, which of us is safe?
Some of the anxiety is good: it causes us to search our hearts and examine our relationships. None of us is immune from failure. The words of Romans 3:23, which many Christians have memorized, continue to be true: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
It is only by God’s grace and mercy that any of us stand, and all Christians should seek to guard themselves from the deceptive power of sin. It is good for us to renew commitments to our spouses, and to ourselves; to determine – with God’s grace and help – to live uprightly.
Our anger or fear may also stem from discomfort with the public acknowledgement of failure and uncertainty about how to treat the parties involved. Our inclination may be to keep scandal from staining the church’s witness. In these instances, several issues must guide the Christian community.
First, while it may be true that someone’s moral failure harms the church’s witness, keeping it secret only adds to what has already been deceptive behaviour. Pretending that Christians don’t face the same temptations or fall into the same kinds of sin that all human beings face is not honest, and denies the biblical witness to human failure. Furthermore, the Bible teaches that sin is deceptive by nature. When the church refuses to keep sin hidden, it witnesses to the importance of Christian integrity and truth-telling.
Second, in some instances, especially those involving young people or financial misdealings, the offence may be punishable by law. If the offence involves predatory behaviour, keeping it secret may increase the likelihood of additional victims. In these cases, the biblical charge to care for the vulnerable must outweigh our desire to handle things privately.
Third, in deciding whether or not to make such information public, it’s important to remember that the Bible holds leaders to a high standard (see, for example, James 3:1, or 1 Timothy 3). This isn’t because they’re super-Christians, but because they’re charged with the spiritual care of people. This is not to be taken lightly. Because of the public nature of their roles as leaders in the church, their actions have consequences beyond the immediate circle of those who may have been involved in the situation.
When information is made public, the intent shouldn’t be to hurt or shame people but to liberate the community from the bondage of secrecy. This doesn’t mean that all the details of the situation, the “who did what and where?” that arises from natural curiosity, must be satisfied. Too much information can be burdensome and often serves no useful purpose. Remember that the Bible views gossip as sin, too.
Christian charity should also guide our behaviour when deciding whether to release the names of victims or others who may have been intimately involved in the situation.
Of course, not all sin needs to be widely published, either for Christian leaders or others. Still, where sin is present, it’s good to remember that the practice of confession – to a confessor or a trusted circle of Christian brothers or sisters – is a Christian discipline of long standing. It’s a practice that can free people from the burden of sin, end the deceit, and speed the healing work of forgiveness.
The Bible teaches us that our choices have consequences. In the case of Christian leaders, the consequences may include release from public ministry. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate their spiritual gifts or the effectiveness of past (or even present) ministries; it does, however, take seriously the effects of sin and especially the loss of trust.
The decision to release someone from a ministry role is a pastoral response to a personal or spiritual crisis. It recognizes the needs of both the leader and the community. Experience suggests that it’s difficult to effectively lead when in the midst of personal crisis. This is only compounded when trust has been broken.
It is certainly true that God forgives sin and invites us to be reconciled both with God and each other. In some instances, this may allow for restoration to public ministry at a future date. God often uses wounded healers in very effective ways. Still, restoration to public ministry should be undertaken cautiously and with much discernment. It may not be possible or wise to fully re-establish the trust needed for effective leadership.
Finally, it is important to remember that in all instances of failure, the church should seek to be a place of healing and reconciliation.