I am asked a lot about what I think should have happened at the church in regard to my situation. I have frankly avoided the question (and this post) for a while now, because (1) I try not to second-guess the church’s leadership publicly, and (2) I really don’t want this blog to be a self-serving endeavor of any sort… I want it to be (a) an honest, raw, authentic travel-log on my journey, and (b) a testimony and witness to Christ and His goodness.
But since I keep getting asked, and since I actually submitted a proposed course of action to the Board this summer, I will share with you what I think should have been done.
When people ask, they usually say things like “do you think there was an alternative course of action that was also Biblically faithful and sound?” and my answer is that I think this course of action was the only one (at least on the table) that was Biblically faithful and sound.
FIRST, while I hate to do this again (it embarrassing and shame-inducing every time) I let me lay out the facts of what happened. I have always been gay and have only shared that information with a small circle around me over the years, including a small circle at the church. I did not disclose that I had failed to stay celibate, but just that homosexuality was a struggle for me.
My failures over the years included inappropriate sexual activity with a congregant. Specifically, three times over 6 years we had inappropriate sexual activity together. The first time predates the church, we were both single adults, and everything was consensual. Our friendship also predated the church by several years. There was no ongoing “affair” or “romantic relationship”, but some serious boundary violations and sin. While we crossed the line and violated the Community Life Statement three times, there was a lot of dysfunction and inappropriate activity within the friendship — mostly at my initiative.
Upon the congregants prompting, I shared this information with our Board (and to be fair, that “prompting” was more being compelled… I would not on my own have done that). I was immediately placed on paid administrative leave at that point which was supposed to last 3 months. I resigned as pastor several weeks later, immediately had my membership terminated, and was also banned from the faith community for worship or any other activities. (This “ban” was for a year with the notion that the Board would revisit the issue in a year.) My compensation was ended 3 weeks after my resignation.
And in the interests of full disclosure (and I shared this with the Board) there were other instances of sexually inappropriate activity with other people — all of which were adults and consensual and none of which were involved in any ministry I was connected with.
So those are the facts… what should have happened?
Here is what I think:
(1) I think my activity (both with the congregant and with others) disqualified me from leadership for the time being. I think my resignation (and lacking my resignation, termination) as lead pastor (and trustee/member of the board) was appropriate. I think this principle is laid out in 1 Timothy 3:2 where Paul says leaders must be “above reproach.” I think my removal from all leadership roles and responsibilities was appropriate.
(2) Should my membership have been terminated? I think there are two ways to look at this issue. One perspective is that as a congregational church, membership is actually the highest level of leadership. Members are shepherds, not sheep. The pastor is first and foremost a member and is called from the membership (as opposed to called from outside the church). I clearly violated both the Community Life Statement and Membership Covenant. From this perspective, removal from membership was appropriate.
The second perspective is that the Community Life Statement and Membership Covenant are future-oriented documents meant to call people to increasing levels of holiness and obedience, not to be used as a tool to kick people out for past behavior. This is how we have always used these documents. When we do our annual renewal process, the question is not “have you perfectly lived out these commitments?” but rather “are committing, by God’s grace, to living these out this coming year? And do you affirm your belief in them?” I could honestly answer YES to both those questions.
I think the important issue when it comes to membership is that it is a different issue than leadership. Once I resigned as pastor/leader, the question then becomes how to handle me as a member — and my situation should be handled the same as any other member.
Some will say “No! It is different because you are a leader.” But that was already taken care of with my removal from leadership. The principle of removing people from leadership is (1) leaders should be models (“above reproach”), (2) unhealthy leaders can’t lead well and it doesn’t serve them either; (3) bad leaders compromise the testimony of the church; and (4) the congregation needs to be protected from bad leaders. All of this was accomplished when I was removed from leadership. The membership question SHOULD HAVE BEEN a totally different question (as should the question of participation in the community as a non-member should be). Once I resigned, I should have been treated as any other member.
Now if we kicked out every member who committed a sexual sin? Or a major sin? Or violated the Community Life Statement or Membership Covenant? Well, let me just say we would have a much smaller membership…
So my conclusion on this issue? I think it could go either way, but I think it needs to be consistent. Once I was out of leadership, I should have been treated as any other member would be treated.
(3) Should I be allowed to participate in the life of the community? (that is, attend worship, be in a small group, etc) I was explicitly kicked out of the church family/community and told that I could not attend services or be part of the church at all.
In my humble opinion, I think this is where the church made a serious error and that this decision is simply unbiblical. There is really no other way I can say that.
First, one of the basic values and tenants of the church is that “everyone is welcomed.” Apparent except sinful and disgraced leaders…
Secondly, and more importantly, I think there is no biblical model for banning me from community.
Some will point to 1 Cor 5, but this is bad exegesis and for a variety of reasons does not fit the given situation. In 1 Cor 5, the two key pieces of information are (1) that the person is unrepentant and denies what they are doing is sin; and (2) the community at-large denies that it is sin. In this case, Paul rightfully counsels that the only possible answer to protect the integrity of the community is to take the extreme action of expelling the person from community.
My situation is very different. I am repentant and acknowledge my sin; and the community at-large (the congregation) acknowledges my sin. With these two things in place, there is actually a environment conducive to Biblical restoration. If I was unrepentant and denied what I did was sinful, then restoration is not possible. And if the congregation doesn’t recognize what I did as sinful, there is no basis for restoration. But again, this is not the case here. On the contrary, I have fully acknowledged my sin, am in regular counseling with a world-class Christian counselor specializing in these issues, have put together a support team of mentors and counselors, and am part of a recovery/accountability Men’s Group.
It is important to understand that the norming passages on church discipline (which I am a believer in!) are Matthew 18:15-19 (which
was not done) and Galatians 6:1-10. The goal of church discipline is always restoration and edification — not punitive. The focus of church discipline is primarily on the sinner, not the community (this is different than discipline of leaders which is more about the community than the leader… and why I think removal from leadership was warranted.)
Some of the reasons I was told that I was being kicked out of community was because people didn’t trust me and some people were so angry that they didn’t like me, didn’t want to see me, and didn’t want to worship next to me.
While I understand those emotions, none of them are Biblical reasons to kick someone out of the church family and out of community. Period. Those are relational issues that families and communities navigate through.
So logistically what should have happened?
(1) I stand by my resignation from leadership.
(2) Probably, my membership should have been temporarily suspended. Because members have leadership and authority to make decisions, removing me from membership would be a wise decision.
(3) Recognizing the relational issues and complexities, I should have been asked to voluntarily remove myself from community for 3-6 months (I think that even up to a year could be fine, as long as some plan/structure is in place to evaluate the situation and to intentionally work towards reconciliation). This time would allow people to process, pray, heal, etc. During this time, I should have been required to be (a) reporting to the Board about what process I was involved with (that is, counseling… recovery and accountability group… mentoring… etc); and (b) been required to meet regularly with a group of men from the church who would serve to hold me accountable, ask me tough questions, and coach me through the healing and restoration process.
(4) After that time being voluntarily absent from the community, assuming progress was being made (determined by the Board and the Restoration Team) I should have been invited back into fellowship (i.e. attend worship, possibly a small group, etc). I should have no leadership or ministry role.
(5) In terms of future membership, ministry, serving roles or leadership — that would be determined by the Board and restoration team and something that could be looked at over the course of months and years.
So that is what I think should have happened… that is pretty much what I proposed to the Board this past summer… and, to be honest, I still hope and pray that some permutation of this can still happen. I think this is a Biblical and wise course of action that is filled with both truth and grace and would serve longterm to bring both healing to me and the congregation as well as reconciliation and restoration. I also think it would have been a powerful testimony to the power of Christ to redeem in community to our broader community and to others in the church struggling with hidden sin.
So that answers the question of what I think should have happened. I am sure many will disagree, which is fine… but this is my best take on it.