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Why Leaders Fail: A Culture of Silence & Shame

I recently shared my opinions on what we as Believers should expect from church leadership's lives. In that post, I shared that the overt sins of the flesh should never be found in a leader. In this regard, leaders should be blameless, not perfect. 1 Timothy 3 says, "1 This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be a church leader, he desires an honorable position.” So a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money.He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him." Church leaders, like Paul, should be able to say, "Follow my example as I follow Christ (Phil. 3:17; 1 Cor. 11:1)." In other words, we should be able to put our trust/faith in the leaders we are under. In all of their imperfections (and they will have plenty), we should still be able to trust that their life is lived above reproach. We should expect it. We should cry out for it. We should know that God calls us to come under the covering of people He has entrusted to be trustworthy with His word, our hearts, and the state of His Kingdom. In my last post, I asked, "Can the church have heroes?" and I emphatically replied, "Yes."

But another question begs to be asked and answered besides, "should we have heroes?" We should also ask, "what makes a hero susceptible to failure?" This may be the most important question of the two. There are undoubtedly layers to this question that I will never uncover, but in my long journey of walking under church leaders and being a church leader myself, I have certainly noticed some things that need attention. Today, I want to talk about silence and shame.

Evangelical church culture is notorious for creating an atmosphere of silence over our sin. The Catholic church has understood the beauty of James 5:16: confess yours sins one to another that you may be healed. They have created space for it, taking this passage seriously, as best they know how. But in an over-reaction to Catholicism, the Protestant church leaves no real space for honest confession of sin. Instead, we have created a culture of shame and punishment. When leaders do struggle with "smaller" sins, most of them have no one with whom they may share openly, due to the fear of being black listed as "dirty" or "unfit for ministry." Can you imagine if that leader who failed in adultery had been able to share with someone when their marriage troubles and lust first began? It could change the course of church history. Most church leaders desire to live a holy, godly life and mourn over the sins with which they battle, but our shame culture keeps them isolated and silent. Too often, those who have been brave enough to admit their struggles to others, have felt the blow of condemnation from those who should help restore them. I know this story all too well.

When I was 19, I entered Ministry School/Bible College as a very broken, damaged young lady who desperately desired to be free and love Jesus with my life. I had recently experienced a mere drop of His kindness and I craved more. Just months before arriving to that ministry school, I was in a place of deep self-hatred with depression, sexual temptations, and self-harm knocking at my door. But I had tasted and seen that the Lord was good, so I packed my bags, threw away my Arkansas State scholarship, and entered Bible College bright-eyed but broken. Most of us in that college were the same: young men and women who had encountered the Lord in a tangible way, but who needed months and months of inner healing, counseling, and deliverance to really be free. When I met my future husband there at school, I fell head over heels in love. It was hard to keep our hands off each other. We both knew we never should have had that first kiss because it was like we unlocked Pandora's box. We desperately desired to stay pure, so we told a couple close friends, who struggled themselves, in hopes to be accountable. Then we told our parents, who lived hundreds of miles away. That just wouldn't cut it: we knew we needed more help than what we currently had. So my fiancé went forward to the leadership of the college to tell them that we struggled; the leadership that had publicly told us students to come to them with whatever we wrestled with. But soon, we were both called into a meeting and were told that, like Achan in Joshua 7, we were defiling the entire school and were, therefore, promptly excommunicated, but only after being told we had to pay them what we owed them for that semester (I didn't have $1,500 on me, so they turned me over to collections, which I only discovered when we went to buy our first house years later.) We weren't allowed to spend the night on campus one more night. We had to pack our bags then and there and take our sin with us. So, in the sight of our peers, we took the load of shame the leaders offered us, and proceeded to carry it with us for many years to come. And that is only part of the story.

I know the shame culture of the Charismatic church firsthand. I don't share my opinion apart from experience. I know how we punish people for confessing their sins in an attempt to make us feel better about our own holiness. It's a sick and twisted abuse of power. We must create a culture where 19 year olds who struggle with purity (gasp!) or 99 year olds who struggle with the same can honestly confess it to their leaders without fear of shame or punishment. The lesson that I learned from my experience in Bible College is the lesson that leads to greater failure: keep your mouth shut; don't share your struggles or else you will be punished.

The bible is quite clear on how we are to respond to another Believer's sin. First, Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:1-5 to not judge others sins harshly or quickly because all of us have sinned. Paul echoes this in Romans 2:1-3, instructing us not to condemn others in their sin because we, too, have been guilty of similar struggles. Then, scripture tells us in Galatians 6:1 what to do next:

"Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some (any NKJV) sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path (restore them NKJV). And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself." (NLT)

It breaks my heart that many in the church think that "restoring a brother who has sinned" means punishing them. A number of years ago, I reached out to one of the well-known leaders who participated in my excommunication to see if their position had changed over the years. Maybe this leader had softened with time, I thought; maybe kindness had done a work in his heart. So I reached out via email. With tears in my eyes, I read this leaders reply: to them, a bible school teenager in training is to be held to the same standard as a seasoned pastor in the pulpit. Excommunication was their answer with hopes that it would restore them.

How did the church come to believe this was restoration? How did we come to believe that this was biblical at all? Galatians tells us to restore a brother caught in sin! How much more so those who come confessing their sin? It does not say to punish them, but help them. When did we buy into the lie that punishment was the same as restoration? Now, don't get me wrong: Punishment has its place in the body of Christ; however punishment is suppose to be for those who openly boast about their sin as if they are free in Christ to do so; those who refuse to repent, yield, or submit, but instead revel in their rebellion (see 1 Cor. 5:1-13). It has its place in the Body of Christ but if we are doing church discipleship and discipline in a healthy way, I believe it should be rare and extreme. Also, before you think that I'm too soft, I firmly believe that when leaders have major moral failures/things that disqualify them, they should step away from leadership, at least for a reasonable amount of time. I absolutely think scripture supports this idea, and I will talk more about that in my next post. However, my point today is that if we could create a Kingdom culture that teaches new believers from the get-go, to be honest and open about their struggles, without fear of repercussion, we would have healthier leaders tomorrow. And if leaders will be open and honest about the "little foxes" that try to spoil their vine, they are far less likely to be the scandal sprawled on the next headline.

I don't throw stones at other leaders who fail; I've been there myself. But the desire for purity that I had as a young Bible College student has only deepened in my heart the longer I walk with Jesus. I believe, by the power of the Spirit, I can be a leader who lives above reproach, but how can I ever raise up other leaders with that same desire if I do not first set the example by being honest about my weaknesses, and secondly create a church culture that allows my members to grapple and mourn over their sin without condemning them? Could it be that by not creating a space to mourn over our sin without fear of punishment, we actually stunt repentance from having its full work in us? 2 Corinthians 7 tells us that open, godly sorrow over sin is necessary for mature fruits of repentance to be produced. It says:

Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance...10 For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. 11 For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.

We will never have believers who can be "diligent in clearing themselves" as long as we punish them when they do so. I desire to be a leader who lives above reproach, being honest about my weaknesses, and diligent to get help in those areas of my heart. But I also desire to be a leader who never condemns anyone who comes to me with their sin, as if I am high above them. I want to restore them to righteousness in humility. I want to follow the example of my Precious Savior who willingly knelt down in the dirt and said to the woman caught in the very act of adultery: "Neither do I condemn you: go and sin no more." THAT is the culture the church should aspire to build: lowly leaders who refuse to condemn but humbly rebuild the sinner, not matter if that sinner is young or old, man or woman, leader of follower, pulpit or pew. If we will build that kind of culture, we will have far less leaders caught in the festering sins that silence and shame escalates. We will have leaders that look a lot more like Jesus.


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