How open should pastors and church leaders be about their own sin?

Steven Lawson & Joel Kim
2 Min Read

LAWSON: It depends on what the sin is and how widely it is known.

If a pastor falls into immorality, he’s disqualified from pastoral ministry. As he resigns from his church, there needs to be a full confession of the sin he has fallen into. If the pastor misses a green light when driving to church, is frustrated, and hits the steering wheel, I don’t think that needs to be confessed before the church. Those would be the two opposite ends of the spectrum.

At times, there are excesses in both directions. On one end, there are times when pastors give way too much detail, almost glorifying the sin in some ways. On the other end, for example, there was a time where I had to preach the next week after misusing my tongue and humor before the whole church. I had improperly used humor to make the church laugh at one person from the pulpit. The next week I knew I needed to get back into the same setting before the same congregation and confess that I had misused my tongue from the previous Sunday.

There is no hard and fast formula for this. The person’s conscience and the conviction of the Holy Spirit are factors in this issue. I don’t think every sin needs to be laundered in front of the congregation, however. I don’t think that’s helpful because it’s a false humility, or an incredible amount of spiritual immaturity, to think every sin needs to be paraded. There are times, however, where it is necessary, depending on the sin and the setting.

KIM: I agree with everything Dr. Lawson said—it’s a wisdom call. We live in a generation and time where authenticity and transparency are heralded traits. In many ways, that’s helpful, but I think it’s a wisdom call as to how much and what.

Let me answer this question from a different angle, from my upbringing and what we see in the church community as a whole. There is a separation and a distancing of the pastor and the pastorate from the lay, which may be because pastors feel uncomfortable or are concerned about openly sharing the sins they are struggling with.

I am not advocating that we share these things widely and openly with all the congregation members. I do think, given the time in which we live, especially when training future pastors, that it is very important for pastors to be honest about their own sins and surround themselves with people with whom they can be honest so that they are not isolated in their ministry. Not only is this important for their spiritual health but their longevity as well.

When you’re young, there are great aspirations about what you might want to do, and every seminarian graduates with hopes and dreams about how the Lord might use them. My dad was in the ministry for four decades, and my grandfather stayed in one church for thirty-nine years. When you reach that point, your mindset is “I want to finish well.” The goal is to finish the race faithfully and lift up the name of Christ Jesus in your ministry and life. In order to run that race, pastors need a group of people with whom they can be honest about these things.

When talking about honesty and sinfulness in pastoral ministry, it is completely a wisdom call as to what degree a pastor should be open about his sins before his congregation. When it comes to the need for that honesty and transparency with other people, I think it’s necessary for sustaining the ministry by God’s grace. In order to do that, however, you do need to be surrounded by people with whom you can be honest.

This is a transcript of Steven Lawson’s and Joel Kim’s answers given during our 2021 National Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email or message us on Facebook or Twitter.