RNS) Paul Hand may not be as well-known as a Tullian Tchividjian or, back in the day, a Ted Haggard or Jim Bakker.
But Hand has something in common with those once-popular preachers: In 2014, the husband and father of two had what’s known in Christian circles as a “moral failure” — in his case, an inappropriate relationship with his ministry assistant. He ultimately resigned from Crossgates Baptist Church, a congregation of about 5,000 in Brandon, Miss.
It’s a story as familiar to small, neighborhood churches as it is to large megachurches, though those are the ones that grab headlines as they did earlier this year when Tchividjian was fired from a second church after confessing to another affair while pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The news was met with concern and criticism that Tchividjian had returned to ministry too quickly. It also raised the question of how pastors are rehabbed and restored to ministry after such indiscretions — and whether they should be.
“A pastor that’s failed — it’s like ripples in a stream,” said H.B. London Jr.,who for more than two decades was pastor to pastors at Focus on the Family and worked with many who experienced failures, including Haggard.
“His influence is not just limited to a local congregation. It extends much beyond that, and so when a pastor fails, the disappointment and the tragedy of it goes far beyond just his family and the local congregation.”
Half of Protestant pastors say their peers should step down from the pulpit for a time while the church investigates misconduct, according to data from a telephone survey of 1,000 such pastors released Tuesday (May 10) by Nashville-based LifeWay Research.
And when that misconduct is adultery, they’re split on how long that time should be: 21 percent said at least a year; 24 percent, permanently. Another 25 percent weren’t sure, according to the survey.
“Pastors believe church leaders should be held to high standards. They also want to protect themselves against allegations that could be false,” LifeWay Executive Director Ed Stetzer said in a press release.
Set up to fail
Hand had been a commercial insurance agent for years, he said, but he always had felt called to ministry. With his pastor’s encouragement, he started taking seminary courses in 2009 and joined the staff of Crossgates as its marriage and family pastor in 2011.
His wife, Melinda Hand, already was on staff at the church, and as she took on more roles at the church, she ended up working under him. He took on more roles, too, “all the while going to school full time, being a dad and husband and all those other things.”
“I loved pastoring people, but it was overwhelming,” he said.
His wife started experiencing heart problems because of stress. He began confiding in his assistant.
Seven or eight months later, Hand said, he and his assistant admitted that while their relationship never had become physical, they had feelings for each other. He wasn’t sure where to turn for advice. The men who were supposed to hold him accountable were the deacons at his church, but he was afraid of how they might react to his confession.
That’s the problem many pastors face, according to Kevin Cone, director of City of Refuge, which provides services for pastors and their families during such transitions.
“Whatever your struggle is, if it’s anger or lust or greed, it’s going to take its toll, and it’s going to come out, and you’re going to have a rough time,” Cone said.
Former Mars Hill Pastor Mark Driscoll had left his Seattle church in 2014 amid allegations of plagiarism and abusive behavior, as well as outcry over comments he had made on a church message board. Driscoll, too, raised eyebrows with his quick return to ministry, launching The Trinity Church earlier this year near Phoenix, Ariz.