When Your Church Has Been Rocked By Scandal – Stay Or Go?

Should you stay or should you go?

Besides being a riff on the title of one of the great pop-punk songs of the early 1980′s, it is a question with which congregants whose leaders have had moral failures by their leaders must grapple. Whether it is the stuff that grabs headlines (like the Sovereign Grace Ministries lawsuit or the sexual misconduct charges filed against leaders Virginia’s  Richmond Outreach Center) or the kinds of things that spur gossip in a local community (a pastor’s affair with a congregant, a church secretary embezzling funds, an ugly political power play by a disgruntled posse of church members), church members who have not been directly involved with the implosion must still deal with the fallout. Church finances take a hit, attendance drops, reputations suffer, the leaders left in the wake tend to turn inward as they cycle through all the emotions that accompany loss.

If you were an innocent bystander, not directly involved in any of your leaders’ hijinks, you may be wondering if you should continue attending this dysfunctional church. There are some who maintain that loyalty to your church family should be your primary motivation. Others insist that leaving a toxic church is an exercise in wisdom and/or self-care. In most cases, there is no single cookie-cutter answer. There are some instances where the sin is so great that the best thing for everyone would be if the congregation called it quits and dispersed.

In every case, the decision must first be a matter of prayer for you and any members of your immediate family. At different times, Jesus tells his followers to hang in there with one another as a testimony – and he also tells us to shake the dust from our feet and walk away from toxic situations. The two options are not contradictory statements, though you will want to seek him for precisely how to best honor him in your particular context.

As you do, I’d like to offer eight questions for you and your immediate family to weigh in prayer as you try to discern if you’ll stay or if you’ll go:

(1) What do you know to be true about the sin(s) of the leader(s) of your church? Was there a direct confession of wrongdoing? A carefully-staged public relations campaign by the remaining members of the leadership team? Or is gossip your primary source of information?

(2) If relevant to the situation, has local or federal law enforcement been involved? Have your leaders been eager to cooperate? Why or why not?

(3) How are your leaders handling congregational “leavers” in the wake of the crisis? Are they pursuing these people without any ulterior motives in order to listen to their hurts and confusion, apologize for their own wrongful actions when necessary, and blessing them? Are they simply letting them walk out the door without a word? Or worse, cursing them as weak-willed or traitorous for not sticking with the group?

(4) How has this situation affected your relationship with this church? Do you trust those who are now running things? Why or why not?

(5) How has this situation affected your relationship with God?

(6) Because leadership sins are rarely one-off, impulse-inspired events, it is likely that the sin in question was flourishing in the shadows and/or being covered up by others for some time. It is also likely that what you were being taught or experiencing in church life was warped in some way around these secrets. Can you identify how this hidden sin might have affected the messaging and ministry of your church during the time it is reported to have occurred?

(7) Are those from your particular social/fellowship network staying or leaving the church? What kinds of conversations, if any, have you had with them about the situation?

(8) If you have younger children (even if you don’t, it’s still a worthwhile exercise) – consider how would you explain the issues at church to them. What would you tell them about what the Bible says about these leaders and their sin? What would you tell them about what the Bible says about the way we should respond to this sin?

What questions would you add to this list? If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’ve had to decide if you should stay or if you should go, what factor(s) most helped you make your decision?   

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About Michelle Van Loon
  • Pat68

    If you leave and people try to talk you into staying or coming back and offering all kinds of spiritual advice, be strong and hold your head up high. Often, these individuals mean well, but they likely don’t know what you’ve experienced or how you’ve been affected and how you’ve wrestled with and prayed about your decision. Sometimes these individuals are just trying to hold the church together. Kind of like a dysfunctional family that doesn’t dare let people know they have serious flaws and will keep it under wraps at all costs so as to protect their image. Image, for these people, is everything.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Good addition to the list, Pat68! The more manipulative the tactics used by church leaders, the faster a leaver should head for the exit.

      • Pat68

        Oh, and I’m not just talking about just leaders, either. Some will come from those not serving in leadership. Some will be people who are highly invested in the church for their own reasons and people should know that. Sometimes there are familial ties that keep people’s loyalty to the institution or a myriad of other reasons. People have to be clear in their own mind and heart about the decision they’re making. Otherwise, they’ll find themselves being easily swayed and likely disappointed and angry with themselves if they do not act on what they are convinced of and rather cave to outside pressure.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    I once started attending a church in the immediate wake of a leadership crisis. It was so bad, the elders counseled both the senior pastor (who had one view) and the associate pastor (who had another) to leave. They did.

    That’s when I showed up. The new pastor arrived soon after. His first sermon was from 1 Corinthians 1, and when he got to “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’”, he then went on with “or ‘I follow ____________,’ and ‘I follow _____________,’” filling in the names of the two departed pastors. You could have heard a pin drop.

    I attended that church almost 30 years.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    • Michelle Van Loon

      It sounds like that parting of the ways 30 years ago was a healthy one. And the new pastor began at the point of impact to speak truth so healing could begin.


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