Churches are filled with people. People who fill churches are imperfect. Their is only one perfect person. His name is Jesus. Yet those outside the Church seem to think that those inside should be perfect or near perfect, an impossible task. This is not the Gospel the church preaches. Followers of Jesus are to strive, empowered by God, to press toward the high calling of Christ Jesus but they will never arrive anywhere near perfection in this lifetime. (Philippians 3:12-14) Thus, the potential for a true public relations challenge when these people, who trust in Jesus’ vicarious sacrifice for their perfection, fall short–especially when it is the staff member of a church. How does the church communicate in a way that is true, beneficial, and necessary?
A Case Study
Recently a prominent mega-church had to terminate their student pastor for improper conduct. It was alleged, and strong evidence produced, that he had an inordinate amount electronic contact with a woman other than his wife. He denied that anything other than that the e-correspondence had occurred. I will not go into more detail, as it is not crucial to the argument. I also will name neither the church nor the individual staff member as it is unimportant to my point, and in fact could be contra-biblical.
What was the Public Relations response of the church?
This church terminated the staff member. They then chose to hold a meeting with its students and their parents where the lead pastor clearly outlined the case for dismissal. He did this tactfully yet providing clear evidence for the firing. This called meeting was the right move in both the biblical and public relations sense. As the staff member in question, according to church, had not yet fully acknowledged and repented of his behavior, denying it for a long period of time even at direct confrontation, the church family rightly was made aware of the reasons for termination. If he had come forward, himself, with a repentant heart, another tact in the disclosure could have been taken while maintaining the biblical instruction in this regard. (I am not commenting on the point of dismissal here, but the nature of its disclosure.)
The message the lead pastor made that night to the church family that night was on target, and thoroughly lined up with the biblical mandates given the situation.
Did this church go wrong PR wise?
Did this church make a biblical and public relations mistake in what it did with that message? It posted a video of the message for open, public viewing on its website. Then at least one of its staff members tweeted the link to the video, announcing its presence to his numerous followers outside their inner church family. While I am not for subterfuge or opaquing, was this an inner-family dialogue that should not be on the open internet?
What if a full disclosure could have been made to the church family by emailing out a private link to the video for those unable to attend the meeting requesting they view the link rather than public tweets and notices? What if a more general statement could have been made to the press if there was inquiry? While the link could have made its way public by any of its receivers, it is obvious that the hearers listened to request of the pastor, as the internet is not full of gossip regarding this situation. This private invitation would also line up with Matthew 18 where the church is told to bring it before the church family and the spirit of I Corinthians 6.
Would this be comparable to the Catholic Church’s public relations debacle? No, a full disclosure would have been made to pertinent and necessary parties, the church membership. This is in stark contrast to the unwillingness of the Catholic Church to acknowledge their serious problem to even their own parishioners.
Would not making this announcement public have stopped those outside the church seeing the Gospel at work? Perhaps, as the lead pastor did an excellent job explaining how grace works. His prime emphasis did not appear to be “we were right in all that we did, so ‘take that’ any who would dissent from our actions.” This, unfortunately, is often the motive of the imperfect people, including leadership in some churches, resulting in the public flagellation of its staff for only covering-our-butts reasons. Not the case here. The Gospel was present.
What if the staff member would have made the initial approach to lead staff with full disclosure and a repentant heart? A much different announcement could have been made to the church family, much less specific in nature.
Can this individual ultimately return to ministry? This individual is not exempt nor pardoned from ministry now, as that is simply not an option for a Jesus follower. This is true for whatever reason he or she leaves full-time ministry–for personal sanity, moral issues, or otherwise. It will simply look different in that he or she won’t earn a paycheck from the ministry that God has called them to. One of the best ways to heal is to continue to reach out to others, specifically the hurting even when you are yourself, with the good news seen in Jesus. Nor does it mean that he or she will never be able to be in full-time ministry again.
What other actions should be taken? If the church chooses to leave the video posted for viewing, it should be for a very limited period of time. (I have no clue as to whether this is their intent or not.) To leave it up ad infinitum is not necessary or beneficial for the church or the former staff member.
All in all, this church did an excellent job communicating a difficult circumstance. This especially considering that they were not sure of the response of the released party, as it outwardly appears he never fully admitted to the behavior in question. The church is full of imperfect people seeking to have the perfection of Jesus credited to them through His death, burial and resurrection. No one in the church will ever be perfect. As such, our communication and public relations as Christians will never be perfect either.
Do you agree or disagree with these thoughts? I am open for dialogue. (Notice: If you name names, your comment will not be approved.)