Recent weeks have produced tumultuous news in Toronto and, unfortunately, around the world. Six months ago Mayor Rob Ford was accused of smoking crack cocaine. Two Toronto Star reporters who published an article claiming to have seen a video of one such event could never acquire the video. Mayor Ford denied both the allegation and the existence of that video. The police began an investigation.
Several weeks ago Toronto’s police chief held a press conference. Police computer hackers had found a video containing “images in keeping with those previously reported in the media” on laptops seized in the course of their investigation. The following week Mayor Ford admitted that he had smoked crack cocaine, “maybe a year ago, in a drunken stupor.” He apologized for that and other subsequent even more egregious behavior and language in the last two weeks. He concluded by claiming that he wants to “move on and continue to serve the people of Toronto.”
Late night talk show hosts have feasted on the platefuls of dirt about Mayor Ford taken from police reports of the questioning of former Ford staffers. The mayor denied most of the allegations and threatened to sue those who made the allegations. All Toronto city councilors who supported Mr. Ford before and since his election have now called for the mayor to resign—all except Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother. The mayor has adamantly refused to step down even for a time to deal with alleged addictions, becoming ever more belligerent in his insistence to stay. No legal mechanisms are available in Toronto legislation to remove a mayor unless one has been convicted of a crime. Premier Kathleen Wynne, however, cautiously has opened the possibility of provincial intervention. Rob Ford will soon be “a mayor in name only” until the end of this term, unless his threatened legal action against those decisions reverses them. In any event, is it wise or morally right for Rob Ford to continue as mayor?
Maybe you’ve figured out by now how Rob Ford’s situation is connected to pastors—Christian Reformed or otherwise.
For two decades ever more frequent scandals involving clergy have surfaced in many communions. Many of those crimes were covered up by bishops or other denominational judicatories, sadly the very individuals or bodies responsible for safeguarding against such behaviour. Small wonder that surveys that measure trust in people in public positions of authority have ranked clergy as low or lower than politicians. Given the current malaise of politics in both the US and Canada, one wonders why anyone would wish to become a politician or pastor.
Oh yes! I DO know why. It is that we experience in some way God’s call to do so. Many of us have little idea of the pressures and stresses that will test that calling and our personal integrity. Yet we all know how long the casualty list is of pastors leaving for other careers—real estate, teaching, carpentry and more. I’m sure those callings have their own stress factors, but perhaps not so publicly or with such widespread potential damage to persons or institutions.
In fact, some of those who have left the ministry voluntarily are among the most honest, self-aware people I know. It wasn’t that they’d answered a call they didn’t have. No, they’d heard one. Yet having rendered good and noble service, some for a few years, some for many, they didn’t leave ministry because of scandal. Rather, they left to take up new lives with guiltless integrity, before harming parishioners, their families or themselves, should they have succumbed to one or other of the myriad temptations the devil has specially designed for clergy in stressful situations because of overwork, insecurity and insufficient accountability structures: power trips, success for its own sake, embezzlement, moral failure, addictions—the list goes on. I respect such courageous people no end.
Yet what about the not inconsequential number of clergy who do fall victim to one or more of the devil’s wiles? In my nearly four decades as seminary student and pastor, I can name without digging deep into my memory at least ten colleagues who have been deposed for falling to one of the last three temptations. There surely are many more whom I don’t know or can’t recall.
Thanks be to God, several of those have submitted to deep spiritual and psychological therapy. After several years they were reinstated as clergy and went on to serve congregations well. Fitting accountability structures protected all involved in their ministries. For its part, the Christian Reformed Church has developed rigorous Church Order procedures to facilitate such processes.
Many deposed pastors never return to the ministry or even care to. Perhaps they honourably recognize their own weaknesses or simply can’t think of facing the potentially damaging pressures of ministry again. They are as wise as those who voluntarily leave the ministry after hearing God’s call lose its once-compelling volume.
Yet the sad Rob Ford events convulsing Toronto have recently helped me frame a long-nagging issue related to deposed pastors’ viability for any official church service. When I hear about pastors who fall, are deposed and never return to the ministry, I honour such self-awareness and humility. Yet I cannot fathom the reasons why one who has been deposed is years later nominated for and elected as elder. All officebearers are in positions of power and authority and often work with vulnerable persons.
I was never a perfect pastor; no one is. I thank God that I was never faced with temptations to which other colleagues have fallen. My mother told me often that she prayed for me every day—and I’m sure she still does. By grace alone I was permitted to serve as a pastor for 35 ½ years. I claim no superiority, but I am bothered greatly by actual events such as those just described. I hope that, had I ever fallen in a similar situation and had never gone through the process of restoration, I would have not entertained the thought of becoming a church officebearer; it’s just too risky.
I strongly believe in confession, repentance, forgiveness and restoration of any and all sinners. Yet on earth I also believe that once a boundary is crossed in certain public, delicate situations or vocations that the person involved should not be permitted back into the positions of the authority she or he abused. Rob Ford’s city council colleagues have effectively made that decision for him, much against his profoundly immature will. That local church council should have been as wise by respecting the once-deposed pastor as a repentant and forgiven sinner, but also by not placing him once again in a position of possible temptation that could endanger fellow members and worshipers. Sometimes final restoration ought to be left to eternity.