Restoration of fallen pastors: a response to 'David Solomon'

Ministry magazine has published a pseudonymously written three-part series arguing for the restoration of morally fallen pastors, titled “Does God Believe in Restoration?” In the August issue “David Solomon” tells his own story, describing a troubled childhood, and struggles with sexual impurity beginning in adolescence and continuing through college and into married life and ministry. After having been in gospel ministry for a number a years, he was still struggling with a cycle of compulsive sexual behavior:

At one point I shared my journey into impurity with a colleague in ministry, and this helped me stay away for about eight years from the joints I infrequently visited. Nevertheless, sexual addiction had its steely tentacles fastened around my mind. When I was repentant and free, I would feel I had victory, only to find myself obsessed again. The cycle was uncanny.

Solomon does not state the exact nature of his sexual transgressions, but the problem became worse once he was transferred to a large city. He decided to reach out to others in the church for help:

Reluctantly, I made the plunge, not expecting that the person in whom I confided would treat me as a leper. I needed to resign from the ministry, he said, and I might be able to return five years later. My other choice was for more people to know and leave my case in their hands. I decided to share my story with other leaders. Weeks later my ministry was over; the church leaders simply followed policies. Not only that, the head pastor of the church I attended requested that my membership be withdrawn. I was devastated.

Solomon continued to struggle with sexual addiction for two years after leaving the ministry, finally praying “God, if You are there and You can help me, I can’t change myself. I’m too far gone. There’s no hope without You.” Within weeks of praying that prayer, he reports, his addiction was gone and never again returned. After two more years, he reported his recovery to his former church administrator (conference president?) who stated that he would not block Solomon should he decide to return to ministry. After two years of university teaching, Solomon asked if there were any ministry openings, and was restored to “service” (it seems implied that the service was regular gospel ministry).

In part 2 of the series, Solomon analyzes some of the issues around fallen pastors. He reports research indicating that 12 percent of ministers admit to having had extra-marital sexual affairs, and 37 percent admit to having had an “inappropriate relationship.” He argues that “sexual health is declining,” and notes that 41 percent of divorced pastors reported difficulties in the bedroom as a factor in the dissolution of their marriages. He also notes that many ministers feel that their ministry, and the demands it places upon their time, has been detrimental to their family life. Perhaps the most interesting statistic he cited is that “91% of the clergy come from chronically dysfunctional family backgrounds.”

Solomon next notes that “Adventist church policies are strict and yet inconsistently implemented.” I can attest to the truth of this statement. My interest in this topic developed 20 years ago, when the pastor of a church I attended—we will call him Pastor X—divorced his wife of 25 years and the mother of his young daughter without biblical grounds and married another woman in the congregation on the 60th day after his divorce was final (the earliest he could legally re-marry). He announced his remarriage in church the next Sabbath, at which point his former wife burst into tears and left the sanctuary.

As I later learned, Pastor X went to his conference president and pleaded that there were extenuating circumstances; the conference president, realizing that Pastor X was determined to divorce and remarry anyway, and not wanting to lose a good pastor, simply decided to let him have his way. Mrs. X's cooperation was purchased by paying her portion of Pastor X's sustentation (monthly retirement benefit) immediately and in perpetuity, and by assuring her that the couple's 11 year-old daughter would always receive the 50% discount at SDA schools that church workers enjoy. Pastor X was allowed to continue to serve and, within a few years, became the senior pastor of a large church on the east coast. Because anyone who inquired was told that the conference had approved Pastor X's remarriage, and would naturally assume that there were biblical grounds for the divorce and remarriage, a false rumor began to circulate that Mrs. X had been unfaithful.

Spurred to investigate, I learned that the conference had set up a committee to review cases of divorce and remarriage among the clergy. But the conference president viewed this committee as something to which he might refer cases for review—or not. Pastor X's case was not referred to the committee. Instead, the conference president, acting alone, gave Pastor X a free pass to divorce and remarry without biblical grounds. Moreover, even had the matter been referred to the committee, the conference president did not consider the committee's conclusions binding; he believed he had sole authority to allow a pastor to divorce and remarry. It is difficult to imagine a situation more likely to lead to inconsistent results, at best, and to abuse and scapegoating of innocent spouses, at worst.

I contacted the conference president of the east coast conference to which Pastor X had been transferred; he responded by letter that he had “explained the charges” to the search committee, which had voted to hire Pastor X anyway. He took the position that the matter was closed, and that it would be inappropriate for him to reopen it, arguing that there was “no way of obtaining justice three thousand miles from where the incident was examined and church decisions made.” In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as in the Roman Catholic Church, transferring a morally suspect clergyman to a new district is often a way to allow him to start over with a clean slate—whether a clean slate is appropriate or not.

Having been closely involved with the case2 of Pastor X, I read the series by “David Solomon” with great interest. Solomon notes that the inconsistency with which our policies on ministerial divorce and remarriage are implemented,

produces distrust in the church membership, which suspects the church will cover problems for prominent ministers. James A. Cress, the former General Conference Ministerial Association secretary, noted in a 1994 Ministry article that some administrators will transfer some 'fallen' pastors from one district to another without missing a beat in service.

The case of Pastor X is a good example of this phenomenon: A conference president covered up the problems of a prominent, talented pastor, and later, that pastor was transferred to a faraway post without missing any service.

Solomon argues for the restoration of morally fallen pastors, a marked change from current denominational working policy, which states that a fallen minister cannot be restored to the ministry:

A minister who experiences a moral fall... shall be ineligible for future employment as a Seventh-day Adventist minister . . . for the sake of the good name of the Church and the maintaining of moral standards,” the fallen pastor “must plan to devote his life to employment other than that of the ordained ministry, the teaching ministry, or other denominational leadership.

For some years now, there has been a push to soften this official standard and allow fallen pastors to be rehired. Several conferences, and at least one union, Solomon reports, have developed restoration policies, but the GC working policy (quoted above) has not yet been changed. Solomon believes that the denomination needs an adequate “theology of restoration,” and the purpose of his articles is to provide such a theology.

Solomon's articles must be viewed in light of, and as a response to, an eight part series by Miroslav Kis (Kis is professor of ethics and Chair of the Department of Theology and Christian Philosophy at Andrews University) that appeared in Ministry beginning in January 2004 and every other month thereafter through March of 2005. Kis's articles are freely available online, in Ministry's archive, and I encourage everyone to read them. Kis believes fallen pastors should eventually be restored to membership in the church, but not to tithe-supported gospel ministry. In effect, Kis's series presented a theology in support of current GC working policy.

Solomon begins by quoting Galatians 6:1, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” He interprets this to mean that even fallen ministers should be restored to the ministry. I would argue that the restoration involved means restoration to the community of believers, the church, not restoration to the privilege of tithe-supported gospel ministry.

Solomon next argues that 1 Corinthians 6:18 has been wrongly interpreted to mean that sexual sin is worse than other sins and hence warrants a more serious disciplinary response: “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.” Solomon argues that sexual sin is not the only sin against one's own body—alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide are all sins against the sinner's own body—hence Paul cannot mean what he literally says. Nevertheless, there seems to be something more personally involving about sexual sin. Perhaps it is that sexual sin involves the sinner's whole being, which is clearly the case when a pastor is involved in adultery: his integrity is compromised, because he must live a life of duplicity and deceit in order to cover up his misdeeds.

Moreover, it is not necessary to rank adultery as worse than other sins in order to believe that fallen pastors should not be re-hired to pastoral work. The policy bars an adulterer [7th commandment] from restoration to gospel ministry, but neither would we restore a convicted murderer [6th commandment], nor someone convicted of theft, fraud, robbery, or burglary [8th commandment], or perjury [9th commandment], to the tithe-supported gospel ministry. (Note that we are not here considering a pre-conversion sin—“and such were some of you,” says Paul [1 Cor. 6:9-11]—but a deliberate sin committed after conversion, vocation to gospel ministry, and hiring to pastoral work.)

Finally, there is something unseemly about beginning a “theology of restoration” with a plea that sexual sin isn't really so bad after all. Restoration comes after repentance, and no part of genuine repentance involves minimizing sin. To the contrary, minimizing is a sure sign of a lack of contrition.

Solomon provides an Ellen White quote that seems to come down on the side of restoration of the fallen. But he could have quoted far more piercing and relevant passages from the pen of inspiration, such as this:

“The youth, for misdemeanors of a comparatively light character, are treated with much severity. But when men and women of large experience, who have been considered patterns of piety, are revealed in their true character—unsanctified, unholy, impure in thought, debased in conduct—then it is time for such to be dealt with in a decided manner. The greater forbearance that is exercised toward them has only had, as far as my knowledge extends, the influence to cause them to regard their fornication and adultery as a very light matter; and all their pretense has proved to be like morning dew when the sun shines upon it. 

* * *

“I have no real ground of hope for those who have stood as shepherds to the flock, and have for years been borne with by the merciful God, following them with reproof, with warnings, with entreaties, but who have hid their evil ways, and continued in them, thus defying the laws of the God of heaven by practicing fornication. We may leave them to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, after all has been done to reform them, but in no case entrust to them the guardianship of souls. False shepherds!” Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery and Divorce, pp. 236-237 (emphasis added)

In part 3 of the series, Solomon sets out his recommendation for a program of restoration. He allows that there are situations where restoration is essentially impossible, one of which is where there has been inappropriate sexual conduct with a minor. I note that the legal liability involved in the continued employment of such a person is prohibitive, ruling out restoration to church employment even where repentance is genuine and the behavior was a one-time occurrence or has ceased.

Solomon also mentions a situation where there has been a breach of trust, such that it would be difficult for a pastor's parishioners to trust him again. It is a gross breach of trust for a pastor to become sexually involved with one of his own parishioners, a person entrusted to his pastoral care. It is the type of breach of pastoral ethics that gives rise to civil liability. Solomon writes, “Having an affair with a church member is sexual abuse, plain and simple, and courts will likely award large sums to the victim.” This is true. A pastor who has been found to have had sex with a parishioner should be absolutely barred from any subsequent denominational employment.

Solomon makes several suggestions that might help a pastor deal with compulsive behavior before it destroys his ministry and possibly his marriage: 1) provide a safe person for a struggling pastor to confidentially confide in without fear of repercussions, 2) provide life coaching, 3) make professional counseling available, 4) explore the development of an in-house pastoral sexual addiction recovery program, 5) make clear that pastors should have sexually healthy married lives (1 Cor. 7:1-5; Heb. 13:4), and 6) make clear that pastors must make time for their own wives and children.

Since Solomon was a pastor who struggled with compulsive sexual behavior, it is natural that he views the problem from the pastor's perspective. But the issue of morally fallen pastors and restoration to ministry cannot be viewed only from the pastor's perspective. It is first and foremost an issue of the integrity of the church and its witness. The church must be protected, and its protection must be the paramount concern, not the feelings or desires of the fallen pastor.

In part 3 of his series, Solomon seems to be arguing that any pastor who has not broken the law or had improper contact with a minor or with one of his own parishioners should be eligible to be restored to the ministry. But the current GC policy is that fallen pastors should not be restored, and I believe that policy should be adhered to and followed. It may be possible to restore a pastor who has had issues with sexual compulsion, such as viewing Internet pornography, but a bright line should be drawn that may not be crossed. Where there has been a penetrative sexual act, restoration to ministry should be off the table. (This is not to say that sexual misconduct short of penetration should get a free pass. There should be discipline for any sexual misconduct, but restoration may be appropriate when misconduct has not gone that far.)

I would add that if a minister has been divorced and remarried without biblical grounds, there must be no restoration. The SDA Church cannot have stable marriages and families if our churches are pastored by those who have left their own marriages without grounds. When troubled couples come to their pastor for counseling, they must not see before them the divorce solution, a man who has left the wife of his youth and created a broken and distant family. There is no spiritual safety under such a pastor, regardless how intelligent and talented he is, regardless if he fills the church, conducts two services per Sabbath, and fills the coffers.

Moreover, I have observed that pastors who have been allowed to continue in ministry after an unlawful divorce and remarriage frequently turn into liberal agitators, seeking to lower sexual standards in the church; they are at the forefront in arguing to normalize homosexual conduct and accept practicing homosexual members, deacons, elders, and ultimately pastors.

If the official policy of non-restoration cannot be adhered to, there should at least be a policy of openness. For both legal and moral reasons, there must not be even a hint of cover-up. Restored pastors should be listed on an Internet-accessible registry that includes 1) the name, 2) the nature of the sexual misconduct, 3) the procedure by which the facts were found and the case was adjudicated, and 4) the process of restoration, including the number of years the pastor was out of ministry. David's sin was exposed before all Israel, and there should be no cover-up of sexual misconduct in the church.

Additionally, there must be limits on how high a restored pastor can rise in the ministry. Specifically, a restored pastor should not be elevated to the office of conference president, or any office where he has discretion to hire pastors. Pastor X's conference president was a man who had been president of a different conference and had been restored to ministry after a moral fall in that conference. He seemed to have had a burden to hire fallen pastors whenever he could find them.

Another reason for open restoration is love children. There are known cases in our church where a pastor has fathered a child out-of-wedlock with his girlfriend or mistress; one such case was documented in a recent book.5 If the pastor's sin is covered up and kept secret, he will not be a proper parent to the child he has fathered; he will not take the child into his family and share his life with the child, which compounds his original sin. An open restoration policy would encourage the pastor to be a real father to his child; since everyone would know the truth, there would be no reason for a cover-up and hence no reason to neglect the child.

But before the church can consider the issue of restoration, it must first address the issue of uniform, transparent procedures. Pastoral moral falls must not be handled on a case by case basis, and left to the discretion of conference presidents. There should be a standing committee or panel in each conference that reviews each case, and delivers findings of fact and conclusions of church law. No cases should be handled outside of these committees, or by conference presidents acting alone. These committees should include women and be sensitive to the issue of scapegoating innocent spouses in order to preserve the career of a rising church “star.” The committees should manifest zeal to uphold the integrity of marriage within the church by closely scrutinizing clergy divorce and remarriage.

For too long, the church has neglected this issue. The solution lies with the membership, with you, dear reader. Demand perfect clarity from your conference administrators on policies and procedures. Demand that they protect you from the adulterous shepherd. If you are not certain you can trust your conference leadership to defend God's Seventh Commandment, carefully scrutinize any pastor who has been transferred in from another district or conference. If you are not sure of your pastor’s purity, err on the side of being overly zealous to protect the spiritual welfare of your family and congregation. You deserve a shepherd whose purity is beyond question. When this is not the case, move yourself, your family, and your membership away from the curse of such leadership. If God’s people express themselves by such actions, it will have a purifying effect on the entire church.

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