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Commentary: When leaders fail

From the editors —

Questions about how our denomination responds to situations of marital difficulties among our leaders—be they denominational leaders, local church pastors or missionaries—have swirled around our circles numerous times over the past five years or so. These concerns came to the forefront again this fall when Jim Holm resigned as MB Biblical Seminary president due to his involvement in an extramarital relationship. We realize these types of situations can cause us to lose trust in our leadership and church structures, so we felt it was important for our denominational periodicals to speak to the problem.

In early September Valerie Rempel, MBBS associate academic dean, addressed the seminary student body and spoke candidly about the situation and the questions and emotions that we encounter when a trusted leader admits to a moral failure. Her comments, while directed at one specific situation, also speak to the broader questions, and so we asked her to adapt her address for publication. We also solicited comments on this specific situation from Jack Falk, chair of the MBBS board of directors, and our national conference executive directors Ed Boschman and David Wiebe.

With regard to the details of Holm’s resignation, we affirm the seminary’s efforts to balance the privacy of those involved with a desire to be open about the underlying reasons for the abrupt resignation. We find it helpful to know that Holm contacted the board of directors himself and confessed the affair, which did not involve a past or current student, to the faculty and staff.

—Connie Faber, Christian Leader editor, and Laura Kalmar, MB Herald editor

Commentary by Valerie Rempel

The news that a trusted leader has disappointed us through personal or moral failure grieves us. We hurt when we learn of disintegrating marriages, of sexual sin or even criminal activity. Often, that grief plays out in multiple forms—shock, sorrow, outrage, disappointment and fear.

We find ourselves asking questions: How could this happen? Why didn’t someone stop it? What should we do about it? What if it happens to me?

The questions reflect our curiosity but also our anxiety. If someone we view as spiritually mature fails, who of us is safe?

Some of the anxiety is good: It causes us to search our hearts and to examine our relationships. None of us is immune from failure and the words of Romans 3:23, which many Christians have memorized, continue to be true: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

It is only by God’s grace and mercy that any of us stand, and all Christians should seek to guard themselves from the deceptive power of sin. It is good for us to renew commitments to our spouses and to ourselves, to determine—with God’s grace and help—to live uprightly.

Our anger or fear may also stem from discomfort with the public acknowledgement of failure and uncertainty about how to treat the parties involved. Our inclination may be to keep scandal from staining the church’s witness. In these instances, several issues must guide the Christian community.

First, while it may be true that someone’s moral failure harms the church’s witness, keeping it secret only adds to what has already been deceptive behavior. Pretending that Christians do not face the same temptations or fall into the same kinds of sin that all human beings face is not honest and denies the biblical witness to human failure. Furthermore, the Bible teaches that sin is deceptive by nature. When the church refuses to keep sin hidden it witnesses to the importance of Christian integrity and truth-telling.

Second, in some instances, especially those involving young people or financial misdealings, the offense may be punishable by law. If the offense involves predatory behavior, keeping it secret may increase the likelihood of additional victims. In these cases, the biblical charge to care for the vulnerable must outweigh our desire to handle things privately.

Third, in deciding whether or not to make such information public, it is important to remember that the Bible holds leaders to a high standard (see, for example, James 3:1, or I Timothy 3). This is not because they are super-Christians but because they are charged with the spiritual care of people. This is not to be taken lightly. Because of the public nature of their roles as leaders in the church, their actions have consequences beyond the immediate circle of those who may have been involved in the situation.

When information is made public the intent should not be to hurt or shame people but to liberate the community from the bondage of secrecy. This does not mean that all the details of the situation, the “who did what and where?” that arises from natural curiosity, must be satisfied. Too much information can be burdensome and often serves no useful purpose. Remember that the Bible views gossip as sin, too.

Christian charity should also guide our behavior when deciding whether to release the names of victims or others who may have been intimately involved in the situation.

Of course, not all sin needs to be widely published, either for Christian leaders or others. Still, where sin is present, it is good to remember that the practice of confession—to a confessor or a trusted circle of Christian brothers or sisters—is a Christian discipline of long standing. It is a practice that can free people from the burden of sin, end the deceit and speed the healing work of forgiveness.

The Bible teaches us that our choices have consequences. In the case of Christian leaders the consequences may include release from public ministry. This does not necessarily invalidate their spiritual gifts or the effectiveness of past (or even present) ministries; it does, however, take seriously the effects of sin and especially the loss of trust.

The decision to release someone from a ministry role is a pastoral response to a personal or spiritual crisis. It recognizes the needs of both the leader and the community. Experience suggests that it is difficult to effectively lead when in the midst of personal crisis. This is only compounded when trust has been broken.

It is certainly true that God forgives sin and invites us to be reconciled both with God and each other. In some instances, this may allow for restoration to public ministry at a future date. God often uses wounded healers in very effective ways. Still, restoration to public ministry should be undertaken cautiously and with much discernment. It may not be possible or wise to fully reestablish the trust needed for effective leadership.

Finally, it is important to remember that in all instances of failure the church should seek to be a place of healing and reconciliation.

Valerie Rempel is associate professor of history and theology at MB Biblical Seminary and is the acting associate dean on the Fresno, Calif., campus. 

Commentary by Jack Falk

President Jim Holm's resignation in August 2008 was especially difficult for the seminary because of the key level of trust placed in him. Dr. Holm informed the board of his extra marital relationship and offered his resignation. The board acted quickly and appropriately in accepting that resignation. Jim's actions do not invalidate the message he had, and the seminary contines to have, regarding the need to prepare pastors to serve the church. MBBS was and is a great Mennonite Brethren graduate school providing theological education and training. 

The board has expressed assurance of forgiveness to Dr. Holm and has agreed that the Pacific District Conference will oversee his restoration and care.

We are very fortunate to have an academic dean in Dr. Lynn Jost who is capable and willing to immediately take over as acting president. We have begun the process of filling this role on a regular basis.

The Board together with the administration led by Dr. Jost has moved quickly to address a number of our priorities which include: hosting a summit of North American Mennonite Brethren leaders, preparing for an accreditation visit, preparation of a major funding grant application, planning for the changing delivery and leadership needs of the church and searching for a new president.

I am pleased to report that amidst the normal challenges, the seminary continues to fulfill its mission to inspire and equip men and women to live as disciples of Jesus Christ, and to serve and lead in the church and in the world. The board and I have received much support through these leadership changes. I especially value the tremendous support from the two national conference owner representatives David Wiebe and Ed Boschman.

Our board, acting president and faculty remain passionate about our mission and convinced of our ability to deliver on it. Students continue to grow as they are equipped to serve the church, and our faculty is working diligently to give them the theological education and leadership training they want and deserve. We value and need your prayers, your commitment to seminary education and your financial resources to do so.

Jack Falk is the MB Biblical Seminary board chair.

Commentary by Ed Boschman

For years I’ve had a fist-sized rock in my office, boldly imprinted with the words “First Stone,” a reminder of Jesus’ words in John 8 about stoning an adulterous woman. And etched into my brain is Paul’s warning in I Corinthians 10:12: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!” Both humility and grace are God’s gifts to us, and both are to be reinvested. This is a good time to practice humility and grace.

Current research indicates that 60 percent of marriages experience adultery, and that up to 40 percent of women and 60 percent of men succumb to infidelity. Astoundingly, in recent decades studies indicate that Christians are just as likely to experience failed marriage as non-Christians.

One wonders if the common responses are adequate: “It happens to the best of us” or “There but for the grace of God go I.” Perhaps it’s time to look each other in the eye and say, “There by God’s grace I will not go.” And to say this with the humble but realistic confidence that is available to us from the One who provides strength to do all things. Cockiness is not appropriate but neither is casualness. However, humble resolve will honor God, our marriages and the church. While temptation is unavoidable, God promises the necessary strength to escape. For the sake of Jesus, his church and our families, let’s practice humility, offer grace and choose confidence.

Ed Boschman is the U.S. Conference executive director.

Commentary by David Wiebe

The resignation of our brother Jim Holm has been a challenge to all of us in leadership in the Canadian conference. We’re sorrowful that his ministry concluded as it did. We’re also grateful for the many times he challenged us through pastors’ retreats and church ministry. God’s Word and truth will still bear fruit. We support Jim and Shirley in prayer as they work through this.

We also support the seminary as it regroups. We have full confidence that MB Biblical Seminary will continue to provide quality, spirit-filled ministry training at MBBS ACTS in British Colombia, MBBS-Winnipeg in Manitoba and Fresno, Calif.

Through Regenerate 21-01’s leadership development programs, we’ll continue to partner with the seminary in a complementary way. It’s our hope to see young adults heed the call to pastoral ministry and eventually be ready to serve in our churches. The seminary will be part of that path.— Regenerate 21-01 is a $4 million initiative in the areas of church health, leadership development and out reach that the Canadian Conference approved this summer at its biennial convention.

David Wiebe is the Canadian Conference executive director.

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