Dr. Joel Rainey is Lead Pastor at Covenant Church, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He serves on the adjunct faculty of two seminaries, and the author of three books.
Yesterday, the elders of NewSpring Church, the 30,000 attendee, multi-site congregation in my home state, announced the release of Senior Pastor Perry Noble due to behaviors that disqualify him for pastoral ministry. This announcement was understandably shocking, both to the evangelical world, and more so to the NewSpring church family.
Some predictable responses to this sad news have already transpired–from secular media outlets pointing out NewSpring’s status as the “richest church,” to angry fundamentalists shouting “See! I told you so!” For my part, my heart goes out to Perry, and to the church he founded.
When the first church I ever planted was just an infant, NewSpring was itself just learning how to walk. Those were trying times in my own life and ministry, and I remember several conversations with Perry that helped me greatly. Perry cares about the church–all churches. Perry cares about pastors. But mostly, Perry cares deeply about lost people finding Jesus. Perry did many things differently than I would do them, and a few things I would never do. But you don’t have to be twins to be brothers, and as a whole, I have been very thankful for this brother and the difference he has made.
And since yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot about NewSpring Church, and many other churches like her who have had to bid farewell to a pastor who disqualified himself for ministry. Noble and NewSpring may currently be alone in the spotlight, but they are far from the only pastor and church that have encountered a situation like this. When this kind of thing happens, it doesn’t matter how big or how “rich” you are. Its excruciatingly painful for all involved. I’ve consulted with multiple churches in the wake of their leader’s moral failure–be it sexual, financial, substance abuse, or other lack of personal discipline. Moments like that in the life of a church are humiliating for the pastor, impossibly difficult for those who hold him accountable, and painful for a church family that, whether or not they realize it, are dealing with a level of grief commensurate with losing a family member to death.
Often, churches don’t know what to do in a situation like this. Based on my own experience in helping churches through crises like this, let me make the following suggestions. How should you view the pastor who has disappointed you and let you down? And, what does the pastor who now no longer leads your church need from you?
He needs your discipline. This is a difficult thing for many to hear, especially those in the body of Christ who are gifted with mercy and helps. They rightly expect restoration and often cry out “why can’t we just forgive him and move on?” Within that cry is an honorable desire to redeem the situation and the person. But often, this cry is accompanied by ignorance of the fact that “forgiveness” and “restoration” are two completely different things. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are clear about the character qualities of those who dare to be pastors. In the case of Perry Noble, those principles were violated by an over-dependency on alcohol. But I’ve seen similar circumstances arise from sexual sin, lack of discipline, or the inability to control one’s temper. When disqualifying sin has taken place and all other avenues have been exhausted, removal is best for the church, for the community, and even for the pastor. The fact that it is also painful doesn’t mean its wrong.
So if you are faced with the removal of your pastor over disqualifying sin, trust your leaders who have rightly held him accountable, and follow them as they seek to lead the church forward while simultaneously getting the pastor the resources he and his family need to heal.
He needs your mouth……to stay shut! News of what happened at NewSpring yesterday had spread to every major news outlet in North America by last night. Imagine how you would feel if your worst moments not only cost you your job, but were also on display on TV screens, computer screens and smartphones all over America.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself “but Perry was a mega-church pastor. Our church is much smaller–much less well-known.” But while it is true that your pastor’s sins may never end up on CNN, in a situation like this they will certainly end up on the “Community Bulletin Board” where all the “real news” in your small town gets read anyway. My point? Your pastor and his family will be humiliated by a situation like this regardless, and the absolute last thing he needs are those he has served as shepherd adding gossip and rumor to the situation.
Yesterday, the leaders of NewSpring balanced transparency with discretion. And because they didn’t “tell it all” there will be plenty of gaps in the story, and people naturally want to fill in the gaps. If you are part of a church where this is happening, your time is much better spent praying for your church family and your former pastor. Don’t feed the rumor mill. Doing so only brings greater humiliation.
He needs your unity. Your church needs it too. This is not the time to “jump ship” and head to the church across town. This is not the time to hit the exit ramp because church doesn’t feel like Disney World any more. And its certainly not the time to give the impression that the former pastor is the whole reason you joined the church anyway (Truthfully, if the pastor is the only reason you are there, you are there for the wrong reason!). Now is the time to lock arms with your hurting church family.
One of the things I”m thankful for in the NewSpring situation is that Perry is humbly receiving the rebuke and discipline from church leaders. Without that posture, this could have been much worse. In the worst cases I’ve seen, the pastor resists loving discipline and “splants” a church by dividing the house and taking those loyal to him down the street to start another one. Being part of something like that isn’t honoring to your former pastor. It enables him in further misconduct, and does traumatic damage to your church family, the community, and the witness of the Gospel. Don’t play the “God is leading me…..” card on this one. That’s just ridiculous. Now more than ever, stay with your church family! Years from now, your former pastor will be encouraged to know that his behavior didn’t do lasting damage to the body of Christ.
He needs your appreciation While many gifted with mery and helps want to quickly “forgive” and “restore,” may gifted with prophecy and discernment–the “justice” gifts–will want to find a tall tree and a short piece of rope from which to hang their former pastor. This too, is unhealthy.
When a pastor falls, many are devastated because they say to themselves “I never thought he would be capable of something like this!” Trust has been broken. Spiritual trauma has been inflicted on the body. In moments like that, it is easy to forget that you can’t measure a man’s life in one bad moment.
As you process your grief and disappointment, also keep in mind that it was the guy who couldn’t control his drinking who also baptized your children. It was the guy who cheated on his wife who was also there for you when your mother died suddenly. In those moments, he never left your side. Now, he needs you by his side. That doesn’t mean you can’t feel disappointment or even anger. It does mean you shouldn’t forget how often he blessed you and your family. Recall those moments, and communicate them to him to encourage him.
He needs your prayers How often do you think he prayed for you? He and his family now stand in great need of your prayers. Ask God to give him greater wisdom for the future. Ask God to heal him. Ask God to heal his family. Ask God to one day restore him to ministry.
One of the signatures on my ministry license is that of a man who would be later removed from a church because of substance abuse. Yes, he sinned and disqualified himself.. And yes, the church did the right thing by removing him. But whatever good anyone sees in my ministry now is largely due to his investment in me as a young man. We shouldn’t forget things like that, nor should we let those who have fallen forget them.
By God’s grace, both Perry Noble and NewSpring Church have a future. If your church has been through similar circumstances, you have a future too, and so does the man you once called “Pastor.” Give him what he needs, and trust God to give your church what it needs.