Imagine that your car is in desperate need of repair. Although you don't know how to fix or diagnose the problem, you know something is wrong. So you take it to a mechanic. After several hours, the mechanic comes out with your bill. You notice that you're only being charged for labor. Assuming that the mechanic is giving you a sweet deal, you thank him for not charging for parts. The mechanic smiles and says, "There wasn't a fee for parts because I didn't fix your car. Honestly, I don't really know much about repairing cars. I'm just charging you for my time."
If this really happened, you would be confused and irate. Who could blame you? Mechanics are supposed to know how to fix cars. You probably wouldn't pay the bill or go back with future problems.
I think we can be like that mechanic at times. As Christians, we're supposed to be experts in dealing with sin. After all, we've been forgiven by Jesus and are expected to extend forgiveness to others. So people expect us to know what we're doing. Although we may be comfortable addressing our own sins, we often struggle in our ability to address other peoples' sins, especially when it involves a leader. Instead of biblically addressing the sin, we can downplay it, sidestep it, gossip about it, or even exaggerate the details.
As someone who oversees small-group leaders, though, you must be able to talk with leaders dealing with sin issues. This can be one of the most difficult conversations you experience in ministry. More than likely, you weren't even trained for it. So what do you say to a leader struggling in sin? Where do you start? This article will equip you with a biblical plan. Use the following 10 steps for guidance.
1. See the person as family.
You must have the ability to mentally remove titles when approaching an issue of sin. It's easy for us to complicate things by treating the sins of leaders by focusing on the higher standard to which we hold leaders. Or we can focus too much on our authority and role. Look through the leader's title, though, and focus on the person, and put yourself on equal ground. According to Scripture, every Christian is a part of God's Family. That makes us brothers and sisters, regardless of our title or leadership role. Treat the person as a spiritual sibling.
2. Meet face to face.
We live in a world with a lot of options for communication. Social media, e-mail, and text messaging make it easy to get information to people quickly. It may be tempting to use these methods of communication for addressing a leader's sin, but it's not wise. Although it's appropriate to use these tools for scheduling a meeting, encouraging a leader, or touching base, discussing sin issues is best done in person. It's far too easy to misunderstand or misread emotions when we read an e-mail or Facebook message. You may misunderstand the leader, and there's a good chance he or she will misunderstand you. This can be especially unhelpful if you communicate online first and then plan to meet face to face. Most likely, there will be additional frustration at the meeting if you go that route.
3. Meet one-on-one.
Matthew 18:15 says, "If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over." The principle in this verse is to meet with the person in confidence. By doing so, the leader will feel less embarrassed, and you set the tone for trust.
That said, be above reproach. If you and the leader are of the same gender, there shouldn't be an issue in meeting alone. But if the leader is of the opposite gender, it might be a good idea to find a witness to be at the meeting. As you select the witness, try to find someone familiar to the leader. That way, the leader can be as comfortable as possible.
As you meet with the leader, assure him or her that you care. Be sure to communicate that the purpose of the meeting is to help.
4. Bring the sin into the light.
We tend to hide sin because we fear punishment and rejection. I find it helpful to read 1 John 1:7 with my leaders and remind them of the promises found within it. When we confess our sins, we receive fellowship (mutual sharing of faith) with one another and the forgiveness of sins. When we hide our sin, we lack the transparency required to experience true fellowship, and we will be isolated in guilt.
The leader must take full responsibility for his or her sins. Encourage the leader to actually use the phrase, "I'm sorry for …" Help the leader bring the sin into the light by confessing it, so that he or she can enjoy fellowship and get rid of the burden of guilt.
5. Help the leader pursue forgiveness.
Once the sin has been brought into the light, spend some time in prayer asking that the leader may experience Christ's forgiveness. Encourage the leader to confess their sin to Jesus and ask to be forgiven. Help the leader see the promise of Christ's forgiveness and receive it through prayer by reading 1 John 1:9.
6. Plan for additional restoration.
When we confess our sins to Christ, we receive forgiveness. When we confess our sins to others, we can experience healing. At this point, the leader has confessed their sin to Christ and you. Did the leader's sin directly involve other people? If so, the leader needs to confess the sin to those people. This will provide restoration of the relationships and additional healing.
7. Establish accountability for the leader.
The purpose for accountability is twofold: the leader will gain support for growth, and you'll know how they're doing. Establish a strategy for accountability, including identifying someone who will hold the leader accountable for overcoming future temptation. This person should be of the same gender as the leader and someone with whom the leader is comfortable. The person must also be someone who does not share the same sinful struggle as the leader.
8. Plan to protect reputations.
As a general rule, people like to talk. Many relational fires in ministry are started by gossip. It's important to protect your integrity and the integrity of your church, small-group ministry, and group leaders. So you must ask yourself the following questions:
Who needs to know?
One idea: The elders and church leadership and anyone directly affected by the leader's sin. Use discernment on communicating the sin with the leader's small group.
What do they need to know?
One idea: The leader's specific sin has been brought to the light, forgiven by Jesus Christ, fellowship has been restored and accountability is in place.
Who will tell them?
One idea: The leader, yourself, and your church leadership
How will we handle gossip?
One idea: Confront the source of the gossip with the truth and rebuke, if appropriate. Encourage people with concerns to discuss them privately with church leadership.
9. Establish a plan for the leader's small group.
It's important to use discernment as you develop a plan for the leader's group. Pray and seek Christ's guidance. Seek wisdom from your church elders and key leaders. In some cases, a sin issue is grounds for removing a leader so he or she can address it. Other times, knowing that the leader has a plan of action is enough, and he or she can continue in leadership. I find this is a matter of trust. Ask these questions to determine a plan of action:
- How much trust has been broken?
- Do you personally trust the leader to continue leading right now?
- Does your church's leadership trust the small-group leader to continue leading right now?
- Has the leader broken the trust of his or her small group?
- Is it safe (for the leader and the group) for the leader to continue leading?
- What is best for the leader and the group right now?
If the leader steps down from leading for a season, make a plan for everyone within the group. The group members need to continue meeting together, so you will need to find someone to facilitate the group. It's also important that the former leader has a place to stay connected in the church. Use discernment to determine if the he or she should stay connected to their small group or find another place to connect.
10. Communicate how the leader can rebuild trust.
It's important that you communicate the difference between forgiveness and broken trust with the leader. Affirm the leader that the sin has been forgiven and that you are now walking in fellowship together, but it may require time to rebuild trust. Whether or not the leader steps down from leading, trust must be rebuilt. Let the leader know that you want to walk through that process with him or her. To do that, provide practical steps for the leader to take that will rebuild your trust. Make your expectations clear. Communicate often with the leader through this process, and encourage the leader when he or she takes each step. Affirm the leader's progress and coach when necessary.
If the meeting goes well and the leader listens to you, you can follow the plan you've set forth to rebuild trust. If the leader takes offense and refuses to listen to you, don't be discouraged. Have compassion for the leader. After all, none of us enjoys having other people address our sin.
You may be tempted to drop the issue and simply hope it works itself out, but that's not wise. Instead, follow the additional direction in Matthew 18:16-17. Pursue another meeting with the leader and bring along one or two witnesses. This not only keeps you above reproach, but also provides an opportunity for the leader to see that others care about him or her as well. If the leader still refuses to listen, let the church leadership know so they can take appropriate action.
Remember that the goal is to restore the leader and to help the leader grow. Regardless of the outcome of your meeting, keep this goal in mind and take steps to work in the leader's best interest.
—Seth Widner is a Neighborhood Pastor at Christ's Church in Florida and is the founder of i58revolution, an organization that supports healthy families; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.