pastoral restoration: playing ball
Reading Time: 9 minutes (Francisco Gonzalez.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Lately, I’ve been hearing a Christianese phrase going around: pastoral restoration. Today, let me show you what that is, and why it’s becoming such a booming cottage industry, and then we’ll see why it actually represents a big red warning flag of evangelicals’ utter dysfunctionality as a group.

(Disambiguation: There’s a Restoration Movement, which is not related to pastoral restoration, as well as a denomination by that nickname. Mormons use the term ‘restoration‘ as well, but it means something else.)

Dysfunctional Leaders For Dysfunctional Groups.

Like most Christian cottage industries, pastoral restoration begins with an attempt to resolve a false claim. In this case, the claim involves Jesus improving (or even dramatically changing) his followers through magic. As anybody who tangles with Christians knows, this claim is patently false. If there is a “Jesus,” he isn’t doing anything for anybody.

If anybody illustrates that truth in glaring bright lights, it’s the leaders of these evangelical groups. The more control-hungry and grasping the group, the worse of a hypocrite its leader will be.

In years past, these leaders could keep their antics on the down-low. Evangelicals wielded enormous cultural power, and their leaders weren’t shy at all about using it.

Nowadays, though, these leaders get caught — and often, they get caught fairly quickly.

Once that happens, a beloved evangelical farce begins in earnest.

Doors #1 and #2.

Let’s consider one of these hypocritical leaders. Let’s call him Marky-Mark, just to pick a name totally at random.

If Marky-Mark is charismatic enough and powerful enough, and it’s the right kind of scandal, he might be able to swim right through its wake.

That’s what Matt Chandler did when news went viral about him trying to strong-arm a woman into church discipline for getting an annulment against King Him’s wishes. As the leader of both The Village Church (TVC, a megachurch) and Acts 29 (a church-planting umbrella group full of posturing dude-bro culture warriors and control freaks), he wielded enormous clout already. That clout provided him a very easy path through his scandal. Dude ate a lil crow and then swung right back up into his saddle! Indeed, as far as I can tell Chandler suffered no repercussions whatsoever for his overreach and cruelty.

But if Marky-Mark isn’t quite that charismatic or powerful, or it’s the wrong sort of scandal (or it happens at a really disadvantageous time), he’s going to face some blowback.

Tons of evangelical leaders have found themselves right here. Matt Chandler’s second-in-command at Acts 29, a fellow pastor named Darrin Patrick, didn’t fare nearly so well when it came out just a few years later that he’d been paying attention to women-who-weren’t-his-wife. Suddenly, a whole bunch of his flaws as a leader came to light along with his “ongoing sinful behaviors” toward women. He not only lost his megachurch pastor gig but also his position as vice-president of Acts 29.

Let’s say Marky-Mark opens Door #2.

Oops, he just got in a whole lot of trouble.

What now?

Getting By With a Little Help From Their Friends.

Suddenly, Marky-Mark’s future depends enormously on the contacts and network he’s developed during his career up to this point.

If he’s been a bit of a burr-under-the-saddle, or he’s spoken against the tribe’s lockstep positions in the culture wars, or otherwise refused to play the evangelical game, he’s probably going to need to find either another denomination that’ll accept him as a pastor, or else he’ll need to find himself a whole other line of work.

And it seems like a lot of disgraced pastors go this route. Their names pop up in news articles as “the former pastor of Such-and-So Church” during some scandal or other, and then I discover that the church has closed and the pastor has apparently disappeared.

Something like that seems to have happened to this Pentecostal church. In 2015, their youth pastor got caught sexually abusing boys in the youth group — and the police discovered just how hard the main pastor had tried to protect him for years. The church closed, probably not long after the trial finished, and the pastor seems to have completely vanished off the face of the planet.

But let’s say that Marky-Mark’s built a good network of friends. Yes, he’s played the evangelical game well enough. He becomes a good candidate for pastoral restoration.

Pastoral Restoration, Defined.

Lots and lots and lots of evangelical sites talk a lot about pastoral restoration. They use tons of Jesus-y language for this process — lots of words, words, words to obfuscate what’s actually going on and how it works.

Most denominations maintain some kind of rules for who can get restored and under what circumstances. Here, for example, are the rules for PCA (not PC(USA), which is Rev. Clancy’s denomination). Here’s some of the guidelines used by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). The SBC’s guidelines sound just bizarre. Of course, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) has weighed in on pastoral restoration too.

Really, it’s not hard to find evangelical men who’ve put some thought into this matter!

If you follow those links, you’ll discover very quickly that most of the candidates for restoration have committed adultery (or something similar). But there are other crimes that pastors commit that can necessitate their restoration to leadership. Mark Driscoll, for example, basically behaved like a horse’s tail end until everyone got sick of him. Steve Timmis went that same route. Others, like James MacDonald, stood accused of fiddling with church finances.

Once one gets past the flowery language, Bible verses, and pearl-clutching over forgiving seventy times seven, then, here’s what pastoral restoration is:

Pastoral restoration is the process of punishing and humiliating a male evangelical leader enough to mollify the flocks into accepting his leadership again (and to prevent a public-relations nightmare for his denomination).

Three Options.

As Eric Geiger puts it, churches can reach for three methods of pastoral restoration:

  • No restoration at all. Once a pastor “falls,” he stays fallen forever and needs to find a new line of work. If the “sin” involves a violation of the culture wars or it’s especially egregiously bad, chances are nobody will want to help restore him and no flocks will accept him as a pastor ever again. But this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.
  • Immediate restoration. The pastor apologizes to Jesus and the congregation just accepts him back with open arms. For minor transgressions, this may be all that’s needed. Sometimes a higher-up pastor will put a stamp of approval on this idea and set the tone for full restoration.
  • “Deliberate restoration.” A longer, potentially drawn-out process that ends with the pastor reinstated — or at least established as a candidate for leading some other church. Usually, the pastor will end up getting a job at some smaller, less-influential church. He’ll be out of the main power loop for a while, maybe forever, but at least he’s earning a living again.

So let’s say Marky-Mark, our theoretical wayward pastor, avoids the no-restoration route but can’t be immediately-restored either. He’s going to be traveling down that third road.

And sometimes it’s a long one, he’ll find.

The General Way Restoration Works.

First, one or more friendly pastors must appoint themselves as restorers, so to speak. They’ll be the ones to punish and humiliate the wayward pastor. At the end of the journey, they’ll also be the ones to approve his reinstatement and bless his return to work.

In fact, I’ve never even seen an evangelical restoration story that didn’t involve friendly pastors acting as restorers. Typically, they’ve worked with the wayward pastor before his disgrace. Often, their careers are entwined in some significant way. The whole thing just screams BIAS BIAS BIAS to me, but I reckon that’s just how evangelicals do.

These restorers walk the wayward pastor down a path of rehabilitation. Often, this involves a lot of thinking super-hard at the ceiling, possibly that evangelical-style faux-counseling they prefer to the real thing, and long private discussions. Focus on the Sexism Family even has a booklet out about how exactly church elders should conduct restoration (and don’t miss page 9, where they accidentally describe evangelicals’ orange calf idol, Donald Trump, to a tee).

When it’s all done, the restorers certify the pastor as ready to return to pastoring! Sure, he might need a little supervision, and he probably won’t get back his original big-name church, and the tribe might always give him a little side-eye, but hey, he’s restored!

Hooray Team Jesus!

Yes, Yes, But What Does It Look Like?

No study that I know of has ever formally measured the effectiveness of any restoration process. And that’s scary, considering how much power evangelical pastors wield and the betrayals of trust that their scandals typically represent.

Even more disturbingly, evangelical hucksters have found that there’s good money to be made selling pastoral restoration guides

Moreover, not a single resource I’ve seen on the topic of pastoral restoration actually draws upon reputable, verifiable, tested/testable, techniques and sources for its advice. It’s all just party lines, all the way down to the ground. And I mean, Christian advice doesn’t typically actually help anybody even on its best days. Its creators just utilize a lot of Jesus-y language and hype their products to the skies, which leads the flocks to think these products totally do what their hucksters claim they can.

It just seems to me that pastoral restoration takes that whole hype-over-substance situation and amps it up even worse than usual. Maybe it’s like that because pastoral scandals are so much worse and less defensible than other self-help topics hucksters could address. And, too, maybe evangelicals’ current methods for dealing with those scandals are even more wackadoodle and woo-based than their methods for dealing with other self-help needs.

Whatever the case, very few resources even describe anything we could consider a solid game plan. Almost all of them use the frustrating Jesus-y-sounding blather that passes for concrete suggestions in their tribe.

What a Farce!

Evangelicals are just trying so so so hard to look reputable. They use so many growed-up sounding words and act like they take pastoring tho thoopur therially, y’all! Like bless their lil cotton socks, they’re trying so hard!

And yet it’s crystal-clear that pastoral restoration is just a song and dance they perform for their buddies to keep them all riding the gravy train. They beat their buddies up a little, talk very piously together, cry a lot of Jesus tears, and then everyone can get back to makin’ money again.

So y’all, restoration is an absolute farce.

When Mark Driscoll’s elders tried to force him into that process, he quit Mars Hill position entirely and struck out on his own rather than play their game. It’s the one decision he’s ever made that I actually kinda respect.

Really, I wouldn’t have gone through that humiliating busy-work performance either.

Why Evangelicals Perform This Farce.

First and foremost, pastoral restoration exists as a thing because in broken systems, power protects its own.

(Evangelicalism functions as a broken system because it neither fulfills any of its stated goals nor represents a net positive force for all members.)

Evangelical leaders almost never deserve the vast amounts of power they wield. They come to that power through nepotism and networking, not really talent or qualifications. And alas, “Jesus” sure doesn’t help hiring committees pick out fakers, poseurs, and conjobs ahead of time.

So yes, absolutely yes, evangelical leaders will inevitably install into power a huge number of men who will cause untold numbers of scandals.

And if one evangelical leader helps an embattled colleague recover from a serious scandal, then he fully expects the network to remember this effort later on down the line when it’s his own mistresses, babymamas, and slush funds being outed to the press.

The alternative to the restoration song-and-dance is pastors learning to behave themselves and follow the tribe’s rules.

And they’re not about to do that.

Playing Ball, Or Not.

So far, I’ve been talking a lot today about pastors who enter the good ole boy network with full intent to win. They joined pastoral ranks to find and wield power. When they fall from grace through scandal, they expect the system to take care of them. And it usually does, to some extent.

But now let’s swivel around to pastors who refuse to play ball.

Johnny Dangerously, 1984. “Play Ball.” (Clip should start around 45 minutes in.)

This second group got into pastoring because they really wanted to be shepherds and help Christians improve their spiritual lives and get closer to Jesus and all that rah-rah jazz. Evangelicals’ hypocrisy bothers them. They want to do better than that, though they might not know how (and worse, they might think that the social structures within evangelicalism are meant to foster this ideal).

But they, too, suffer the same problems as any other decent-ish, sincere evangelical: their road maps don’t work. You can’t get from Point A to Point Decent Human Being using anything evangelical leaders teach, preach, and model. Consequently, eventually one of two things will happen to this second group of pastors (and I’m guessing they far outnumber the real problem children like Mark Driscoll):

  • They’ll fall victim to a scandal themselves, or
  • They’ll piss off someone way higher-up on the food chain and drama will ensue.

At that point, there’ll be no pastoral restoration for this group.

You can count on that.

Pastoral restoration, you see, is only for pastors who play ball.

And maybe that’s one of the most damning aspects about it. It’s not about really rehabilitating or reforming anybody. Instead, it’s about appearances and power plays — like just about everything in Christianity as a whole.

NEXT UP: LSP! Then I want to show you one of the wildest, goofiest, downright weirdest beliefs in wingnut Christianity. Yes, we’re diving into the Endtimes. There. Will. Be. D I A G R A M S!!!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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