A sponsor dies, a pastor ‘steps away’

A sponsor dies, a pastor ‘steps away’ June 13, 2024

One of my favorite people at the Big Box died last week.

John C. worked on the day shift, so I hadn’t seen him much in recent years, Back when I worked days, though, I got to know him a little bit and he became someone I sometimes turned to for counsel or consolation.

John was a sponsor. I’m not sure how I learned that, but you could just kind of tell — even if you were someone, like me, with no direct experience in the world of 12-step programs. He was just somebody who seemed to have been granted the serenity, courage, and wisdom that he’d been praying for every day for more than 30 years. Because he had and he was.

The “Serenity Prayer” is so familiar that we sometimes forget how unusual an attribute that is, but you know serenity when you see it, and John had it.

He never told me any of the stories he sometimes hinted at or shared with others about his life before those 30-plus years of sobriety. I suppose maybe that’s because he wasn’t worried that I’d need the warning. But I heard enough of those stories second-hand to marvel at the difference between the man I knew and the man in those stories.

John became a good man because he knew he was all-too capable of being a very bad man. That knowledge also made him patient, kind, and merciful to the rest of us.

He didn’t have any close family, but I do worry about the anonymous someones for whom he served as a sponsor. I hope those folks are able to find others with the same hard-won patience and wisdom that I’m sure they found in him.

Rest in peace, John. Your memory is already a blessing,

Tony Campolo used to tell a joke when he was invited to preach at a church. “If you knew all the sin in my life,” he’d say, “then you would have never invited a person like me to speak from your pulpit.”

He’d let that hang out there for a beat or two before saying, “But don’t get cocky. If I knew all the sin in your lives, I’d never have agreed to come to speak to a room full of people like this.”

That always got a nervous laugh because or in spite of it all being more or less true.

Tony’s joke highlights the difference between those of us who gather in the church sanctuary on Sunday mornings and those of us, like John, who gather downstairs, in the linoleum basement on weekday evenings. And I think it shows they understand something those of us upstairs don’t.

I’ve been thinking about that again after reading this story: “Tony Evans says he is ‘stepping away’ from leading Dallas megachurch due to ‘sin.’

Tony Evans, the longtime leader of a Dallas megachurch and bestselling author, has announced that he is stepping back from his ministry due to “sin” he committed years ago.

“The foundation of our ministry has always been our commitment to the Word of God as the absolute supreme standard of truth to which we are to conform our lives,” Evans said in a Sunday (June 9) statement to his Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship church that was posted on its website.

“When we fall short of that standard due to sin, we are required to repent and restore our relationship with God. A number of years ago, I fell short of that standard. I am, therefore, required to apply the same biblical standard of repentance and restoration to myself that I have applied to others.”

Evans, 74, was not specific about his actions but said they were not criminal.

“While I have committed no crime, I did not use righteous judgment in my actions,” he said. “In light of this, I am stepping away from my pastoral duties and am submitting to a healing and restoration process established by the elders.”

This happens a lot. A church vaguely announces that its prominent pastor is “stepping away” for some “restoration process” due to “sin,” with little indication as to what all those words mean in this context.

In one sense, that’s perfectly fair. It’s quite possible that the details here are none of our business. After all, the same RNS article quoted above also includes a few paragraphs identifying Pastor Evans and summarizing his life for readers unfamiliar with who he is. And if you don’t already know who he is, then why should you care about the specifics of whatever “sin” he may have committed “a number of years ago”? “Prominent pastor takes leave” is news. “Prominent pastor takes leave due to sin” is probably also news. But the details of whatever sin that may be might not be newsworthy so much as prurient gossip.

Of course, refusing to indulge the public’s prurient curiosity doesn’t make it go away, so carefully vague public statements like these tend to backfire, inviting speculation that’s likely to imagine scenarios far worse than whatever the pastor in question may have actually done. At the very least, such statements tend to cause us to assume more than we can know. (Just because Oak Cliff’s statement reads exactly like the statements put out by other churches whose pastors had extramarital affairs doesn’t mean Tony Evans had an affair. Like, if that’s your guess, I couldn’t confidently say you’d be wrong, but we just don’t know.)

But the odd thing about these stories is that “Pastor is also a sinner” seems to be something regarded as news when, really, it shouldn’t be. That’s dog-bites-man, not man-bites-dog. It shouldn’t be any more newsworthy than “AA sponsor is also an alcoholic.”

It’s only news because we’ve been pretending that the pastor wasn’t a sinner. Or because he and the elders have been pretending that too. (Or pretending it means nothing more than that he, too, sometimes cusses if he stubs his toe or hits his thumb with a hammer, or any of the other trivial, non-malicious, “sins” that pastors faux-confess when reassuring their congregations that yesofcourseI’masinnertoo.)

That doesn’t mean that you should want a pastor who is, right now, “not using righteous judgment in their actions” or who is, right now, treating people like things. (“That’s what sin is, young man.”) But I think you should want one who never forgets that they are capable of that.

As my late friend John could have told you, when you forget you’re capable of that, you’re probably in trouble.

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