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Eldership Reset: Our Leader Failed. How Do We Recover?

When a leader falls, his local church feels the collateral damage. They’re like a crowd standing too close to the curb on a rainy day. The crisis drives by and splashes everyone. It drenches the elders who stood close to the leader, and it sprays shame across the whole community (1 Cor. 12:26).

Judgments often follow the embarrassment. Some church members instinctively sympathize with the leaders and staff who remain after a crisis. Others, stung by betrayal, express self-righteous suspicion or angry cynicism: “You hypocrites preach community and accountability, but you clearly don’t practice it!” They see the leaders as fully culpable for sin in areas where accurately assigning blame sometimes requires more time and examination.

How does a remaining elder team respond to this rock and hard place? How do they rebuild?

I’ve spent years helping churches work through crises, and I’ve encountered an array of complex situations. Some I handled well. In others, I added to the problems. But in God’s providence, failure can be the best tutor. Here are some lessons I’ve learned about how a church’s leadership team can rebuild trust with one another and with the congregation after the crisis.

Two Ways Leadership Failure Strains a Church’s Culture

Because leadership failure affects everyone in the congregation, it can strain and change the church culture in at least two ways.

1. Strained trust can tempt church leaders to overprofessionalize.

When relationships aren’t reliable, elders tend to default to rules. When the organization’s culture feels toxic, we slide toward the safety of professionalism. In these cases, Robert’s Rules can become more important to us than our relationships with one another. We reach for organizational certainty that eliminates the risk of pain or the hassle of relating to imperfect colleagues.

Policies aren’t inherently wrong. It’s good for leaders to map power and define accountability. Adopting wise policies for child protection, grievances, and financial controls can protect the staff and congregation from ecclesiastical dysfunction. But policies and procedures should reflect gospel realities, not replace them. Leaders must not rely on rules alone but work together to build, or rebuild, a gospel culture marked by honesty, transparency, humble dissent, and trust.

2. Strained trust can tempt church leaders to isolate.

Staff members, and their spouses, may respond to betrayal and deception by withdrawing into family, entertainment, or a ministry silo. For example, an elder afraid of betrayal may stop attending church events unless he’s required to punch the clock. He may be tempted to spend time exclusively with his family and closest friends and to neglect relationships with other elders and staff.

When this happens, the vision of modeling God-ordained, mutually upbuilding friendships for the church is lost. The joy of team ministry is also lost as elders, staff members, and their spouses find ways to merely keep hope alive and the ministry afloat. Survival—not resilience—becomes the goal.

Leaders must not rely on rules alone but work together to build a gospel culture marked by honesty, transparency, humble dissent, and trust.

These two reactions to a leadership failure are common and understandable. But there’s a better way. As I’ve helped churches manage crises, it’s been profoundly encouraging when I’ve seen leaders face serious trials, stress, and temptations with a faith-filled resolve to persevere in relationship with one another. What does building back trust look like?

Three Stages of Relational Recovery

There are at least three stages a resilient team passes through when they’re working to rebuild trust after a crisis.

1. Recognize your contribution to the failure.

Elder team members are certainly casualties of a leadership failure. They’re often victims of a failed leader’s lies or selfish ambition. But to move toward health, elders must be courageous enough to pull off their victim glasses. They must look less at how they were wronged and begin to think about how they enabled the failure.

Naming our own problems requires courage. After a crisis, most leaders are so anxious to hit reset that they declare their problems “resolved” and miss opportunities for organizational growth. It may feel good to blame the failure entirely on the fallen comrade (when victims commiserate, it sure feels rewarding), but it’s dangerous for a church to avoid self-examination.

When elder teams meet hard questions about their weaknesses with long pauses and little interaction, they’re often putting all the blame on the one who failed most publicly. The narrative is that the innocent leaders were taken advantage of by a gifted con artist. But if this is the lone narrative, they’ll never expose the man-pleasing that can embolden a manipulator; they’ll never address the ecosystem where failures incubate. Worse, this cultural posture can send the message to other team members that if you fail, you’ll be tossed under the bus alone.

It’s not true in every case, but over the years, I’ve discovered that where there’s a fallen pastor, there’s often a team around him that greased the rails for his decline. The other elders may be innocent of the fallen pastor’s sins, but they’re guilty of not loving him enough to show care or be honest, of not being courageous enough to correct him and to enforce consequences.

Though the fallen leader’s sin may be grievous, public, or even criminal, those facts don’t free us from the work of removing the planks from our own eyes. When we can cite specific ways we were complicit in our brother’s failure and have repented of these by confessing these failures to the church staff (and even the membership), then our path to recovery has begun.

2. Recalibrate the team to giving encouragement and hearing critique.

Alexander Strauch calls the eldership “a microcosm of the church.” It’s the team where we model community, humility, and growth. One way to know if a plurality of elders is handling a leadership failure with maturity is to ask if we’re continuing to model the kind of community we want the church to enjoy. Such community involves two key skills.

1. Giving encouragement. The pain of a crisis can bend elders inward and make them self-protective. It’s not right, but it’s human. An elder team models health and maturity when the elders look outside their own needs and begin to encourage one another. If an elder has turned inward, he should ask, “Am I focused more on my own hurt than I am on my responsibility for others? Am I encouraging the other elders’ marriages? Their parenting? Are we as a team affirming the staff? Are we preparing together to affirm church members on Sunday?”

2. Hearing constructive criticism. Another measure of our recovery and spiritual health is how well we receive input from others. This may have been a weakness for the team before the leadership failure. If so, the team should grow its capacity to receive and graciously hear truth through the refining voices of constructive criticism.

When writing about approachability, Ken Sande encourages Christians to give one another a passport into their lives. He defines “passport” as the authorization to enter “the inner life and deep struggles of another person.” Such authorization is both something elders give to one another and something we win from one another and the church. As Sande writes, we know we’re approachable when teammates can answer yes to these questions:

Can I trust you?
Do you really care about me?
Can you actually help me?

After a leadership failure, cultivating approachability is essential. We need each other. And if I need your help, I’ll want to make sure you feel invited to share feedback. If I want to grow, I must give you the freedom to tell me the truth.

3. Reclaim God’s grace in the past.

After owning your contribution to the crisis and recalibrating your team to give encouragement and hear critique, the final stage of a relational reset is reclaiming the past. This is important because there’ll be strong temptations to rewrite the past in a way that scapegoats the fallen leader and thinks of those who remain in light of a we-were-always-wise-and-right narrative. However, reclaiming the past requires a different posture.

It requires humility and confession of sin on the part of those who remain (see #1 above) and a willingness to think those who have failed—especially those who have failed then repented—in the best light. It’s what Jared C. Wilson calls “the revisionist history of the gospel.” In the Bible, the flawed and fallen are often remembered for their best moments. I’m always amazed at the names in Hebrews 11’s hall of faith: “By faith Rahab the prostitute . . . . [By faith] Samson . . .” How on earth did they get included? The author of Hebrews remembers them through the lens of grace and faith.

Remember that the worst behavior you encounter in Christians isn’t a final statement on who they are. Do you remember the story of Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4? They were locked in a selfish conflict, and they wouldn’t resolve it. So Paul—while he was in prison—stepped in and asked his “true companion” to correct them.

In the Bible, the flawed and fallen are often remembered for their best moments.

When Paul spoke, he remembered their history and refocused their destiny: “Help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life” (v. 3). In that moment, Paul didn’t look at them through the lens of their sinful stumbling but through other moments when God’s grace shone through.

As you meet sin, disappointment, mistakes, and failure in one another—and even as you remember the past of a fallen leader—make sure you allow hope to increasingly form your response. It’s a sign of health and maturity.

Are You Ready to Rebuild?

Is your elder team ready for a relational reset? It’s hard work, but even as we recognize that any of us could violate trust and hurt the team, we’re called to reopen our hearts and lives to one another.

God doesn’t call us to build together to avoid sin but to face it honestly. He doesn’t want us to enable abuse, but he does ask that leaders make themselves vulnerable to being sinned against again. Our vocation is to preach and embody the character of the crucified Savior. He invites us to take up our cross. That will mean coming to terms with disappointments and defections. This call to love is more sacrificial than we can know when we first answer it.

But when battered leaders graciously absorb the blows of sin without rebranding themselves as sinless, they grow in resilience. They learn that the story of a fallen leader is no match for the eternal tale of our risen Savior. After being scandalized, they’ll be able to testify that even when sin swept in like a flood, the gospel supplied an ark.

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