It has been a long time since I last posted on this blog. As I get closer to my 30-year mark as pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church there are a number of thoughts that are concurrently running through my mind. Many of them are thoughts of gratitude while some are thoughts of regret. One thought that is an odd mixture of both gratitude and regret has been my recollection of ministerial colleagues that have fallen over the years. Almost all of them have been due to sexual scandals, though one or two of them have been related to financial misconduct. Thankfully, they have been few and far between. But each time it has happened I have said with pain in my heart, “There go I, but for the grace of God.”
As I have reflected on this, I have realised afresh that the greatest difficulty each time such news has reached me has always been related to how to handle this news and the people involved henceforth. This has been from a number of fronts. Let me share some of these in this blog post. I will speak in the second person, though I will be speaking about my own experiences over the last 30 years. I will also give the hypothetical name “John” to the fallen ministerial colleague.
Usually, before such bad news reaches the rest of Christendom as an unearthed scandal or as official news of church discipline, the bad news does its rounds within ministerial circles. In the latter case, it is often when church leaders are consulting for the purpose of ensuring that they do what is right and fair in the case before them. It is at that point that the first great difficulty comes in. You stay wide-awake long into the night because of the weight of responsibility suddenly thrust upon your shoulders when you least expected it. Those are the hardest first days and nights.
Difficulty of confidentiality
To begin with, there is the difficulty of confidentiality. Sexual sin is very private. Thus when it is first unearthed it is within a very small circle. Then confidants are informed, and usually it is at that point that information gets to you…and it leaves you devastated and heartbroken. In that state of depression, you must still be a responsive husband to your wife and responsible father to your children. You are expected to carry out your ministry to them and to your church as if nothing has happened. Every so often, someone sees through the mask and asks, “What’s wrong?” To keep confidentiality, you mumble swords like, “Do not worry, it is something to do with work. I will get over it.”
Worse than this is the fact that sometimes this information leaks to those who know that you are close to your fallen ministerial colleague and so they determine that they will get first hand information through you. Instead of saying, “We have heard that John has been found guilty of an adulterous affair,” they instead simply ask, “How is John?” You can see from the stare that this is a loaded question. It is a catch twenty-two situation. To simply say, “He is fine,” and change the subject is to put one’s own integrity on the line. To divulge what you know is to betray confidentiality. It is a poisoned chalice! What to do? What to do?
Then there is the issue of anger towards the devil and the fallen brother because of a sense of betrayal. Ministry work is moral work. You are battling against sin not only in your own heart but also in the hearts of others. You are absorbed with zeal for the glory of God through the extension of his kingdom in a world intoxicated with self-love and sin. That is what ministry is all about. So, when a ministerial colleague is found to have been secretly feeding the very enemy you are seeking to destroy, anger rises within the heart. It is like being in a crucial cup final in a football match and your competitors win the cup because your teammate scored into your goal, and that goal clinched the other team’s victory. The guy may apologise, but the damage done is irreparable.
Surprisingly, on the heels of the emotion of anger comes the emotion of sympathy as you realise that your grief-stricken repentant brother has to work through the implications of this on his marriage, his family, and his church. Those who watch from the outside often overlook this. Behind the curtains, there are many casualties when a pastor falls. His wife and older children will have to handle the devastating thoughts of public shame together with him as word begins to do its rounds concerning what has happened. Individuals in the church who are aggrieved or who fail to handle the public shame leave the church and go elsewhere or stop going to church altogether. The biblical prophecy fulfilled in Christ is fulfilled in more ways than one: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” (Matthew 26:31). Sometimes you, as a ministerial colleague, will have to be involved in counselling individuals in the family and the church through this pain. The loss of employment with the church, which often follows this, means there will be need to look for another job to bring in the much-needed income. One ministerial friend of mine committed suicide because he did not want to go through the shame. He left behind a devastated widow with very young children. How can one fail to be filled with emotions of sympathy in the light of this?
Handling personal fear
Then there is the emotion of fear. You know that you too are a fallen creature, with fallen appetites like that of your fallen brother. What will stop you going the same way? Sometimes it is a minister that you have looked up to and whose shoelaces you are unworthy to untie. “Lord, are we safe?” becomes the question. You feel as if you are besieged in battle and have called for reinforcement but the help is taking too long to come. How much longer can you hold out? A boxing or football match is timed and the referee’s whistle is soon blown, but ministry is for life. You begin to ask yourself, “Am I sure I will still be standing when the Lord’s call for me to enter eternity finally comes?” Thankfully, as someone once said, “The will of God will not take you where the grace of God cannot keep you.” That is the only source of confidence when gripped by this fear.
Very closely related to the emotion of fear is the trembling and humbling realisation that your own past weaknesses, failures, and sins could have been the cause of your ministerial fall too, save for the fact that the Lord was pleased to stop you in your tracks. This is the most difficult to handle in the conscience. All sin is sin. Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). You know that in your unguarded moments you have failed God in this area a number of times. The famous “seven deadly sins” are deadly—lust, greed, gluttony, slothfulness, anger, envy and pride. So, what makes John’s sin more heinous than yours? A tender conscience causes you not to be too hard on your fallen brother.
Handling guilt by association
When a ministerial colleague messes up, we all suffer guilt by association in the eyes of those who get to know about this. Even when you do not know what has happened, it is assumed you know and are in a conspiracy of silence due to the fact that you do the same things. That is tough. Even if you knew, were you expected to write on your T-shirt, “Yes, it is true, John has committed this atrocity; I have already heard about it but, believe me, I am totally innocent”? Of course not! Yet, the guilt by association is a scarlet letter on your back that you have to walk with in public for some time, whether you like it or not. You feel unfairly judged but there is nothing you can do about it.
Another form of guilt by association is in the eyes of God. When news gets to you that a ministerial colleague has messed up, one question soon comes to mind: “When did I last pray for him that God may watch over his soul and give him the grace to walk in genuine holiness?” Whereas on some occasions you may find that you have consistently prayed for the brother that has fallen, there are other occasions when you realise that you are guilty of the sin that the prophet Samuel said he was not guilty of before God. Looking the people of Israel in the face in his farewell address, Samuel said, “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you” (1 Samuel 12:23). Oh, to be able to look fallen ministerial colleagues in the face and say that you never ceased to pray for them!
Handling future relationships
This is perhaps the most difficult. A fallen ministerial colleague remains alive many years after the sordid details have been published abroad. He does not disappear to another planet. You still have to relate with him. You were friends, very dear friends, as you held hands in the trenches and covered each other’s backs in the battle for the crown rights of Christ. Your families integrated as well. John’s kids and your kids literally became one family. Your wives became buddies as they empathized with each other in their supportive roles to their husbands. All this cannot go away overnight because of an act of indiscretion by your colleague. Sadly, you soon discover that relationships can never be the same again. You can never talk with gusto about the fight of faith as you once did. What a loss! What a loss! This is the most difficult of all this.
Well, such has been my lot on a couple of occasions in the 30 years of ministry. As I reflect on this sad reality, all I can say again is, “There go I but for the grace of God.” Do pray for me that I may run my race well to the very end, despite my own weaknesses.