Jamal Bryant, Jimmy Swaggart & You: Can Fallen Leaders Be Restored?

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This week I made my annual pilgrimage to the Hampton Ministers Conference.

Listening to Lance Watson, Rudolph McKissick, Marcus Cosby was amazing. Seeing them and past Hampton President William Houston Curtis reminded me of the lasting relationships we’ve established with these preachers through our own ministers conference, PELC. It was also good to hear Claybon Lea and see Freddie Haynes who will both be with us in December.

As soon as I sat down in the morning service to hear Cosby, my mind went to the morning service a year earlier. The preacher was Jamal Bryant, pastor of the 12,000 member Empowerment Temple in Baltimore. It wasn’t unusual to see a packed house that early in the morning because he’s an amazing preacher and gifted communicator.

But there was a strange buzz in the air that morning. Just a few days earlier the internet exploded with details and pictures of a young lady claiming an affair and child with Bryant.  Many wondered if Hampton would withdraw their speaking invitation. But not only did he speak, his father Bishop John Bryant introduced him, his gifted mother sat behind him, and he proceeded to preach a classic message to a receptive crowd. 

Later I saw him interviewed by Roland Martin as he admitted to infidelities that ended his marriage, confused his children, and battered his reputation. The internet exploded and his church was devastated.

Go with me to Chicago. Pastor Charles Jenkins and the Fellowship M.B. Church dominated the gospel music charts in 2012. I worshipped with them this year on Pentecost Sunday. Their hit single “My God is Awesome” was recognized by BMI as the most played single on gospel radio that year. Handpicked by the legendary Clay Evans to replace him as pastor of Fellowship, Jenkins was taking an already popular church to a whole new level.

Then it happened. Rumors had been swirling, and on Easter Sunday 2014, he admitted to an affair with a church employee. The internet exploded and his church was devastated.

Let’s go to Atlanta. One weekday several years ago, we walked through the empty sanctuary of the New Birth Baptist Church in Lithonia. Our church, Madison Mission, was planning to build and we wanted to observe other churches and talk to them about their buildings. 

But it wasn’t long before the conversation shifted from the building to the pastor, Bishop Eddie Long. He had been accused of having inappropriate relationships with several young men. There were even pictures circulating. The internet exploded and the church was devastated.

Finally, let’s head to New Orleans. Jimmy Swaggart was the most popular evangelical evangelist next to Billy Graham in the 70s and 80s. From the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he led the Family Worship Center and the international Jimmy Swaggart Ministries. But it was in New Orleans that he was caught with prostitutes in 1988 and three years later in 1991. The budding internet exploded and his church and ministry was devastated.

4 unfortunate situations. Very different in some ways but absolutely the same in one significant way. Each of these men remained as pastor of his church. They all paused a while and returned to their pulpits – some within weeks. 

This problem of fallen leaders is not new. It’s difficult to determine if the incidents are growing that rapidly or if the internet has just made us more aware of the problem. One thing is for sure. The results are clearly wrecking families and undermining the credibility of religious leaders, especially in the minds of young people. 

I cringe when I go online and read the comments and hear the critics after a religious leader publicly falls. I can deal with the silly attacks from outsiders, but I’m really impacted by the deep hurt and disillusionment of insiders. I’ll never forget the pained look on a woman’s face who questioned aloud how Charles Jenkins could have penned and performed her favorite song, “My God is Awesome” while carrying on an affair. Tough one.

Can pastors be restored? Of course they can! The aim of the gospel is restoration and no one is exempt- including pastors. Of course pastors and religious leaders can be restored.  But that’s probably not the best question. A better question is probably, should they be? And how about:

  • Does restoration mean returning to the same pulpit?
  • How long should a pastor remain out of the pulpit?
  • Is sexual sin in a different category?
  • Does the “above reproach” mandate for pastors mean a lifetime of perfect service?
  • What about church discipline and religious leaders?
  • What about the damage to the church family?
  • What about the damage to the pastor’s family?

We’ll explore it next week, but let’s talk about it now. What do you think?  Share, comment, subscribe. Thanks.

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