What Churches Should Do If Your Pastor Has Been Using AshleyMadison.com

Because of the revelations recently about the data leak from the Ashley Madison website that encourages people to engage in adultery, my friend Ed Stetzer posted this statement on his blog: “Based on my conversations with leaders from several denominations in the U.S. and Canada, I estimate that at least 400 church leaders (pastors, elders, staff, deacons, etc.) will be resigning Sunday.” He followed with some excellent advice to the ministry leaders who may be caught up in the scandal. Because of my focus on media and culture, I wanted to follow up with some practical advice elders, board members, and other church staff need to know if a member of your pastoral team has been involved in Ashley Madison, or any other moral failing:

1) First, make sure you have all the facts.  Did adultery actually happen? Was it a momentary lapse? Could he have been set up? Sin is sin, but churches sometimes over-react and damage reputations and lives before they know all the facts. In a digital world, your statements (no matter how wrong) never go away. So before you make any announcement, take the time to find out what really happened – and get it first hand, not through the “friend of a friend.”

2) Once (and if) it’s been verified, be honest with the congregation.  While you don’t have to reveal lurid details, just tell the truth. When a crisis happens, curiosity follows. Even the most loyal to the cause ask questions. When those questions surface, some in leadership ignore it, while others criticize those asking the questions. But that only causes the problem to fester and grow out of control. After the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter explained to the disciples and friends what happened to Judas. In Acts chapter 1, Peter showed them carefully it was all a fulfillment of scripture. But he didn’t stop there. He reminded them that Judas was the man who guided those who arrested Jesus. Then he told them he had “Acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness” and then explained (in detail) how he committed suicide. When you’re not transparent, the crisis never goes away.

3) If the local media wants an interview, consider it carefully.  You’re not under any obligation to respond, but on the other hand, if you don’t tell the story, you’ll be at the mercy of an outside reporter who will. And chances are, he or she won’t be sympathetic.  For tips on how to do the interview well read this.

4) Call your attorney and get his or her advice.  Especially if the moral issue involves minors, or downloading child pornography, not reporting it immediately can be a crime in itself. A good attorney can help guide you through that process and will know which authorities to notify.

5) Any time you make a public statement to the congregation or media, express your sincere concern and sympathy to all parties.  For instance, in the case of a pastor having an affair, never criticize or demean the woman involved. No one knows everything about the situation, so never come across as harsh or unfeeling towards anyone. You need to express genuine sympathy, assure the congregation that you’re arranging counseling, and are working to resolve the issue. In the midst of the initial chaos, remember that counseling and dealing with the spiritual and psychological issues are paramount.

6)  If the leader has been dismissed, then immediately update your website, social media, brochures, etc.  If he’s not immediately taken off the church’s media platforms it’s confusing for people (Is he here?  Is he gone?).  It undermines trust, which is incredibly important to build right now.

7) Be thoughtful before you do anything. Whatever the size of the church, the fallout from situations like this being handled badly don’t just damage the leader’s life, they can literally close down a church. Don’t allow the enemy to get a foothold into the church just because a leader stumbled. Deal with the situation, assure the congregation that church leadership is making changes Biblically, and you’re moving forward.

As Ed said, “This is a significant moment of embarrassment for the church—and it should be.”  Hopefully, church leaders will finally realize that we’re all human, and no leader is above stumbling. If you haven’t put safeguards into your system to build healthy boundaries around your team you should. Offices with glass doors, Internet porn filters, policies about men and women traveling together, and more are the very start.

The digital world has brought great promise and great peril. Your church could be at stake, so get serious about protecting what you hold precious.

For more information, here’s some links to other information I’ve written about how to handle a crisis like this:

What to do the first 24 hours after a leader’s moral failure.

Why your organizations needs a spokesperson.

The key to stopping unwanted speculation and rumor.

Adultery and the power of a glass door.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • In the context of “sin is sin” I think you mean that whether he was set up or it was a one time occurrence, it is still sin, right? I certainly hope Ed is wrong. I can’t really imagine 400 Pastors.

    • You’re right Fred. However, I’m referring to a handful of cases where it’s been reported that as a joke or to play a trick on someone, a “friend” (or enemy) signed them up for an Ashley Madison account. So there are a few of those cases, but the account activity will tell if it’s legit or not.

      • In Principio

        This whole ordeal is small sighted. What’s all the clamoring about people have been advocating for things that lead exactly to this. As far as pastors goes, is this really worth more attention than the abuse of children in God’s house, or the wave of acceptance by the church of things God detest?

        • Anytime a leader falls or is discredited, it does more damage than you can imagine – not just within the Church, but to our perception to those outside. It’s not a matter of getting “more attention” (not sure how your measuring that), but it certainly does merit significant attention.

          • In Principio

            I mean the filthy adultresses are getting to high minded about pointing at the dirt of others while they are yet be scrubbed of their filth. Test that spirit is all

          • In Principio

            Phil I just got an article notification from you that’s trying to say none of the females in ashley Madison used their account. ….? Surely no one is this foolish, right?

          • In Principio

            Stunning, it’s like we’ll do whatever is necessary to protect these so called women in our country. There must be some unspoken rule that says females like this are to be protected at all times. Everyone is aware to have an affair you need two people right? Everywhere you look there are these types exactly who buys this and why? Everyone on the streets understands that there are nearly no women in our nation and nearly all characters. Is there any wonder then there are few men left jus grown boys who do anything like court jesters to appease jezebelle and the girls gone wild crew? So…who were all the guys cheating with? C’mon guys…

      • In Principio

        This is a nice site, good work phil

  • This shows the weakness of the modern church system. In many churches pastors are unaccountable to anyone. Pastors have too much power and it feeds their ego. Perhaps we should consider the way Paul instructs us to hold church in 1 Corinthians 14:26. That way makes it easy for everyone to walk in the light, including pastors.

    • In Principio

      Pastors are accountable. If we know God Almighty is one of righteousness, do we really think they are unaccountable? Their role is primarily to spread the word, we aren’t judges.

      • The New Testament tells us to submit to one another. If we are only accountable to God, it is easy for us to quench the Spirit and do our own thing (as the Ashley Madison hacking illustrates). However, being open and accountable to other believers in equal relationships helps us be faithful to God’s righteousness and not just follow our own desires. All believers are called to “speak the truth in love” whether other people call it judging or not.

        • In Principio

          I think you are well intentioned but off. God consistently demands privacy in his community with us. Living out and for people is exactly the thing the hypocrite, the wise in their own way, the vipers have always relied upon. Again, how is it that the filthy adulteress sit yet in the bath and point out the dirt of any? Test that spirit friend….

          • I’m with Steve on this. Christianity is a congregational faith. It’s driven by the Church. I’m afraid you seem to have it backwards..

          • In Principio

            Perhaps. But what is very clear is how you are when no one but He observes matters a great deal more than any display. With people at large testimony in deed and word seems to touch His heart much more so than us who are a bride in the wash pointing fingers. I know my place, but I have come to my fear of Him mostly alone. Not one is clean enough to cast stones. There is admonishing and pleading which the heart of every sinner like me can hear. But this feels different, this does not feel like Him, the casting stones that is. Instruction on the importance of love and why the first “not good” thing mentioned was Adams aloneness. Man of God, don’t miss read me, I’m only here because I THOUGHT – I knew the fear of God. How wrong I was. Are you to be considered an elder? Lord knows I ask honestly?

        • In Principio

          I think you are well intentioned but off. God consistently demands privacy in His commune with us. Living out and for people is exactly the thing the hypocrite, the wise in their own way, the vipers have always relied upon. Again, how is it that the adulteress we are, who are yet in the wash being refined as silver, dare respond like this? Is not the exposure a judgment? We are not judges.

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  • What’s really going to stir things up is when the list is revealed of all the pastors who watch Game of Thrones…

    • Fascinating. Or is it interesting? Someone get Spock over here….

    • Now THAT would be huge…. :-)

  • Wendy Wong

    Sad, didn’t even know that site existed.