When a hurricane hits, it is a help to have a plan in place. But the truth is, hurricanes have a mind of their own and don’t follow your plan. The same is true when the hurricane of moral failure hits your team. In a storm, it is helpful to have a plan, but it is even more important to have clear, decisive leadership in the midst of everything being blown apart.
That proves to be a challenge for those of us in ministry. Typically we are skilled at being pastoral and diplomatic and polite. We suffer from what I like to call “terminal niceness”. Having hard conversations is tough for us. We work hard not to hurt people. Most of the time this style of communication serves us well. But when dealing with a moral failure on the team, we have to communicate differently. So, here is my challenge to you: don’t let your diplomacy lead to a lack of clarity. Being unclear is being unkind.
Often in a moral crisis the decision needs to be that the person steps down from their role at least temporarily, if not permanently. I used to think that asking someone to step down from their role was primarily about discipline for their sin. And while discipline is a factor, over the years I have come to see this as a “severe mercy”. The person will almost never see it as an act of mercy, but I believe that asking them to step down from their role gives them time and space to rebuild. And in the end, that can be a real gift.
And while it might be necessary for them to step aside from their position, they don’t need to step aside from relationship and community. It is easy for the person stepping down from their position to feel very isolated. Authentic care and friendship is one of the most critical components in the process of healthy restoration.
Also, as part of your hurricane crisis plan, it is imperative that you be able separate your love for them as a person from the decision you are having to make about them as a leader. The reason the Bible gives us qualifications for leadership is that leaders are held to a higher standard. Extending grace and love and forgiveness to a person is a given. That is our biblical mandate. But that is different than being qualified (at least for now) to carry out a leadership role.
As Rick Warren says ”Forgiveness is a personal issue but trust is a positional issue. Forgiveness is instant. But trust is a different issue. Trust is rebuilt slowly and trust is not built on grace. Trust is built on behavior.”
The foundation upon which trust is rebuilt is credibility. With a moral failure comes a loss (temporarily) of credibility. And it will take some time to rebuild credibility and trust.
Once you have worked through the situation and made a clear decision about the consequences, you now have to carefully think through the communication.
Don’t sweep it under the rug or pretend the crisis didn’t happen. You can be assured that the story will leak out. In a communication vaccum, people will make up things worse than the truth.
But your communication must be carefully crafted. And in our litigious culture, you must consider legal ramifications. I have found it helpful to seek good counsel on what to communicate, and to write out exactly what I plan to communicate. This is an area where you cannot shoot from the hip and being sloppy in your communication will make the hurricane worse.
So, an obvious question is “who needs to know”? My general rule of thumb is to share as broadly as their role and influence in the church. If it is a children’s worker, I don’t think there is the need to share it with the whole church. However, if it is the lead pastor, the entire congregation deserves to know what is going on.
As part of the communication I have found it helpful to ask people not to pursue details or to gossip about this. It certainly won’t stop it completely but you want people to understand the gravity of the situation. We are dealing with people’s lives and families.
Another thing I had to settle early on in dealing with these situations is that you do not owe it to people to answer all their questions or share all the information. This has created some very uncomfortable moments as people have pressed and even demanded to know the specifics. I have kindly but directly let them know that we have a leadership structure in place to deal with the issue and they are carefully and prayerfully handling the situation.
You will be criticized no matter how you handle this. In protecting the person who created the hurricane and the details of the situation, you will often take the brunt of criticism. Just expect it. It comes with the territory. Even though I didn’t create the situation, I can become the lightning rod for the situation. My knee jerk reaction to the criticism is to become defensive and protect myself. But this is a test of my maturity as a leader. It is an opportunity for me to lead with graciousness and do what is best for the organization and the people involved… even if that means being misunderstood and falsely accused.
Finally, when possible, work with the person to create a restoration plan. When a hurricane sweeps through a community, you don’t just clean up the debris. You rebuild. And it’s always a wonderful sight to see a structure rebuilt that is actually more beautiful and stronger than what was destroyed. It doesn’t happen very often in the church or ministry organizations, but when it does, it is a beautiful thing.
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