The story of David and Bathsheba is still on my mind. Even as I thought about the nature of David and Nathan’s relationship, I’m left wondering “can a ‘fallen’ leader be restored?” Reading the story of the Bible, one can’t say with any consistency that one moral failing and you’re out as a leader (memo to David, Moses, Abraham) – but we can see where their failings have cost them. Plus, you can certainly say that one moral falling with no repentance and they’re out.

Part of why I have a great deal of empathy for the fallen Davids of the world is because part of me figures it’s only a matter of time until I fall. I’m not going to live out of fear, I simply try to stay well aware of my weaknesses and because I know it could just as easily be me in that situation, I hope it keeps me from climbing into a haughty judgment seat. Also, leaders only fall so far because they’ve been placed to high in the first place. Some of this is understandable, after all, leaders are to be held to a higher standard (like it or not, the stricter standards for leaders includes no drunk, no thieves, no womanizers – did I mention my empathy?). However, leaders aren’t to be placed on a pedestal (nor altar, as some people are prone to do with some of their leaders), because leaders are still human.

So what’s a leader to do once s/he has fallen?

There is a process. Wallowing in your guilt is just as stifling as not facing your sin. Face what you’ve done and repent, then realize that at some point you’re done repenting. You bear the consequences, whatever they may be, and move on. As we study the leader, we need to be cognizant of the fact that we are on the outside. Repentance is an internal matter, between the leader and God. We aren’t in a position to judge the nature of their heart. As much as we may want to see them “act” repentant, it’s a fine line between wanting a demonstration of contrition and the appearance of people wanting to keep making the leader pay/remind them about their sin. (Thus, the inevitable defensive posture that says “I’m sorry if you don’t think I’ve repented enough.”)

The trickier question is “can a fallen leader be restored?”

This has to be done on an individual basis. The journey back to leadership has to be a careful process. I know that I would want to talk through things with that person. Know the details of how they got to where they are, how have they been changed, how long ago things happened, how long their processing time was, and if they are repentant.

I keep coming back to the processing time because there is a lot to process in terms of how they fell into sin and, ultimately, how are they not going to repeat their mistakes. They probably have many issues to deal with. They are full of self-doubt (maybe self-loathing). Most fall into sexual sin because they need someone to affirm them desperately: “You’re doing something worthwhile,” “I value you,” “You are needed.” The words are important and needed to be heard, but sometimes they can be taken too much to heart. I won’t lie, some of these “fallen” leaders could just be scumbags, but I have trouble believing that too many of them are in the ministry for that reason. The bottom line is that I’m going to want to know where their head is at in terms of how they see themselves.

Our mission as Christians means that we join in God’s work of restoration, a ministry of reconciliation. As we think through the criteria of what makes a good leader, certainly their gifts are still in place. They have certainly trained a good deal of their life for their vocation and in few other occupations can one failing cast you from your career track for good. However, again, that is the price of leadership. Trust destroyed is rarely regained. Maybe the challenge to us is in rethinking how we view and do leadership. For example, does being a good preacher make one a good leader or qualify someone for a leadership position?

Maybe we need to move to a shared leadership model, a leadership team or decentralized leadership as opposed to centralized control. With a leadership team you have differently gifted leaders that can balance each other out. Everyone has flatsides, character defects. Leadership teams lessens, hides, or minimizes the flatsides. The flat sides may even play off one another because areas where one is flat are shaped by those who are specialized in those areas, thus creating a “prism” of leadership.

A group can help hold that leader accountable, help him work through the various issues: boundaries, self-esteem, insecurities, developing discipline, what their life is like, and questions that have to be answered. No one has to or should go through these times alone. For that matter, in a leadership team, if a leader falls, the rest of the leaders can pick up the slack and continue.

Ironically, the more personality driven a ministry is, the more potentially lethal a fallen leader can be, both for the ministry and for the leader. Personality can over-ride responsibility. The leaders fall can devastate their followers and just as bad, those (remaining) followers will be more eager to put him back in the position of leadership – without that leader necessarily taking the time to work through their issues.

God can still use Davids, but there must be a slowness, restraint and caution, before they can be restored. Leaders don’t get the option of opting out of use, though, because of the nature and higher accountability of leadership, it might not necessarily be a leadership role. Yes, frankly, they may have to adjust to a new role. Either way, to paraphrase the great philosopher, Steve Harvey, don’t trip … God ain’t through with you yet.