The Ashley Madison list has been made public and tomorrow, there will be some churches who have seen their pastor’s name on that list. There will be some who don’t have their names on a list, but who may use this as an opportunity to come clean of their own offenses. There has been speculation that there are at least 400 pastors whose names were a part of the hack. Which means there will be 400 families hurting and 400 churches hurting as these allegations come to light.
I’ve been thinking about these churches a lot over the past couple of days. It wasn’t long ago that I was on the wrong side of this story. I was the betrayer. I was the adulterer. I was the one leaving a church in disgrace. No, not a pastor, but I stood in front of the church playing worship music while I was having an affair. That lie will always be one of my biggest regrets.
But one of the hardest parts of that story is that I never had a chance to repent to the people I had hurt with my actions. I never had a chance to look them in the eye, as hard as that would have been, and say, “I’m sorry I lied. I’m sorry I broke the trust you put in me. I’m sorry I behaved in a way that brought shame to our congregation.”
The inability to repent of my sins to some of the people I harmed is almost as big a regret as the sin itself.
Tomorrow churches are going to have to make decisions about how they proceed. Will they quietly dismiss their pastor for their failure? Will they publicly shame them for their wrongdoing?
I expect this will be most of the cases. And there are probably situations where removal is the best course of action. Pastors who are abusing their authority to take advantage of people who trust them. Pastors who use their position to hide deviant behavior with no thought to how it affects their families or the congregations under their care.
But there are some, I promise, who can and should be restored. People who felt trapped by expectations of perfection. Some who felt pressure to keep their marital troubles to themselves. Some who are a little bit relieved that their secret is not a secret any more so they can say openly, “Please help me.”
How will we respond to them?
Will we send them on their way to try to sort this out for themselves? Will we shame them so they remember that they deserve pain for not being perfect? Will we fashion them a scarlet A out of our self-righteous prayer chains?
Please know, this is not a call to sweep adultery under the table. Not at all. If anything, it’s the exact opposite. Bring it out – expose it and rob the secrecy of its power. Church, please believe me, the way we respond here is speaking to the pastors who didn’t sign up on a website, but wanted to. The way we respond here is speaking to the pastors who are struggling in their marriages and don’t know if it’s okay to say they want out. It’s speaking to members of the congregation who wonder if their sin is too big to be forgiven and to the person not there who already believes that to be true.
This could be a black eye for the Church, but it could also be an opportunity. A chance to show that we really mean it when we say we’re a part of a family. A chance to say that we actually want our pastors to be honest about their dark thoughts. A chance to say that grace is really big and really messy and really hard to understand and really beautiful.
I’m sure there’s another Ashley Madison site already collecting names, and I’m sure some of those names are also listed in church bulletins as pastors this Sunday. How we respond to the Ashley Madison hack may get at least a few of those names off of that new list.
I pray we can do better, all of us.