A Blog: The Church’s Recovery From the Pastor’s Moral Failure
*Some names have been changed in this blog so as not to distract from the main narrative. I acknowledge that some who read this will recognize the people and events I refer to. In no way do I mean to demean anyone in this blog. However, honesty is a value to me. The purpose of this blog (and the accompanying podcast) is not to expose people or a church. My purpose is to present an alternative to what I experienced in a church that sought to recover from a pastor’s moral failure. I have not seen a lot written that helps a church specifically and intentionally focus on healing when they have been hurt in this way. Much of the resources available are directed to the pastor’s recovery not the church’s. It was necessary for me, I think, to reach that objective by specifically telling my story. If anyone is offended or taken aback by the details, I want you to know that was not my goal.
I want to mention, too, that the podcast on this subject was initially for my friend, Dan Samms’, podcast. He interviewed me for his podcast, and we both agreed it would be valuable to also place it on the Before You Quit platform.
Finally, this blog is lengthy. More lengthy than a blog should be. It might help to consider it more an article than a blog. Feel free to copy it and share with those who might be helped by it. I think it would be a great resource for a discussion at an elders’ or staff meeting.
Okay, let’s jump in…..
In 2005, I was attending our annual denomination council in Louisville, KY. During a break, as hundreds milled around in the lobby, I was approached by an old friend, an elderly pastor, informing me that he was taking on an interim position at a church in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. The founding pastor after 18 years was forced to leave due to moral failure. He’d been carrying on a six month affair with the head of women’s ministry, and the two had recently moved together out west. The church was large, my friend informed me, with an attendance well over 500. Understandably, the church was shell-shocked and needed to go through a process of healing. The pastor was well-loved, not only by the congregation, but also in the community. My friend would move to this town and help the church recover from this trial.
As the pastor related this information to me, I was also re-evaluating my own season of ministry. Four years earlier, our family moved near Milwaukee, WI where I served as associate pastor in a large church. While it was a deeply fulfilling and productive ministry I sensed a restlessness leading me to conclude that I was ready to take on a lead role in another church. Yet, I was content where I was and did not aggressively search for such an opportunity. I prayed often asking the Lord to bring something my way if that was what He wanted for me. So it was not a surprise to me to discover that this chance encounter with my pastor friend might be the answer to my prayers. At a certain point in our conversation my friend smiled and informed me that he had been looking for me in that crowded lobby. “Mitch,” he said, “I think you are the perfect pastor to lead this church when I conclude my interim work.”
While my heart raced with excitement, I tried not to show it. “How long do you think you’ll be there?” I asked. “At least a year,” he replied. We talked some more: I asked a few questions and finally said, “Phillip, just so I don’t jump ahead of the Lord on this, I will not contact you about this possibility. I will wait for you to contact me.” We agreed that this was a good plan, said goodbye and went our separate ways. I went back to my ministry near Milwaukee and thought very little about that conversation with my friend.
Fourteen months later while doing some work in my office the phone rang. I recognized the voice. He was a friend, but also District Superintendent in the district to which the church belonged. He asked if I would be interested in being interviewed by the board for the position. I spoke to my wife, my son and daughter and we all agreed to at least take that first step. Two weeks later, late evening, I snuck into my church office and two hours later concluded a very productive phone interview with the church board. The next day the DS called again inviting me to candidate at the church.
We decided that in February 2006, my daughter Breanna would accompany us, while our son, Brett, chose stay back with some friends near Milwaukee. Breanna, only two years away from graduating, accepted the idea of a potential move more than did our junior high son. Brett’s remaining back in Wisconsin would create a dynamic to the whole experience that would end up adding layers of complications to our transition. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
When we arrived in the beautiful mountain town and met several people at the church my introduction to two men set off several soft alarms in my heart that would later become deeply significant. Both were business men, both were elders and both, at different points in that weekend, would be my tour guys to the town and to the church. Chad and Stephen were confident men with strong personalities. I was given the clear impression that if I came to this church, I would have to make sure to be on the good side of these two men. It turned out both, along with a similar character by the name of Lucas, would become real adversaries to my ministry. Also, more on that later.
The weekend went well. Over 600 attended the service when I preached. This also made me uneasy, as such a high attendance in one church in a small rural community gave me some unhealthy vibes. Nevertheless, we were well received. The board met the next night, and the following day the DS called me offering the position. Despite some red flags, Elaine and both felt it was the right move to make. Many suggested that we were the right couple, with the right kind of personal and ministry experience to help the church through its healing.
Let me get back to Brett. During our four days in NC Brett picked up some kind of stomach virus, or, so we thought. He was throwing up a lot and had to miss school. We were not that concerned, assuming like others that a virus was passing through the community. When we returned home, Brett continued to struggle. He threw up often, and even after a few days lost a significant amount of weight. By the second week we decided to take him to the doctor. Nothing noticeable showed up, and the doctor even suggested that perhaps Brett was reacting emotionally to the notion of moving. Another two weeks passed and Brett’s condition worsened. Convinced now that this was not emotional, the doctor ordered an upper GI test. An hour later, at the hospital, Elaine and I watched a small monitor as the technician moved around a camera equipped to navigate around and through Brett’s colon. We were no experts, but it was obvious that slushing fluid was flowing around some kind of mass. What came next surprised me. The doctor was immediately informed, and within minutes we were told to rush to Children’s hospital where Brett would need the mass removed.
I’ve noticed something about myself particularly in times of trial. Things sink in slowly for me. I have a delayed reaction to crisis. This explained my reaction to so many from our church near Milwaukee encircling us in the waiting room as Brett was being operated on. These people loved us. While none of them knew Travis, our oldest son who died of cancer, they knew our story, and embraced us for it. This church had been our healing community and had also been a place where I had served others well. We served others out of pain, like wounded healers. People were drawn to us, and we to them.
Later this sense of community would be absent as our next church responded almost the opposite way to our crisis. Months later at our new ministry in North Carolina, I was questioned for leaving meetings and events early because Brett, alone at home, cried for me to come be with him. I never hesitated to. He was my priority. I expected this community to embrace us as our previous church had, but it rarely happened. It almost felt like they resented us for it. Like our pain kept us from serving theirs. It was a strange dynamic that took me a long time to understand.
Back to the waiting room.
Later I realized that everyone surrounding us was thinking of what we had gone through with Travis. Again, I reacted slowly to things. I just assumed some obstacle needed be removed from Brett’s colon, and we could move on with our lives, which right then meant preparing to move to NC. I couldn’t quite understand why people were so emotional. Many crying, others praying.
Three days later I understood why a cloud had hovered over that waiting room. In the recovery room, again filled with friends, the surgeon walked in with several interns. Pausing at Brett’s side, the doctor turned to us, and the words spilled out, “Brett has cancer.” Some in the room began to wail. We actually asked several of them to leave. It was upsetting Brett. “It’s Burkitt’s Lymphoma,” he continued. “It’s rare. Only 100 children get this kind of cancer a year in the United States. It’s predominately an African cancer, that shows up mostly there in the jaw. Here, in the U.S., and we don’t know why, it shows up in children, in the colon.”
It would take several more days to get the prognosis. Stage two. Not spread. Chemo would be needed. New treatment meant good prognosis, unlike what it would have been even five years earlier.
We had some big decisions to make. We had accepted the call to NC, and the moving date was set for a couple months away. I had announced to the church we were leaving: a week later the senior pastor informed the congregation that Brett had cancer. Again, we were enveloped by this loving community. In some sense, I could not wait to move to NC and feel what their loving embrace would be like. We knew we would need it, and assumed we would just be passed from one set of supporting arms, to another.
I called the executive pastor in NC to let him know what we were going through. He was loving, and understanding. One of the good ones that I would later befriend. Because of the time needed for Brett to heal, and then undergo chemo, and then recover from that, there was no way we would make our scheduled arrival. The reassuring response from Tim, the executive, again led me to anticipate the ongoing support we would need from our new family. I did feel the need, though, to insist that it would only be fair that we back out of this relationship because, I did not want the church to have to wait months more for us to come, especially after all they had gone through. They, too, were a hurting family. “Take as much time as you need Mitch,” Tim informed me.
“Are you sure, Tim?” I asked, my voice choking.
“Yes,” he responded with warmth in his voice. “The elders want you to come, and the interim pastor agrees to stay and continue to lead until you get here.” This again reassured me that a loving body was waiting to embrace and comfort us, and we, as wounded healer would in turn help them through their need to recover from another sort of cancer.
Little did I know how the cancer that gripped their body had metastasized to such an extent that the church was on life support.
I did not know about it until four years after we moved to NC. Another pastor, a former missionary called Stan told me the story. He knew about it, because it involved him. He was surprised no one had informed me about it, and after he told me, I was far more than surprised. I was shocked. I was oblivious to the chaos that swirled in the church in the weeks following our call and acceptance to the church. My friend filled in the pulpit the week after I had candidated. Following the service, a group of people led by a man named Denny, asked if they could all speak to Stan in private. They all filed into the choir room adjacent to the platform, just left of it. Stan had no idea what they wanted to talk to him about.
Denny spoke for the group. “We want to know if you’d be willing to come be our pastor.”
Stan was stunned. They had just announced that morning that I had been called to serve as the lead pastor.
“Wait, you all just announced a half hour ago, that Mitch Schultz, was coming to be pastor. Why are you doing this?”
“Many of us don’t want him,” one of them said.
“Well, I don’t really think this is appropriate,” Stan protested. “I think you really need to talk to your elders about this.”
That afternoon, Stan spoke to the interim pastor and shared what had happened. “They’re just hurting,” the interim explained, shrugging it off. “They’ll be okay.”
Stan left it at that, assuming I would be informed, and the group of dissenters would be reprimanded for trying to usurp the elders and the general will of the congregation. But nothing was ever said. I was never told. No one else was told, and the matter sunk just under the surface to resurface several years later in other forms. I know if this information had been shared with me right away, we would not have come. I knew I did not have the emotional capacity to serve under such chaos and dissension. Oblivious to all this, I would later show up, assuming this was a normal, relatively healthy church eager to be served, loved and helped through the trauma they had experienced.
Soon after, the decision was made that I would officially start pastoring within a month. Our family would not move until August, giving Brett the ample time needed to recover. During those four months, from our initial start date and to the actual move, I traveled to our new assignment once to twice a month to preach, get to know people and begin looking for housing. I did this with the general impression that the folks were eager for us to come, and appreciative of the preaching ministry I was bringing in the weeks I was there.
We moved to NC on August 12, 2006. The first few Sundays the sanctuary was packed with over 600 in attendance. This again made me uneasy. It seemed inflated, given the size of the town, and I also had the sense this had more to do with the former pastor than it did me. Within a month or two the attendance settled to mid 400 to 500. In those first two months two flashing lights of my new ministry dashboard began to blink orange, clear warning signs that I had come to a very unhealthy environment. It was also evident to me that during the interim’s fourteen months in the church he had done little to address the multi-layered problems within the church.
The first incident took place over lunch with Chad, the business man elder who was one of the two “tour guides” that met me on our weekend visit. At one point in our conversation, he looked sternly at me and said, “Mitch you are never to meet with the head of the women’s ministry again without my permission.” I think some food dropped out of my mouth. It’s interesting how it only registers with me now why he might have said this. The previous pastor had had a six month ongoing affair with the then head of women’s ministry, something I later discovered Chad knew about the entire duration of the affair. Perhaps out of guilt, he wanted to make up for his negligence in not bringing the affair to the board right away. Instead he had tried to coax the pastor to end the affair, so this thriving ministry of his could continue to grow. My initial theory for his command, I believe is still correct, that he wanted to have control of the church, something he had well-established during the interim. My recent added assessment that this came out of guilt does highlight more how utterly messed up the situation was, and the love and admiration for the previous pastor blinded the elders from acting biblically. It turned out that a “rogue” elder did in fact turn the pastor in to the DS and was later reprimanded and removed by the other elders for doing so.
I looked at Chad and said, “Chad, I want you to understand something from the start. I will not conduct my ministry in this way. I am here to get to know people, understand the ministries, and part of that will involve getting to know the leader. I am happy to place a summary of those meetings in my monthly report.” I then added, “Chad, do not ever ask me to do something like that again. It is not how I work.” Needless to say, Chad and I butted heads for the entirety of my seven years as pastor, and he was one of the main antagonists who led a group to later have me removed.
The other flashing light that indicated some problems was more the amber light, the kind one sees flash on the car dashboard, but lasts a minute or two and then disappears. It’s the sort of warning light that leads you to initially think something is wrong, but since the light stops flashing you’re left to think little of it. Probably just a short in the wiring. Later I concluded if the wiring had been correct, the light would have been a steady, un-dimming, raging red light, warning of serious damage if the vehicle did not get immediate attention.
It was about five months into my ministry and involved two characters that would have serious implication to the longevity of my ministry. I was having coffee with Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a wealthy business man, whose tithe to church covered a significant amount of the annual budget. He was a good, humble man, an elder, who did not allow his wealth to get in the way of his service. He spoke in elders meeting when he needed to, but never pushed his weight around. As Jeremiah took a sip of his diet coke, he looked at me and said, “Mitch, if you are going to be successful in this church, you will have to get along with Lucas.” As I stated earlier, Lucas was a retired business man who wielded significant control over the church. I was there long enough to know that getting along with him would not be for the purpose of being supported. I looked back at Jeremiah and said, “Jeremiah, I will take my risks. I do not want to work that way.” It was this conversation that would lead me to coach young pastors years later that when they interview for a church they ask this question of the elders; “Who do I need to get along with here for my ministry to be successful?” And if the answer is anyone other than Hilda, the 85-year-old prayer warrior, don’t go to that church. If it’s Mark, the former business man, now elder; run. Don’t go to that church.
There might be some hyperbole to that position, and certainly I am projecting my own experience into it, but having listened to many other stories of similar dynamics I think I am generally right.
I did not get along with Lucas, and it would cost me my ministry. Several months later, Lucas and a young woman by the name of Jamie, collected letters complaining about me and had them sent to the DS. I felt supported by my DS. Incidentally, the year I left the church, Jamie, the young woman met with the elders to repent of this action among other things she had done to undermine the leadership of the church. Since her actions were mainly targeted at me, I was shocked that the elders did not involve me in that process. I was the one she had most sinned again. She was restored, safely by-passing the significant casualty of her actions.
Two years later, Lucas ratcheted up his effort to remove me by several hard turns. I was to discover that the former pastor, who had never repented or made efforts to reconcile with the church had written a letter to the elders with what would turn out to be a weak apology. Most significantly this letter, unbeknownst to the other elders was held by one individual (Denny) who waited for a strategic time to present it to the congregation, not the elders. He, and now Lucas chose their moment; our annual business meeting held in November of 2009. Not by coincidence this dark moment took place the weekend we accepted the dying wishes of a single mom to take custody of her two children following her death. She asked us on a Friday; that business meeting took place that Sunday evening. I am still convinced the enemy was attacking us for our obedience in taking these two into our home.
Word spread that a letter from the former pastor would be read at the meeting. We usually had 50 or 60 attend these business sessions, but by six o’clock over 250 packed the room. Something was anticipated by the large crowd, but we had no clue what. Later we discovered that people had been told that the letter from the former pastor would be read and an announcement would be made by Lucas, that Logan, the former pastor, would return and I would leave. The letter was read. The apology was weak, and when it became apparent that no such plan was in the works over 200 disappointed current and former members spilled out of the room. What happened next was dark. Our DS had instructed the elders to block Lucas from taking the mic, where he planned to announce Logan’s return and my removal. The elders did just that and the room turned into chaos. People yelled and screamed at the elders and at one another. Later in the lobby several heated face to face conversations took place and fist fights nearly broke out.
The church would never be the same. Many left. Some new ones came. For two years we experienced a strange peace. For the first time our small group ministry was established with over 200 participating in discussion centered conversations on the Sunday morning messages. Many of the antagonists had either left, or were just laying low. A dozen or more attended Jeremiah’s popular Sunday School class, but left before the service began. It was their way of protesting, but also their way of keeping one foot in the door. The elders encouraged Jeremiah, the teacher, to address this as sin, but he did not want to rock the boat. That class would continue to meet, with most not attending the main service, something which changed after I left.
In my seventh year, my wife and I concluded that we had run out of bandwidth to keep pastoring. Several other events, equally as dysfunctional and damaging as some I cited before, led us to bring the current DS into the conversation. He met with a number of groups of people, and then with the elders where it was decided that it was time for us to move on. We received a four month severance, and the district hired us for one year to oversee the replant of a closed church in Savanah, Georgia. (Not the actual town).
The church in NC barely survived this transition. Hundreds left, and several dozen of the antagonists returned to face no consequence for their sinful behavior.
I’d like to make several observations from my time in NC that I hope would help any other church trying to navigate the loss of a pastor to moral failure. And here I reach the real purpose of my writing all this.
1. A well-liked pastor needs as much accountability as any other pastor. Popular pastors seem to get a break when it comes to accountability over their teaching or behavior. I was to discover that two elders knew of his affair for over six months and quietly urged him to stop so the church would not suffer. Even when the pastor packed up and moved out of state with his new mistress several members of the church helped him pack and move. Neither the elders or these members were ever disciplined for their complicity in the pastor’s affair.
2. The interim process must be where the hardest work is done. In our case, the interim served as a holdover until I showed up. No actions were taken. There was no counseling and teaching on how to navigate the waters in such a crisis. No one was disciplined for sinful behavior. Nothing was offered to help those grieving. This should have been a time to carry out the hardest and costliest work. It is likely I would have come to a far smaller church, but a much healthier one.
3. The former pastor’s refusal to repent publicly to the church, or even refuse to enter a restoration process with the district should not have been ignored. The church should have been given opportunity to grieve and forgive and even repent (1 Cor 5) for looking to a popular pastor for their significance and value. The church was large because the pastor was larger than life, not because the gospel had taken root in the community. Solemn times for such grieving, processing and repenting could have taken the church through a significant journey of healing especially when the pastor had refused to repent. Hopefully the podcast will specifically address how this can be done.
4. I was told, not directly by the DS, but second-hand through my successor that, according to the DS, I never owned up to my part in the problems at the church. I have no idea what the DS meant by that. He never talked to me about it. However, the comment led me to some deep soul searching on any ways I did contribute to the chaos. For example, when several significant givers stopped giving to the church because they did not like the worship leader we hired, and our financial intake was cut in half, at least, and as a result we had to let go of several staff members, I should have been more assertive. I and the elders, were too afraid to address this to those who stopped giving for such unhealthy reasons. The church also had a pattern of moral failure. Stories of lay people’s indiscretions, rumors of elders who had their own affairs, and an accusation that one of our youth volunteers was having a questionable relationship with a teen should all have been followed up with vigor. I admit, I was too afraid. Afraid of the cost, of the backlash. To this point, I do not believe any of these issues have been addressed or resolved, even though I had informed the current leaders of this history after my departure.
5. Finally, a church as dysfunctional as the one I pastored, needed restructuring. Toward the end of our ministry in NC, I wrote a proposal for restructuring that included my staying to help in the renewal process. Elaine and I met with our DS in May of 2012, to present the proposal. In it we recommended the disbanding of an elder board, the establishment of an outside advisory board, and intentional efforts to address sin, problems, and a future strategy for rebuilding. The DS appreciated the idea, but recommended against it. Two months later, it was recommended that we leave. In the end, God’s hand was on our future. I would not trade anything for the experiences at this hard church. In over 34 years of pastoring, it was our only real hard church. Today I direct a ministry that helps hurting pastors. I would never have understood ministry pain, had we not been in this hard and difficult situation.