Who Decides When and if Someone Re-Enters the Ministry?
Pastors / Leadership
By Mike Leake, Crosswalk.com
I wish this was one of those questions like “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” You know, those questions that are entirely philosophical and have little to no connection with the real world.
This is, sadly, not a question for textbooks. It’s a question that churches and denominations are facing, it seems, almost daily these days.
This is not an easy question, either. There is a difference between restoration to ministry and restoration to fellowship; that line is often blurred.
There are also differences within denominational structures in how a pastor is called — this makes it difficult to speak universally. And there are also differences of opinion on which sins might be permanently disqualifying.
Perhaps it is best to answer another fundamental question first. Who decides if you are a pastor?
Who Decides if You’re a Pastor?
Let’s begin with a kind of silly example. We’ve all awkwardly watched those talent shows where someone with a singing voice that makes you wish you could be placed in a room with a screech owl, nails on a chalkboard, and a vomiting cat instead of having to endure their “song.”
And yet they assure the judges that they were made to be singers, they’ve given their lives to this pursuit, and they know this is their calling.
We can easily understand this in the world of music and any other profession. You aren’t something just because you think you are.
You aren’t automatically qualified for something simply because you believe that you’ve heard from the Almighty on the matter. Your calling is never simply just between you and God.
Do you meet the qualifications as outlined in Scripture? Do you desire the task? Are you gifted with the work of ministry? You can answer “yes” to all three of these questions, but until a local church officially calls you to be their pastor — you aren’t yet called to be a pastor.
A local church, or the governing body with which the local church has been given this responsibility, must affirm this calling. Churches call pastors.
Can I Become ‘Uncalled’?
At this point, we tend to get overly mystical. We relegate God’s calling to something which happens in secret between the pastor and God. Yes, there is such a thing as an internal call.
There must be a desire for the task at hand. God will shape the pastor and work through these desires. However, as outlined above, there also must be an external call.
What if you do something by which you are no longer qualified? Doesn’t Romans 11:29 say that “the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable”?
If God has called me as a pastor, is even my personal sin enough to overturn the calling of God? And how dare some church body say that I’m no longer called?
The problem with that view is that Romans 11:29 isn’t talking about pastoral ministry. The “gifts and callings” in that section are not referring to spiritual gifts, and the “call” is not a call to pastoral ministry.
But rather, it discusses God’s plan of redemption. This has more to do with the eternal security of the believer than it has to do with whether or not a person can be unqualified for ministry.
Yes, it is possible to become unqualified. You can have a different internal call that moves you out of pastoral ministry (in that God can call you into a different avenue of ministry), you can get to the place where you no longer desire the work, and to continue would be like being a hired hand, a local church or governing body can remove the external call, and you can have moral failure in such a way what you no longer meet the qualifications outlined in the pastoral epistles.
So, yes, you can become “uncalled.” If you’ve fallen, can you be restored?
Can a Fallen Pastor Be Restored?
This is where things become difficult, and there are a variety of opinions. What sin is disqualifying? Is divorce? How can you be restored from that? What about adultery?
Can a pastor who has sexually abused someone ever be brought back to a place of restoration? What if a pastor is overcome with sinful anger and begins to bully the congregation or other leaders? Can such a one be restored?
Personally, I believe the answer is different for each of these questions. There is a difference between a pastor who has used their position in order to sexually abuse a congregant and a pastor who is overcome with something like the sin of drunkenness.
There are different dynamics at play, and restoration to ministry (if even possible) would look different in each circumstance.
I really like what John Piper says on this in regard to adultery:
“A man who commits adultery in the ministry should immediately resign and look for other work. And he should make no claim on the church at all. He should get another kind of job and go about his life, humbly receiving the discipline and the regular ministries of the church, whether in his former church or in another church.
If he returns to ministry, it should be after a long time of humble, contented acceptance of a new way of life outside the official ministry of the church.”
The key statement here is when Piper says, “He should make no claim on the church at all.” If a fallen pastor is clamoring to get back in the pulpit, there is a high likelihood that such a one has not truly dealt with their sin. This is especially true when we are dealing with something like sexual abuse.
Can someone who has sexually abused a congregant ever be restored to ministry? That might not be the right question.
It might be better to ask, “Would someone who formerly sexually abused a congregant and is now fully repentant ever desire to put themselves or others under their care back into that circumstance?”
I would be remiss to not also include these words from Piper,
“What I’ve seen is this: men who have lived in deception and immorality and hypocrisy for a significant time, and then are caught, have hardened their hearts and dulled their capacities to repent for so long, that their ability to see things for what they really are is profoundly impaired. They’re calling themselves repentant, but they can’t see. They don’t have the sensibilities; they’ve been deadened for so long. And so, they are in no position — now mark this; this is really important — they are in no position, soon after their discovery, to make any good judgments about their fitness for ministry and what is good for the flock and the glory of Christ.”
This leads to our final point and the answer to the original question. Who, then, gets to decide if someone re-enters ministry?
Who Decides When and if Someone Re-Enters Ministry?
Imagine this scenario. It shouldn’t be difficult; you can probably find one with a simple Google search. A celebrity pastor has fallen. He committed adultery. Hid it for over a decade. It comes out. He expresses remorse, resigns from his position, and accepts the discipline of his local church.
But after a few months, he decides that this restoration business is taking entirely too long. He moves his membership to another church. He creates a restoration council of a few friends.
And after a little under a year, these men declare that he is restored to ministry. He hops back on the preaching circuit and, in no time, will be back within a pulpit. Though not technically pastoring a church, he’s fully back in ministry.
Does this meet our criteria earlier? He has an internal call. He has an external call. He still has the gifts of preaching and teaching.
One might quibble with whether or not he meets the qualifications of the pastoral epistles — especially that pesky “above reproach.” But these men in that restoration council assure us that he has repented, he is restored, and he’s now qualified again. All good?
This is where what Jared Wilson has written must be considered:
“Even if a pastor in view of restoration is planning to assume the pulpit of another church or plant a new church, his restoration to ministry should still be affirmed by his previous community. There are some extreme cases where this may not be possible, but it should be normative for disqualified leaders humbly submitting to discipline.”
Except under extreme circumstances, that is who should be deciding when you are qualified to re-enter ministry. It’s the place where the offense has taken place.
It’s the place wherein the restoration ought to take place. They are the ones who get to decide. The people who were originally harmed ought to be the ones who hold those keys.
For further reading:
Who Holds Pastors Accountable?
What Are the Signs of a Healthy Church?
What Should Christians Do When Pastors Preach on Unbiblical Ideologies?
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