When a Colleague Fails…

by Richelle Wright on September 17, 2014

How are we supposed to act when a colleague sins?

It happens, and I’m not talking about the respectable sins with which we all struggle. I’m talking about the big ones – the ones that result in missionaries sent home from the field or pastors asked to leave their churches…

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What are we to do? How are we supposed to act?

I know what sorts of behaviors and attitudes surface most naturally in me.

I criticize. Blame. Ostracize. Shame.

I want to gossip – even though I usually manage to restrain myself. I convince myself I could NEVER sin that sin – at least not the same way nor as sordidly as my colleague did… I sigh as I wonder how the ministry will ever weather the repercussions.

I want to disqualify that person from ever being part of “my team,” again. I might thank God for protecting me from such a wretched mistake, possibly praying, “Thank You, God, that I am not like those those who are unrighteous, who steal, those who commit <that really bad sin>… and Lord, especially that I’m not like____________” filling in the blank with the name of my “fallen” colleague.

Jesus had some pretty strong words for such an attitude:

[Jesus] told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (from Luke 18)

It hurts to see my own reflection so clearly in Scripture…

Sin has consequences and must be addressed:  the guilty party accepting correction, seeking restitution, welcoming accountability, perhaps consenting to a disqualification from future ministry in a previous place of service, or never returning to the same genre of ministry in any location. Consequences often demand patience – years of patience – on the part of the sinner: to rebuild trust violated, to repair relationships broken, to rectify a reputation tarnished, to realize that one can never go back or undo what has been done. God forgives and forgets – casting all memory of forgiven sin as far as the east is from the west. Men, however, have a hard time forgiving. Forgetting is probably impossible.

Yet it bothers me that I came up with a list for what “that person” should expect after being caught in their sin and perhaps after having both life and ministry totally derailed as a consequence (all with a good attitude) so easily.

Developing a similar set of principles that I, their colleague and a sinner equally in need of grace, need to embrace proves more difficult.

What is my responsibility in such a situation?

  1. RecognizeI am my brother’s keeper and we all need mutual accountability. Seeking and offering this sort of accountability helps prevent moral failures.
  2. Remember – Jesus didn’t say to never judge. Instead, He exhorted that when we judge, we must judge correctly and with knowledge.  We can expect the same standards we use to be applied to us. Supernatural discernment and grace must be present to judge correctly.
  3. Realize – Sin will be uncovered. I cannot pretend it never happened.
  4. Rupture – Sin ruptures relationships. My heart should ache, even break, for the sinner, for those wounded by their sin, and for the Savior who already paid a terrible penalty for that sin.
  5. Require gentle and kind confrontation, motivated by the best for my brother or colleague. Confrontation should never be manipulative, neither for my convenience nor preference, It certainly should not exhibit hatefulness, arrogance or vengeance.
  6. Resist hanging on to past failures. I need to forgive, completely – and repeatedly.
  7. Release – God is a god of second… third… even seventy times seven chances. I need to be like Him.
  8. RestoreGod’s love, mercy, grace and glory flows liberally through broken and forgiven vessels. Broken sinners being spilled out are amazing tools in the hands of a powerful God. Thankfully, sin does not disqualify from all future service or ministry.
  9.  Rebuild – When past failure necessitates a change in ministry, encourage and support my colleague on that journey, even helping him/her to find new ways and different opportunities to serve.

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I appreciate this (paraphrased) testimony of a Christian worker who sinned, grievously.

He was convinced God would never use him again; his previous ministry essentially said the same. In the initial weeks after his sin was uncovered, he found himself reading Jeremiah. The Lord gave him the example of Jeremiah 29 – what God could and would do if he remained patient, humble, teachable, accountable and faithful in the small, daily things, including whatever ministry opportunities – no matter how mundane – God opened to him. The words “I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” sustained him through long seasons of feeling he’d been placed on a shelf. Then this worker shared of those colleagues who persisted, encouraging him and trusting him with new opportunity. His faith deepened and he tried things that he might have never considered before had he remained in that new ministry. He learned he had other giftings. Those colleagues strengthened him with their friendship. He said it took decades, literally, but God did finally open doors (and hearts) returning his original place of service. How he serves now looks quite different from how he used to serve, but he has been welcomed and God has been glorified.

The ministry of reconciliation and restoration whether with those who’ve never known Jesus… or with those who do but who have fallen…  is God’s grace and glory in action. It never ceases to amaze.

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Do you agree or disagree that we are our brothers’ keepers in the sense of mutual accountability? Why or why not?

Have you ever had the opportunity to encourage or exhort a colleague who was making wrong choices? What motivated your decision to confront? (Please share, but don’t allow comments to become a place to air dirty laundry. Allow kindness and a desire to protect the dignity of others to be the rule of the day.)

What would you add to the above list of responsibilities we have regarding our colleagues who have sinned?

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About Richelle Wright

Disciple of Jesus, lover of God's Word, wife to one great guy, and mama of eight, Richelle has spent the past 13 years in Niger, West Africa. She and her family are currently in the throes of transition as they begin life and ministry (teaching, audio-visual production) in the Canadian province of Québec. |ourwrightingpad.blogspot.com|
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Whoa. This is a really difficult subject. I don’t think I have any answers, certainly not “good” or “right” answers to these questions. I only have my experiences. We live in a city that is a hotbed of sexual sin, even for the missionaries. We know some people who did research on this and found about 50% of expat Christian workers in this city to qualify, from their own answers to questions, as addicted to porn (not just attracted or tempted by it, but have full-on addictions). Not only that, but in this survey, fully 10% of Christian workers admitted to having visited a prostitute or “massage parlor” that went further than massage. 10%. 1 in 10. We actually know people, flesh and blood people, who are in this 10% (though we haven’t dealt with it on our team).

    However, it has forced us to ask ourselves the question, what would we do if this DID happen on our team? Do families get sent home? Kicked off the team? I don’t know. I just don’t know what the right answer is. Visiting a prostitute or having an affair is a big deal. Is it a deal-breaker for ministry? Right now, yeah, probably. But when you’ve got entire families, with children, how do you handle it? And who has the right to find out what happened? Financial and prayer supporters? Perhaps. I would want to know if I were sending my money to a foreign missionary. But that is where it gets tricky and embarrassing and shameful, because no one wants to talk about these things. They are uncomfortable when not in the hypothetical.

    It’s not that I think major sexual sin like this disqualifies you from ministry forever. One of my husband’s previous mentors, a man we’ve looked up to for years and who served as elder at our church, had several affairs, many years ago. They sought help for their marriage and came out stronger. Him serving as an elder didn’t happen for years after the affairs, and he was a wonderful, gracious leader in our church. So stepping out of ministry certainly isn’t forever. But how to deal with it at the time? Oy. So hard. No easy options there. In the end though, I do think some sort of break is needed. Beyond that, dear Lord, help us!

    • Richelle Wright

      I think some of the answers to the questions you raised, Elizabeth, can only be determined as each circumstance occurs.

      I was trying… hoping… to be clear that there must and will be consequences for sin. We can’t brush sin under the carpet or do the proverbial ostrich by burying our heads in the sand and hoping it will go away. What I was trying to consider was what is my heart attitude to that person who sins – and am I willing to be a part of the restoration of that person, even bearing in mind necessary consequences. I think we have a tendency to be so busy and such independent spirits that we don’t keep each other accountable (and sometimes don’t really want to), that when someone messes up, we often throw them under the bus to try and avoid any taint to self, specifically, and to minimize taint to the ministry… or we cover it up preventing authentic restoration/reconciliation. But, I don’t think someone should also be required to walk around wearing a “scarlet letter” that say “I am no longer fit to serve God in any way, shape, or form” – and that tends to be another reaction.

      Sexual sin is a hard one… and a serious issue all over the world. The only think I know of to successfully break that cycle is a humility that says, “I will be accountable to ______________, no matter how uncomfortable.”

      • This: “I think we have a tendency to be so busy and such independent spirits
        that we don’t keep each other accountable (and sometimes don’t really
        want to)” is spot on. In our missionary community, I see so many that rarely let others into “their inner circle” enough to hold each other accountable.

        In the past 3 years here, there have been at least a half dozen missionary couples who’ve experienced sexual sin in their marriages. I believe all but one are now divorced. 🙁

        I wonder if one of the key factors is the ultra high standards missionaries are held to. Treating missionaries as if they need to be A+ Christians is a recipe for failure. Missionaries – like everyone – need to acknowledge our ability to sin, hold each other accountable, accept the consequences when we fail, and then forgive (like you so eloquently wrote above).

        I know one woman who was told she had to stop taking her anti-depressant before being allowed to go on the mission field. This occurred just 3 years ago… in a mainstream denominational mission group. “Missionaries aren’t depressed.”

        Missionaries are just like any other Christian… they get depressed, sick, lonely, and tempted to sin. This topic actually prompted me to write a post entitled “Five Specific Ways You Can Support Missionaries.” (http://www.stillnotthereyet.com/culture/five-specific-ways-missionaries-need-support/)

        OK. Sorry for the rant. Thanks for writing this post.

        • Richelle Wright

          Great comments, Wendy ~ and thanks so much for your link. Really good ideas, there!!

        • Your blog link has a small problem. There’s an extra ) at the end. 🙂

          • Sorry – it was because I put it in parentheses… but I just removed those 🙂 thanks!

      • Elizabeth Trotter

        Yep, you were clear about sin needing to be dealt with 🙂 I am just muddled with regard to how I *feel* about dealing with it. But my husband gently reminded me that our org has policies in place for these kinds of situations. He’s the team leader, so he’s spent a lot more time studying the policies than I have, LOL.

        • Richelle Wright

          Just saw this comment, Elizabeth. 🙂

          Aren’t we all thankful for those team leaders that know that sort of stuff (although it probably isn’t a bad idea for the rest of us to know the process, as well). 🙂

    • I think, as hard as it is, that going home for therapy is the best answer. We needed two years away, and Andy was completely cooperative and working hard to get well. It’s going to be awful, no doubt about it. But serious intervention is definitely needed. For me, it helped a lot to have people around me who said, “This sucks.” Because it really, really did. We also had people who said, “Get better and come back.” That helped too. As long as the orientation is toward help and healing, I think you’re headed in the right direction, even though it will be very painful at the time.

      • Richelle Wright

        I totally agree, Kay, that going home, for at the very least a season, is necessary. As Elizabeth points out, sometimes that immediate of a change is really hard on a family. Ours wasn’t a sin issue, but we had the threat of evacuation hanging over our heads my son’s entire senior year of high school… we kept praying he’d be able to finish…

        So, all that to say – we all seem to agree that going home to receive help is critical; perhaps it is the timing that is less clear.

        • Yeah, you just do the best you can, make the best decision you can… I really, truly, deeply believe that God redeems. Not just when we get everything right, but also when we are completely screwed up and off the rails. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it 🙂

        • Kathy

          I think you are right about the timing – in her book Kay said that they were hoping to go at the end of the school year to try to be less disruptive for the kids. Yes sin has consequences for all but really do the kids have to be put thru extra needless suffering by upheaval at a bad time? Just something that needs to be considered.
          But also, while it seems a natural suggestion, I’m not sure “home” is actually always an option. We are missionaries in Europe and our (just) grown sons have made their home here. We have good connections with retreat centres, counsellors etc here in Europe – less so in our passport country. I think the point would be more about ‘removal from ministry situation’ – whether that is to passport country or somewhere else.
          Anyway – just a slightly different perspective from missionaries who are not ‘in the jungles’ but ‘in the civilised world’! 🙂

          • Richelle Wright

            Great point. Sometimes those of us who work in more remote locations with less access to help forget that not everyone is in that same boat. 🙂 Thanks for pointing that one out!

            And that brings up another thought. What are the benefits to working through the consequences of sin/rebuilding of life and testimony/re-earning confidence and respect right there in the community where the sin occurred? Of course, that depends on the nature of the sin (i.e. are there criminal consequences – take an arrest for drunk driving, as one of those examples), and a whole host of other factors… but I can also see how “going home” could also allow/encourage avoidance versus dealing with those things that need to be dealt with… and how sometimes, that might not even be an option.

            Thanks for jumping in, Kathy!

      • Elizabeth Trotter

        Thank you for sharing your perspective, Kay. While I think I know in my head that this kind of stuff has to be addressed, thinking about making it happen in real life involves so many emotions — including goodbyes, which we all know are yucky. 🙁 It’s good to hear from someone who did take a break and said that was the needed thing to do. BTW, about your book — you have such a way with stories. I was laughing constantly through the first third at your descriptions of culture shock. 🙂 Such a dry sense of humor. Then suddenly about a third in you admit your extrovert self is lonely and your introvert husband won’t talk to you, and I thought, eek, this just got serious. Going to keep plodding along through the story, even though I know it’s going to get worse before it gets better. So glad it IS better now, though. Blessings.

  • I just published a book about this very thing… what it’s like from the inside of that situation, and what it means to heal and live again. http://www.amazon.com/As-Soon-Fell-Memoir/ Also, Andy wrote a post on my blog recently about it: http://kaybruner.com/blog/2014/9/4/want-to-see-what-a-porn-addicted-missionary-looks-like. I have no easy answers. I just think we need to talk about it and keep talking about it until it’s not such a terrible thing to talk about any more. Thanks for helping to talk about it!

    • Richelle Wright

      Thanks to you and your husband for being willing to share in such a real and vulnerable way. I can’t imagine the courage that has taken. I’m looking forward to my next vacation from teaching to be able to read your book. I love what you shared below about having some of those encouragers in your life… those who were committed to keeping an orientation towards help and healing… and a future and a hope. 🙂

    • I just finished reading your book! Thank you for sharing so openly and honestly. Thank you for “telling it like it is” to help push us past this mentality of missionaries being A+ Christians. We’re *all* broken. We all fail. We all need to help pick one another up and move on.

      Thank you!

      • Yeah, there aren’t a lot of books out there about missionary failure, so we thought it was way past time. Thanks for reading!

  • Once I told a close friend, “I am just a mess,” as I poured my heart out about some very difficult issues. She told me, “In the words of Over the Rhine, all my favorite people are broken.” Hearing her say that and then allowing that song to wash over me has been very helpful for staying humble, being authentic, and stripping back the veneer with trustworthy people.

    • Richelle Wright

      Love that image of “stripping back the veneer…”

      I’d never heard of Over the Rhine… think I will be adding to my iTunes. 🙂

      And… I’m adding the link to the song you referenced – in case anyone else wants to listen and is clueless like I was: http://www.musictory.com/music/Over+The+Rhine/All+My+Favorite+People .

      Thanks, Angie!

  • Thank you. What about when we fail in how we deal with failure? I really blew it in trying to deal with a situation a while ago. I needed guidelines like this earlier. 🙁 Please pray that there will be reconciliation and rebuilding for another person and me someday.

    • Richelle Wright

      That’s hard, Phyllis… I’ve been reading a book called “Respectable Sins,” and one of the key points (as I apply the book’s principles to this situation) is that my failure to deal in a right way with a colleague’s sin is also sin and just as grievous to God. Ouch!

      But, the good news is that does give me a “prescription” for what to do: admit, acknowledge, repent, confess, seek forgiveness, make restitution if possible- first from God and then from the other person/persons who were injured in some way as a result of my actions.

      Just prayed for you and the other person in your situation… and maybe that someday won’t be too far away.

  • Dave Lewis

    I will never forget the impact when the reality of co-worker sin first hit me. We had just arrived on the field when our close friends sat us down and told us they were being sent home. I couldn’t help but think that if others on the field had accepted the responsibility of being “their brother’s keeper” this would not have escalated to the point it had. It broke my heart, and it was the seed for planting Paracletos to combat the conditions that lead up to it.

    • Richelle Wright

      Yes… Sin, our own, our colleagues, the world, even our enemies’ sin… it should always break our heart and should never lead to an arrogant, holier than though mindset. We can’t let a fear of sin rule our hearts so that we are afraid to honestly and lovingly keep each other mutually accountable.

      • Dave Lewis

        Agree 100% Richelle. And I believe the accountability needs to go beyond sin management to include spiritual health check-ups.

        • Richelle Wright

          Including the link to your organization, Dave, so it is here as a resource if someone needs/is looking: http://paracletos.org/ .

          • Dave Lewis

            Thanks. That’s very kind of you.

  • I do not think gossip is the right approach, but in general, pastors get off the hook way fast and way easier over their sins than the victims. This is not acceptable. If you are a pastor or missionary, and you abuse someone or cheat on your wife in a physical way, I will give my sympathy to the victim. Certainly, my heart will always be broken over sin, but there is also a touch of anger in cases where abuse was involved.

    • Richelle Wright

      Thanks for bringing up that point, Lana.

      I agree. Sin is not ever acceptable and cover-up or brushing off serious sin is never a right response.There are consequences; there will be anger – absolutely understood and no questions asked. That was why I wrote: “Sin has consequences and must be addressed: the guilty party accepting correction, seeking restitution, welcoming accountability, perhaps consenting to a disqualification from future ministry in a previous place of service, or never returning to the same genre of ministry in any location. Consequences often demand patience – years of patience – on the part of the sinner: to rebuild trust violated, to repair relationships broken, to rectify a reputation tarnished, to realize that one can never go back or undo what has been done. God forgives and forgets – casting all memory of forgiven sin as far as the east is from the west. Men, however, have a hard time forgiving. Forgetting is probably impossible.” That’s understood.

      I was more trying to look at the issue of after someone has sinned, is sorry, has sought forgiveness and restitution – realizes s/he is now impeded by consequences resulting future contraints, but still seeks to be obedient by serving God and people. In my experience, often those who fall in that category are “shelved” and not allowed to minister. God delights in working through those who’ve been broken and I firmly believe there is nothing unredeemable. All things are possible with God. Regardless of the sin, God still has a place of ministry – recognizing it may look and be totally different than what it looked like before, as a result of sin.

      That in mind, the question I was trying to ask myself (and others): Just how willing am I to be a part of that process of restoration/reconciliation? Much of the time, I believe it is easier to choose to hold on to that anger, to choose “excommunication” from any and all ministry. I am eager to help victims rebuild their lives and rightfully so. Am I as eager (recognizing that rebuilding will look very different) to do the same for my sinning colleague? I know I’m not. But I think I should be…

      • I agree that we should help people get their lives back together. In general I am not okay with excommunicating people from the church, and in general, I think missionaries need to chill down and admit they are human. Faking life along just to look like we do not sin is very, very exhausting. But there are certain sins which I think should disqualify someone from leadership. I am not talking about a person who lied once or struggles with anger. But sometimes speaking up for victims means that we make the church or home a safe place for the victim. Their abuser can’t be in the home at the same time and them feel safe. Anyway, I’m not disagreeing with you as much as adding commentary, given that my experience is the church is pretty forgiving towards men in leadership but perhaps at the expense of the victim.

        • Richelle Wright

          Thanks for your contribution, Lana. Like Kay was talking about, I do think this is a conversation that needs to happen – yet it doesn’t… very often.

          I liked the analogy you used about the home and feeling safe. I guess my experience is different – from my church background there can be a tendency to cover up – but once sin is out in the open, then the sinner is treated like a leper and it is very difficult to move past that fallen stage… always left wearing a scarlet letter. What I’ve been challenged to consider, recently, is how to encourage that person and to help them find a new place/new way to plug in and still be serving, to rebuild their life so that it testifies even more loudly to the grace of God… even to the worst of sinners… all the while acknowledging and accepting that the place may be different and the opportunities will be different.

          I wonder how much of the “faking life along” happens because if we admit we struggle with/are tempted by sin… or even more scary, actually naming a very specific sin, we fear the reactions, responses of others… and the consequences that may result. I know that is one of the reasons I tend to hold my cards pretty close to the chest and am not as transparent as I wish I was/believe I should be. On the other hand, maybe more would be willing to be accountable in these areas if they knew their brothers and sisters/partners in ministry would still seek to supportively confront/correct and rebuild when necessary?

        • Elizabeth Trotter

          I think there is a difference between affairs between consenting, equal adults, and abuse. Perhaps that is what you’re getting at here? I don’t personally think abusers should ever be allowed to be in ministry or leadership positions again. They’re abusive and manipulative and will lie, and they cannot be trusted when they say they’re healed. So yes, abuse should disqualify one from further ministry.
          On the other hand, I can imagine how two people working in ministry together, in close quarters, could develop a mutual attachment. Not an ideal situation, but a possible one. Certainly an affair still needs time (probably lots of time) to recover from, before returning to ministry. But I don’t believe anyone working with children or young adults should ever return to ministry if they take advantage of those in their care. And that doesn’t mean they can’t ever have church fellowship again, just that they can’t be allowed to be with children and teenagers. I’m not sure if that’s what you’re talking about here, but I do feel strongly about abusers.
          Part of the reason why I feel this way is that I’ve been in ministry over 10 years now and have had to report abusers before. And let me tell you, church people can get really upset about that, almost as if WE were the ones who did the sinning, instead of the abuser. I’ve also fallen prey myself to a church leader/camp director who took advantage of young girls, and nothing was ever done about it. And I’ve heard other stories like this from people I know, where church leadership does nothing even when they know. So yeah, the whole abuse thing, I have much less compassion for the person who falls. I want to keep them from hurting other people ever again. And I think that is probably different than what Richelle was originally meaning here, thought it’s a very important part of this discussion.

          • Richelle Wright

            Abuse is clearly one where there’s a disqualification from certain areas/types of ministry. Absolutely, I’ve got kids… I get that. But what I usually hear is “that person is so despicable, s/he can never minister again, ever, in any way shape or form. …And, I won’t even be friends with, or invite to Bible study, or… because their sinful reputation might tarnish me…” My question here is – am I willing to help that person rebuild/rehabilitate his/her life so that the glory goes to God and s/he is active participant in His church, ministering to others – because I think there are available places to minister outside of working in that area where s/he has fallen… and because that is also the heart of God bringing restoration after the most despicable of sins.

            The other question, and maybe it is even harder to ask when something like this happens with a colleague: “Did I look the other way earlier, choose not to confront… choose to ignore… when perhaps if I had, things might have turned out differently. That doesn’t excuse the other person’s sin, it doesn’t make me guilty of that sin – but it does mean that perhaps I was guilty of not looking out for my brother or sister.

            This is a really hard question… and I know there have been times when nothing is done, sin is overlooked, and people get hurt. That is SO wrong. I also know, as we say in our church circle… sometimes we in the church are the first to shoot our wounded. That is also wrong. Sin wounds… the person sinned against, the sinner…
            with ripple effects all the way through the entire church body.

            Thanks for chiming in again, Elizabeth. Appreciate your comments.

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