Paul, Melinda, Baleigh and McKayla Hand. Photo courtesy of Paul Hand

Can pastors make a comeback after scandal? One Baptist tries

(RNS) Paul Hand may not be as well-known as a Tullian Tchividjian or, back in the day, a Ted Haggard or Jim Bakker.

But Hand has something in common with those once-popular preachers: In 2014, the husband and father of two had what’s known in Christian circles as a “moral failure” -- in his case, an inappropriate relationship with his ministry assistant. He ultimately resigned from Crossgates Baptist Church, a congregation of about 5,000 in Brandon, Miss.

It’s a story as familiar to small, neighborhood churches as it is to large megachurches, though those are the ones that grab headlines as they did earlier this year when Tchividjian was fired from a second church after confessing to another affair while pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Tullian Tchividjian is the author of "Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free," that released last month. He is also the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, FL and the grandson of Billy Graham. Religion News Service file photo

Tullian Tchividjian is the author of "Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free." He is also the former senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and a grandson of Billy Graham. Religion News Service file photo

The news was met with concern and criticism that Tchividjian had returned to ministry too quickly. It also raised the question of how pastors are rehabbed and restored to ministry after such indiscretions -- and whether they should be.

“A pastor that’s failed -- it’s like ripples in a stream,” said H.B. London Jr.,who for more than two decades was pastor to pastors at Focus on the Family and worked with many who experienced failures, including Haggard.

“His influence is not just limited to a local congregation. It extends much beyond that, and so when a pastor fails, the disappointment and the tragedy of it goes far beyond just his family and the local congregation.”

Half of Protestant pastors say their peers should step down from the pulpit for a time while the church investigates misconduct, according to data from a telephone survey of 1,000 such pastors released Tuesday (May 10) by Nashville-based LifeWay Research.

And when that misconduct is adultery, they’re split on how long that time should be: 21 percent said at least a year; 24 percent, permanently. Another 25 percent weren’t sure, according to the survey.

Ed Stetzer photo courtesy of LifeWay Christian Resources.

“Pastors believe church leaders should be held to high standards. They also want to protect themselves against allegations that could be false,” LifeWay Executive Director Ed Stetzer said in a press release. Photo courtesy of LifeWay Christian Resources


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“Pastors believe church leaders should be held to high standards. They also want to protect themselves against allegations that could be false,” LifeWay Executive Director Ed Stetzer said in a press release.

Set up to fail

Hand had been a commercial insurance agent for years, he said, but he always had felt called to ministry. With his pastor’s encouragement, he started taking seminary courses in 2009 and joined the staff of Crossgates as its marriage and family pastor in 2011.

His wife, Melinda Hand, already was on staff at the church, and as she took on more roles at the church, she ended up working under him. He took on more roles, too, “all the while going to school full time, being a dad and husband and all those other things.”

“I loved pastoring people, but it was overwhelming,” he said.

His wife started experiencing heart problems because of stress. He began confiding in his assistant.

Seven or eight months later, Hand said, he and his assistant admitted that while their relationship never had become physical, they had feelings for each other. He wasn’t sure where to turn for advice. The men who were supposed to hold him accountable were the deacons at his church, but he was afraid of how they might react to his confession.

That’s the problem many pastors face, according to Kevin Cone, director of City of Refuge, which provides services for pastors and their families during such transitions.

“Whatever your struggle is, if it’s anger or lust or greed, it’s going to take its toll, and it’s going to come out, and you’re going to have a rough time,” Cone said.


RELATED: The resurrection of Mark Driscoll


Of course, adultery isn’t the only moral failure pastors have.

Former Mars Hill Pastor Mark Driscoll had left his Seattle church in 2014 amid allegations of plagiarism and abusive behavior, as well as outcry over comments he had made on a church message board. Driscoll, too, raised eyebrows with his quick return to ministry, launching The Trinity Church earlier this year near Phoenix, Ariz.

"Among Protestant Pastors: If allegations of pastoral misconduct are brought to church leaders, should they..." Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

"Among Protestant Pastors: If allegations of pastoral misconduct are brought to church leaders, should they..." Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Restoration, not reinstatement

In Hand's case, it wasn’t until a woman came to his office for counseling, inconsolable after her husband had left, that he knew he had to do something. He and his assistant agreed to tell their spouses about their feelings that weekend.

“I told my wife I had not guarded my heart and that I had fallen in love with my assistant,” he said, referencing a verse from Proverbs.

“And Melinda just looked at me and said: ‘I’m not going to let you do that. I love you. I’m willing to fight for you.’"

The senior pastor at Hand's church encouraged him to take some time off. He put Hand in contact with a pastor of a nearby church, who put together a restoration process that included marriage counseling and individual counseling, as well as weekly meetings with a counselor and team of leaders from both churches.

Weeks later, Hand resigned his position at Crossgates. “I needed to,” he admitted.

In doing so, he was following the now-traditional script. According to LifeWay, 86 percent of Protestant pastors think church leaders need to tell their congregations when a pastor has been disciplined for misconduct.

While an investigation is underway, though, allegations should be kept in confidence among church leaders, 73 percent of pastors said.

Hand confessed his sin at two Sunday services. Then he started the restoration process.

But restoration doesn’t always mean reinstatement to a previous ministry position -- or any ministry position, according to London, who now pastors Friendship Church in Sun City Palm Desert, Calif.

Some feel pressured to return to ministry because that’s what they’re trained to do. That’s how they always have made a living, Cone said.

For some, it’s an issue of pride, Hand admitted.

“I wanted to be back in a similar position, I guess to prove that I could do it and I could do it well and I could manage the stress,” he said.

About half of the pastors who come to City of Refuge have had a moral failure. About 75 percent of all the pastors it sees eventually do return to ministry, according to Cone.

Still, he said: “Our focus is never to get people back to the ministry. The idea is to get them healthy.”

Elizabeth Esther -- who has written about her own recovery from spiritual abuse and addiction, most recently in her book “Spiritual Sobriety: Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad” -- says the notion that a pastor with a moral failure can return to the job he did before is naive, and “it’s causing more people to be hurt.”

It’s not that pastors necessarily need to be held to a higher standard, but “we have to hold pastors to the same standard as we would hold any other job-related position," Esther said. "If this is your job and you screw it up, you don’t get to do the same job again.”

"Among Protestant Pastors: Church leaders must inform the congregation when a pastor has been disciplined for misconduct." Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

"Among Protestant Pastors: Church leaders must inform the congregation when a pastor has been disciplined for misconduct." Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Erring pastors need rest, and so do their congregations, Esther said. They need to keep an eye out for red flags, such as the transparency of a church’s financial records, the pastor’s accountability and a loving and welcoming environment.

Large churches, in particular, need to examine the deference they give to the pastor. They need to ask themselves how they’ve been complicit in creating a culture of Christian celebrity that allows pastors to become too big to fail.

“It’s always a surprise to me how people continue to flock back to Mark Driscoll and continue to flock back to people -- I think it says something about our culture at large,” she said.

“Moving forward, we need to tear down our idols. We need to remove the celebrity status from a pastor. We need to make no provisions for the ego in ministry because true gospel work is really mostly invisible.”

Preventing the problem

Hand thought he might go back to selling insurance. Instead, he spent a semester as a substitute teacher at a nearby high school and the summer working for a neighbor’s business, cleaning gutters.

And when, more than a year after his restoration process began, an invitation came to return to ministry as a full-time missionary, he accepted. He and his wife moved to Florence, Italy, in March.

“Most pastors come with this compassionate thing. We want to help people, we want to repair people, we want to take care of people, and if we don’t watch it, we won’t take care of ourselves,” he said.

"What I learned about myself and what got me in this position was me basically not trusting God. … The stress of being in ministry, school, family, those issues – God knew all of that. He knew I was in that situation, and he still had me there. … Instead of trusting in that, I was trying to figure it out and do it on my own."

Comments

  1. Are those women in the pic his sister-wives?

  2. I guess it would depend on what the pastor did. I usually walk away from a specific clergy because of fairly mundane differences.

  3. In most cases I say eff them.

    A lot of these clergy make a name for themselves being judgmental nabobs under hypocritical banners of upholding “family values”, “Christian orthodoxy” and “biblical inerrancy”. Having no problem attacking others or encouraging attacks on others as “sinful”. So when they are the subject of such attacks, suddenly they ask for the compassion and humanity. Something they never showed others.

  4. Let’s keep in mind what his sin was here: he had *feelings* for another woman. 🙁 He didn’t sleep with her. He could just as well have been commended for resisting temptation. 🙁 That doesn’t justify having feelings for her, but let’s not deceive ourselves, this is the concept of sin-leveling once again. While all sin may condemn us before God apart from Christ’s sacrifice, different sins have different effects on the Body of Christ, and should be addressed differently. We don’t jail someone for prank calls, and we don’t use “logical natural consequences” for murder. By the same token, actually practicing the deception and manipulation required to carry on a physical affair is *much* different than “having feelings” for another person.

  5. “Restored, not reinstated”

    Ah, like the Prodigal Son who violated his father’s trust and love in just about every way possible…. well, it’s sure is a good thing that he only “restored” but not “reinstated.” I mean, back in the house, well, OK…but at least the father didn’t reinstate his son with a new robe and certainly not by giving him the prestige and authority of the signet ring. Nope. That should never be his again!

    Oh, wait.

  6. Not according to Jesus himself, and he was god, so he should know.

    If a man looks at a woman with list, he has committed adultery with her
    But you are right about sin leveling.

  7. “we have to hold pastors to the same standard as we would hold any other job-related position,” Esther said. “If this is your job and you screw it up, you don’t get to do the same job again.”

    Wow. What a short-sighted, ignorant comment from Elizabeth Esther. So much for forgiveness and restoration, eh? There are also millions of Americans in all walks of life that made some mistake that caused them to be removed from their jobs who get an identical job in the same field. So her statement itself is truly uninformed at best.

    (Then again, I’ve seen her posts and tweets and writings over the years and she has an agenda that IMO is about getting herself attention and not about promoting the truth of Jesus.)

    If we truly believe that Jesus can forgive and restore anyone, we MUST include pastors and elders and other church leaders within that area. It seems many people like Esther want to put people they dislike into a particular group of folks that should be turned into pariahs and never allowed to experience true restoration because of a mistake.

  8. Forgive =/= forget. If you’ve demonstrated that you can’t be trusted with the sort of power that comes with being a pastor – because let’s be real here, while these articles make it sound as though the pastor and his assistant were on equal footing, they WEREN’T; what this amounts to is a pastor taking advantage of a subordinate – then you shouldn’t be restored to that same position. Not as punishment, but out of prudence and wisdom. An alcoholic shouldn’t take a job as a bartender. A white-collar criminal who embezzles money shouldn’t take a job where they directly handle money. A person in a position of power who takes unethical advantage of that power should not be restored to a similar position of power.

  9. Naming ministerial sexual abuse as “an affair” and focusing on the “moral failure” of the pastor without any attention to healing for victims perpetuate the common miscategorizations and misunderstandings that allow such abuses of power to continue occurring in our churches.

    According to Miller, Tchividjian, despite his apologies, clearly understands himself as a victim. He refers to his “affair” as a “career killer.” Thus, he would lead us to believe that the most important ethical consideration in his mind is the negative impact his history of abuse may have on his future career prospects in ministry. Furthermore, Miller quotes him as saying, “Sin is deep. It is real. It destroys. It deceives.” In this depiction, “sin” is the culprit and Tchividjian the victim.

    The language of “moral failure” lures us into considering the perpetrator as the victim. The real victims of clergy sexual abuse are invisible and silenced in this article.

    For my entire response, see http://www.thehopeofsurvivors.com/news_notes/naming_abuse.php.

  10. The ultimate question to ask is, “Should pastors actually be held to high standards?” It appears the answer — all too often, both among clergy and laity — is a resounding “no.” It seems the goal is just to talk a lot about pastoral high standards, then when they’ve been violated, step back long enough to make an appearance of atonement, then skate right back in.

    And worse than acting as though the transgression never occurred, a lot of these folks actually use that past transgression as something of a credential. That is, they use their status, having gone through a scandal, as a way of promoting their own sanctity.

    The reason for this is that Christians generally are vulnerable to the “fallen sinner” story. They love to hear about other Christians who’ve “sinned” but who are still sacred (somehow), having been rescued from the dregs by their almighty god. It makes them feel good about their religion — for some reason.

    There’s also this prevailing notion that “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven”; hence, any Christian can pretty much do anything s/he wants, any time s/he wants, but it’s OK because s/he’s not “perfect” and s/he’s “forgiven” for whatever it was. I’ve said before, and will repeat as often as possible, that there are few better recipes for all sorts of mayhem and wrongdoing. It’s just too convenient an excuse for misbehavior. Christians really need to divest themselves from the slogan “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” … but I’m guessing they won’t, because they don’t want to and don’t see anything wrong with it.

  11. I feel sorry that you have been taught to believe such an ignorant position when it comes to grace and restoration.

    And I hope the day you make a mistake that costs you a job the future employers you apply to in regards to your career don’t have the same short-sighted view of you as what you espouse in your comment.

  12. That may be true. However, wouldn’t that be the time to not lower to their level and give them that which you know is right?

  13. The high ground is overrated. One should not be pleading and expecting charity when they did not show it to others.

  14. I agree they should not expect it…but our response is about us, not them, don’t you think?

  15. Overall, this is a good article. This is real world ministry and it sounds like, in this instance, the pastor and the church did the right thing. He had a significant amount of time away from ministry and when he did return, it was to a different position and a different place.

    I’m not familiar with Elizabeth Esther, and I think this comment is exactly right on all levels:

    “Moving forward, we need to tear down our idols. We need to remove the celebrity status from a pastor. We need to make no provisions for the ego in ministry because true gospel work is really mostly invisible.”

  16. I wish the article had talked about an environment of accountability right from the start — a fellow minister, perhaps from another denomination even, that one meets with regularly with and can be an “ordinary” person with, not a “pastor” Such a support system might help. Thoughts?

  17. If you were expected to treat others badly because of their alleged “sins” as part of your deeply held religious beliefs, why would an exception be made? There is this slippery double standard that “compassion and forgiveness is for me and not for thee”. It’s a fairly common element of Christian hypocrisy concerning penance and forgiveness.

    If a clergy preaches compassion and unconditional love, they should receive it in kind. If they preach judgmental behavior they should receive it in kind as well

  18. I don’t think he’s in very deep. Repeated sex with underage gay prostitutes while high on methamphetamine seems to be about the only thing right now that will cause a pastor serious trouble.

  19. The prodigal son was accepted back into God’s household. It doesn’t say anything about him being in a leadership position before he walked out, and being reinstated to it afterward.

  20. This wasn’t a little mistake, though. This was deliberately, carefully creating an environment where they could nurture an inappropriate relationship, and choosing not to disclose it to those to whom he was supposed to be accountable. That’s a lot more like purposely embezzling from another job, not just making a mistake.

  21. You’re obviously don’t understand the significance of the ring that his father put on his hand when he returned home. That ring, the signet ring, very much was the family authority–the son was fully restored. If it were not so then his older brother would not have been so upset.

  22. Did he say he’d had lustful thoughts or feelings for the woman? I didn’t see that in the article. Lust is different from love & friendship–is that what happened here? Was he desiring sex w/ this woman? I’m glad you agree about how ridiculous sin-leveling is, but I’m still going to bang the drum for, “THIS guy should not be an example of ‘restoring a fallen pastor.’ He had unspecified feelings that may or may not include lust for another woman. That’s a far cry different from someone like Tullian, who commits adultery at least twice that we know of. A level of willfull deceit and manipulation is involved with one, but not the other.”

  23. One would have to assume a sexual component if we’re having this discussion at all.

    Unless fundamentalist Christians have the same problems with lust-inciting-women-working-on-poor-innocent-men that Islam does.

  24. My favorite variation of that Is “Christians aren’t smug. Just forgiven.”

    The smugness of that comment defies the gods of sanctimony.

    I wish I could find that piece I wrote about pastors and porn. It has the same problem. “Oh, I’m such a woeful sinner. I is the woefullest, sinnerest sinner there is. But my good buddy Jesus, he’ll save me. And then I’ll be better than before and even closer to buddy Jesus. If I fall again, he’ll pick me up, because the lord of the entire infinite universe just loves me so much.”

    (But not you.)

  25. I have to agree 100% here. There is a huge discrpancy between how a certain class of Christian treats it when one of their own grievously sins,especially if he should know better, and then asks for Jesus’s forgiveness, which for some reason, always seem forthcoming.

    They get really upset when someone–say, your average gay person– not only does not acknowledge the sinfulness of it all, but worse, doesn’t think that he needs Jesus,s forgiveness, or even to ask for it.

  26. Yep, sadly they often do. 🙁 So, I”m not buying this guy as being equal in any way to the deceitful, self-absorbed, adulterous Tullian. I can understand he had a struggle, but he gets kudos from me for *stopping* the sin and *repenting* and *looking for accountability* when it was still in the “feelings” stage. I’d have him as a pastor any day.

    Why did the magazine pick *this* guy instead of someone who committed adultery & was restored? Because we often think of all sin as the same. Nope. This guy sought out help ** before he was caught.** This guy worked it out w/ his wife & showed fruit of repentance. Tullian is a deceitful person. He’d have to work sooooooo much harder to convince me otherwise.

  27. The Bible holds the Pastor, Elder, Deacon, Bishop to a higher standard. Period. End of story, unless one no longer cares what the Word says. I had a moral failure. I was a pastor. I am no longer “feeling the call” because if it is a call from God, and I default, He withdraws that calling. I am sorry to say back when I failed there was no one in my denomination who cared, offer or attempted to help us.

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