Yesterday, I finished a 17-year ministry at Southern Hills Baptist Church. We had a great day with our highest attendance in a long time. We celebrated the Lord’s Supper after I did what I’d done week after week, Sunday after Sunday, since August 28, 2005 – preach a text of Scripture. After church, we had a potluck dinner, enjoyed a warm fellowship, and member after member expressed their love, their sorrow we were leaving, and their prayers for our future. We received a basket of cards with some generous gifts and messages that made my wife cry. It was a wonderful way to wrap things up.
What I didn’t receive was a standing ovation.
I am an old codger so I am authorized to do “get off my lawn” rants. Yesterday, Matt Chandler stood before his congregation to admit to an inappropriate interaction with a woman other than his wife on text and announce he was taking a leave of absence. He claims the texting was not sexual or romantic, but other details were withheld. I know nothing more and am not writing today to discuss Matt Chandler’s sin (or whatever other words he used to describe it). Reading about his imbroglio just got me thinking. When I read accounts of his actions I looked for one thing and sure enough, saw that after he stood and confessed, the church gave him an “ovation” – probably a rousing standing o! In fact, another pastor stood to “define the narrative” by telling them what their ovation meant, and then they gave him another. I got annoyed.
When did it become appropriate to give standing ovations to those who have committed disqualifying (or near-disqualifying) sins in ministry?
You might remember Jules Woodson’s public story sexual abuse. After years of denial and evasion, the pastor who had abused her years earlier stood before his large congregation and gave a sanitized version of his “failings.” He received a wildly supportive standing ovation. Recently, I posted a video here of a church in which a pastor stood to confess an affair (again, putting it in the best possible light) and the lady came forward to tell the truth. She accused the pastor of statutory rape and some of the ugliest actions imaginable. Of course, the pastor got a standing ovation.
Both of those churches came to later regret those ovations, we would hope, when the whole story came out. They honored and applauded abusers. In doing that, they had heaped condemnation on and added to the suffering of survivors of that abuse.
When a pastor or other church leader stands to confess sin, it is a time for lament, a time for tears. Perhaps a prayer should be offered in which God’s grace and healing are sought. Repentance requires honesty, humility, and sorrow and if it is genuine, it can’t be about appearance management, controlling the narrative, or hiding the facts.
The fault here often lies with the leadership more than the people themselves. The “confessions” are often staged to put the fallen leader in the best possible light. Facts are hidden. The full story isn’t told. The blame sometimes is shifted to someone else. Excuses are made. The pastor or church leaders control the narrative to cast the confession in a heroic light. It is textbook manipulation. Unfortunately, in many megachurches (and sometimes not just megas), people are conditioned to see their pastors in near godlike terms so when he confesses a sin, they jump to this redemptive, heroic narrative and respond with enthusiastic applause.
It has to stop.
We need to stop applauding confessions of sin. They serve no spiritual purpose and they hurt and harm. If a sinner is genuinely repentant, he doesn’t want applause. If he isn’t genuinely repentant, he doesn’t deserve it. It is a safe bet that in most situations, the church has been given a PART of the story or a sanitized version of it – the part most favorable to the pastor – and when the full story comes out, they are going to have mud on their faces for the ovation.
Yes, these churches love their pastors. As a pastor, I appreciate that. They want to believe the best of him and for him. That is natural and perhaps honorable. Standing ovations for confessing sin are not. We do not applaud sin. We grieve over it, but we do not cheer it.
Save the standing ovations for the football field. Please, churches, please stop! This practice needs to end.