Preventing & recovering from pastoral failure

Ben Greene

Guest writer

Point Magazine // January 2021

Since becoming Converge Great Lakes’ district executive minister five years ago, Ken Nabi has worked with five or six pastors who experienced moral failure.

Now he is gravely serious about new challenges for pastors that began in 2020 and continue in 2021 because of COVID-19: “There’s going to be a whole onslaught of failure if we don’t do something proactive.”

Bruce Hopler, Converge’s executive director of church strengthening, is matter-of-fact about how the challenges of 2020 and 2021 threaten pastors and churches.

“Way before COVID-19, pastors were under enormous stress,” Hopler said. “Add in 2020, and it’s guaranteed that whatever decision pastors make, one-third of their people, at least, will not only disagree but wonder if they’re being unbiblical.”

First-hand experience prepared Nabi for this unique ministry

Helping churches and their pastors prevent pastoral failure or heal after such a failure is not new to Nabi. A licensed counselor-turned-pastor, he lived through the painful reality of pastoral failure in a church where he served.

In 2002, Nabi was executive pastor of a growing church in the Midwest. Dozens of baptisms were happening each year. The leadership had plans to move to a new, expanded campus.

That was before Nabi went on sabbatical. When he returned, he noticed something askew with his friend and mentor, the senior pastor. Several months later, the church learned the pastor had crossed lines, which led to his immediate resignation.

Then, just a few months later, another pastoral staff member crossed the line with a student. The church was reeling with betrayal, pain and confusion.

“We groped in the dark, wondering what to do, how to do it and what not to do,” Nabi said. “We discovered there was nothing written specifically for the church. What does the church do with pastoral failure?”

He then realized the church is a secondary victim. “I want the church to have permission to walk through a process in which it can give a voice and can be heard around its own sense of grief and anger.”

With his counselor training, he led his church through a healing process, and God used the experience to equip him to write his book Leading through (and preparing for) pastoral failure. It is an invaluable guide for churches and pastors experiencing moral failure and dealing with pain and recovery.

Understanding the healing process God gave Nabi

Besides his church, Nabi helped lead the healing process for another church wounded by pastoral failure, according to Jason (last name withheld), who worked with Nabi on the problem.

“It’s a long process, putting a restoration team around this pastor and walking a now-hurting church through the path to healing,” Jason said. “What is impressive to me about Ken’s ministry to us is his goal: redemption, reconciliation and restoration.”

Pastor Jason said Nabi’s counseling background and commitment to biblical teaching have really helped.

“Ken offers hope to people in these situations,” Jason said. “We experienced God’s grace for our pastor, and years later the church is stronger because God led us through it.”

Nabi’s church leadership grew out of a deficit — in the church

Nabi grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and attended Tennessee Tech University, a small university located between Nashville and Knoxville. He became a Christian at 18 and knew he wanted to be a counselor. When he finished his bachelor’s degree in psychology, he attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School just outside of Chicago in Deefield, Illinois.

Graduating with a master’s degree in counseling psychology and with certifications as a professional counselor and social worker, he quickly found himself in high demand as an outpatient therapist. Half of his clients came from local churches where Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, he discovered, weren’t creating life transformation.

“The ability to apply the gospel to serious sin problems was missing,” he said. Often churches aren’t OK with people who are fractured, in pain or had a sexual sin problem.

Eventually, God drew Nabi into working inside the church as a pastor. That’s how he ended up at his first church pastoral position — before the senior pastor had a moral failure.

Which kind of church will you be?

Hopler and Nabi agree most churches either awkwardly avoid human struggles, or they openly face the pain of their faults and weaknesses.

“The temptation to sweep things under the carpet is enormously high for church leadership,” Hopler said, noting that temptation is not in line with the gospel. “Jesus worked with broken people.”

Nabi’s been there before. His church had an opportunity in 2002: choose to practice an accountability rooted in grace or avoid the pain altogether. They chose the former.

When Nabi became senior pastor, the church decided to look in the mirror. Open communication in the church is always essential, he said. That’s even more true during a recovery phase. That chapter demands a lot of transparency from leadership and the church overall.

“It’s a little more painful up front, but it’s so much healthier for the church in the long run,” said Hopler, recognizing that transparency can be hard on relationships.

How the church helps — or hurts — its pastor

One of Nabi’s insights was to realize his church had developed damaging expectations for pastors.

“We had a culture that helps people burn out,” Nabi said. “We need to repent of that,” the church realized.

About 80% of pastors say ministry has negatively impacted their marriage. The number of pastors who think about quitting, according to Nabi, is 30 to 40%. Pastors who struggle with depression measure around 65%. The number of pastors fired in the past 10 years is at an all-time high.

“What I know as a counselor is, you can only be in a state of emaciated frustration for so long before you turn to something that makes you feel good,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before struggling pastors are going to be confronted with these realities.”

How churches can make failure more difficult

Pastoral Failure Front CoverNabi’s book outlines specific steps churches can take to create reasonable, sustainable expectations that encourage the church and the pastor’s faith and ministry.

Churches need to make failure more difficult for pastors by creating support and accountability systems. This concept resembles how banks have policies and procedures in place to make embezzlement difficult.

Also, Nabi offers wounded churches a way to process their grief. This entails acknowledging the stages of pain, which include denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance.

“It’s just normal to be angry or want to do everything you can to keep (the pastor),” he said. “But we’re going to work through a process so that we can embrace the sadness and be OK.”

Later in the process, Nabi encourages churches to be prepared for a crisis by also making sure members are using their gifts in ministry and fulfilling needed church roles. Churches might not be able to make that change right away after a pastoral failure. But if the church starts making that kind of cultural change throughout the congregation, prevention of pastoral failure is possible, or resilience after a pastoral failure can be present.

“One of the ways to keep your pastor healthy is working on your spiritual journey and your own spiritual vitality and your own area of serving,” Hopler said. “When you’re faithful to that, it allows the pastor to lead rather than carry the burden of all the empty areas and do things that aren’t in his giftedness.”

Supporting the victims of a pastoral failure

Nabi’s book outlines other steps for the church after the pastor fails, including a chapter on supporting the victim in clear, concrete ways. Other suggestions to recover are tips for supporting the remaining staff and creating a severance package for the pastor’s wife and children.

Nabi says the church must make sure everyone recognizes the pastor’s family is also a primary victim and yet, is not in the restoration process. Similarly, the staff “will have their own pains and struggles as the crisis unfolds.”

Part of what Nabi outlines includes creating a restoration team for the pastor and a leadership team for the church and how the teams should work together. The leadership team’s main role is to “establish clear expectations, clarify the mission and formulate plans to provide soul care for the remaining staff team.”

Nabi found opportunity despite pain as he led his church through the recovery journey. A church has the critical opportunity “to recover and reclaim its own sense of mission and purpose.”

Together, the leadership and restoration teams begin to restore accountability for the entire church. “Accountability isn’t sin management; accountability is, ‘I’m asking you to help me do what I already want to do,’” he said. “Accountability is a purposeful discussion in relationship where I give you freedom to ask or prod for my betterment.”

Eventually, the church will have a new pastor who, along with the leadership and restoration teams, can show care and concern for the fallen pastor and the pastor’s family. When people show that restoration is not shunning or punishment, “the church will grow over time into a grace-giving community. And where there is grace, trust can begin to flourish,” Nabi writes.

Helping churches return to a place of trust and flourishing is why Nabi wrote his book.

In his early days of ministry, Nabi spoke with a woman active in his church’s ministry for people recovering from substance addictions. As they talked, she told Nabi she felt she could be part of the church because a man who helped collect the offering had a skull keychain in his backpocket. “She felt she didn’t have to be perfect to be in our church,” Nabi said.

For the church willing to bravely examine its culture and identity formed over the years, there is hope to prevent pastoral failure. Wounded churches can also consider Nabi’s insights and experience into consideration as they travel from woundedness to healing.

“The journey was filled with pain and tears, but restoration was worth it,” he writes. “You may not feel hopeful now, but always remember throughout the process: God loves to redeem and restore what was once broken.”

You can purchase Nabi’s book online. Another resource Converge offers pastors is Compass, a tool and support for pastors to intentionally assess and re-engage their ministry, relationships and personal world to avoid some of the issues that can lead to pastoral failure. Every Converge district also encourages regular gatherings for pastors to gather regularly for support.

Steps of the healing process for churches after pastoral failure:

  1. Observe the warning signs, both in the church and the pastor.
  2. Discover the facts of the pastoral failure.
  3. Prepare for a public confession and church discipline.
  4. Build a restoration team.
  5. Build an effective leadership team.
  6. Prepare the pastor who comes after the fallen pastor.
  7. Care for the staff.
  8. Care for the victims.
  9. Shepherd the church through preaching and creating community.
  10. Reflect on how the pastor is restored into the church.
  11. Celebrate freedom!

 


Ben Greene, Guest writer

Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.

Additional articles by Ben Greene