(RNS) — The Rev. Scott Sauls, an influential evangelical Christian pastor and author, has been placed on an indefinite leave of absence from the Nashville church he has pastored since 2012.
His leave was announced Sunday (May 7) during a member meeting at Christ Presbyterian, a prominent Presbyterian Church in America congregation.
In a video message to the congregation, Sauls apologized for an unhealthy leadership style that harmed the people who worked for him and the church.
“I verbalized insensitive and verbal criticism of others’ work,” he said, according to a recording of the meeting shared with Religion News Service. “I’ve used social media and the pulpit to quiet dissenting viewpoints. I’ve manipulated facts to support paths that I desire.”
Sauls made clear he had not been involved in any sexual sin or substance abuse. He said that he would seek counseling and repentance during his leave and that he hoped to someday reconcile with the people he had harmed.
“I am grieved to say that I have hurt people,” he said. “I want to say to all of you that I am sorry.”
The leave comes after an investigation by Christ Presbyterian itself and by the Nashville Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. That investigation was prompted by a letter sent from a number of former Christ Presbyterian staffers who raised concerns about Sauls’ conduct as a leader.
During Sunday’s Christ Presbyterian meeting, members also heard from the church’s elders, who said they hoped the leave would lead to healing and reconciliation. The elders also admitted their own shortcomings in allowing an unhealthy culture on the church’s staff.
Sauls’ standing as a pastor will also be reviewed at an upcoming meeting of the Nashville Presbytery. According to the denomination’s rules, he is considered a “teaching elder” whose status as a minister is overseen by that local presbytery. That presbytery will have the final say over the length and conditions of Sauls’ leave.
Neil Spence, a PCA pastor and Stated Clerk of the Nashville Presbytery, said in an email that Sauls is a member of the group and in good standing.
He had no comment about Sauls’ situation when asked to confirm whether the Presbytery would address his status as a pastor. He did explain some of the presbytery’s processes.
“Nashville Presbytery will meet soon to deal with any matters properly brought before us,” he said in an email. “Presbytery as a whole will decide whether a censure such as suspension from office is warranted. It would be imprudent for me to try to predict what Presbytery will do.”
If Sauls is suspended by the group, he would not be able to carry out the duties of an ordained minister.
Sauls is not the first pastor in Christ Presbyterian’s history — or in the presbytery — to deal with conflict over his leadership. In 2007, the Rev. Ray Ortlund left the church after three difficult years as pastor.
“Maybe the least value-laden way to say it is this: A group of people in the church made it their purpose that I would not be their pastor any longer, and they succeeded in their purpose,” Orltund told the Gospel Coalition years later in describing the crisis that led to his departure. “It just about took me out.”
In 2016, the Rev. Jim Bachmann, longtime pastor of nearby Covenant Presbyterian Church, another Nashville PCA congregation, was suspended by the presbytery for “inflicting severe injury on the peace and purity” of the church, the Tennessean reported. Bachmann had been fired by his church after several years of conflict. In 2018, a denominational court overruled the presbytery on appeal.
Earlier this year, the Illinois Human Rights Commission charged a PCA church with a civil rights violation over the firing of a staff member. The state of Illinois had previously found “substantial evidence” that Naperville Presbyterian Church, a PCA church led by Ray Ortlund’s son Dane, had retaliated against a longtime female staffer after she filed a discrimination complaint, Christianity Today reported.
Concerns about pastoral conduct and leadership styles have come under increased scrutiny in recent years in the aftermath of the controversies involving megachurch pastors such as Mark Driscoll and Bill Hybels and in the wake of “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” a hit 2021 Christianity Today podcast that detailed the dysfunctional and abuse culture that Driscoll created at the now-shuttered Mars Hill Church in Seattle.
Conflicts at other churches, including Echo Church in California and Hope Church in Texas, have also led to allegations that church conflicts led to spiritual abuse.
Churches have also begun to rethink the top-down corporate leadership style popularized by pastors such as Hybels, who looked for inspiration to corporate leaders such as former General Electric chairman and CEO Jack Welch when it came to how to lead.