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: