What happens when there’s a failure in church leadership?

What happens when there’s a failure in church leadership?  Actually, the better question is what should happen when there’s a failure in church leadership?  The example we’ll look at is real.  It happened.  And it’s sure tempting to blame the Bishop.  In fact, that’s pretty much what the New York Times article does.  But there are deeper issues.  Larger questions.  One of them – how did this situation ever get to the point where $2.3 million dollars was spent on a home for a retiring Bishop?

failure in church leadership

While this is about church leadership, it’s also valid for any kind of leadership.  Even in a secular company.  You could go with just the general principles we’ll talk about.  But if you keep an open mind, I believe you’ll also find that there are good reasons for following Biblical principles – in any instance where there’s a failure of some kind.  I invite you to check it out – even if you’re not a Christian.

Feel free to read the original article for the details, but here’s a quick summary of what happened.

Bishop Patrick J. McGrath is 73, and as such he must retire from the Diocese of San Jose within the next couple of years.

He knew he needed a place to live, and recalled thinking that a house owned by the diocese that is on cemetery property just would not do. Retrofitting, he said, would have cost too much.

But as soon as the bishop began looking at other real estate in San Jose, Calif., he ran into the same harsh reality his parishioners have groused about for years: Silicon Valley housing is astronomically expensive.

So, after getting approval from the necessary parties, he agreed to the use of diocese funds to buy a five-bedroom home for $2.3 million. It was purchased last winter.

It might have ended there, but the San Jose Mercury News ran a story on it.  Then the phone calls started.  Turns out the house has a chef’s kitchen, “soaring ceilings”, and 3,269 square feet of living space.  Wow.  I wish I had a chef’s kitchen.  Being retired, I finally have time to cook.  That would be amazing.  I don’t know about all that space though.  I think I’d feel really small and lost in something that big.

But I digress.  Back to reality.  In the end, here’s what happened.

“I assume full responsibility for this decision and I believe that the sale of the house is the appropriate action,” he [the Bishop] said in the statement.

Bishop McGrath also thanked his advisers and disclosed his new, more modest, post-retirement housing plan: to live in a rectory at one of the diocese’s parishes.

When there’s a failure in church leadership

Obviously, lots of money can get wasted.  But I’ve got a bigger question, as I said.  Why did this Bishop have to “fall on his sword”, so to speak, and accept “full responsibility”? for what happened?

Yes, as the article points out, Priests are encouraged to live a simple life, and the Bible generally preaches against excess.

But the thing is, I’ve come across any number of Priests who don’t live a simple life.  Especially when they aren’t “mere” Priests, but raise to higher levels – like Bishop, Archbishop, Cardinal, Etc.  I’m not Catholic anymore, but I do remember them being chauffeured around in big black Lincoln Town cars when I was younger.  And they lived in nicely furnished Church housing.  With a maid / cook.  And the food – it was really good.  And the wine.  Not exactly a simple life.

But again, there’s a larger issue.  Is it true that the Bible generally preaches against excess?  I don’t think so.  I think the word “generally” needs to be replaced with a different word.  Like “always”.  Doesn’t the Bible always preach against excess?

There’s a section the NIV the following title:

Living for God

In this instance, we’re going to look at this passage from the King James Version.  I don’t normally use the KJV, because of the old English words.  But in this case, the NIV doesn’t use the word “excess”, so I’m going with the KJV to make the comparisons more obvious.

1 Pe 4:1 Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin; 2 That he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God. 3 For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: 4 Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you: 5 Who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead. 6 For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.  [1]The Holy Bible: King James Version. (2009). (Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version., 1 Pe 4). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

This is particularly poignant for the Catholic Church, given that Peter was the one they’ve chosen to claim as the first leader of their church.  Peter doesn’t say we should “generally” change our lives to follow the will of God.  No.  Peter says we should no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God.  That not generally.  That’s no longer.  As in never.

While it’s true that we won’t always succeed, there may appear to be some wiggle room when we get into the area of generally versus no longer.  Let’s be clear – there really isn’t wiggle room for what we should try to do.  We can’t say that the Bible says we only need to generally try to do the right things.  That would be like having the Bible say we could, from time to time, not even want to or try to do the right things.

The Seven Woes

The seven woes is the NIV section title for a passage in Matthew’s Gospel.  Below is an excerpt from those woes, again from the KJV.

Mt 23:25 “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.”

So once again, we see that excess (of anything) is not a good thing.  Especially when one tries to hide it.  And isn’t that exactly what happened in the case of the $2.3 million house?  If the San Jose paper didn’t publish their story, the Bishop would very likely be living in that house right now.

Before we proceed to the larger issue, I do want to make one statement here.  I am not picking on the Catholic church.  Or singling them out.  They just happen to be the one written about in this particular article.  It could have been any denomination.  Any church.  Any person within the church.

But this article triggered something for me.  I’m going through a scripture memorization class right now.  It’s very interesting.  They use images to remember passages, rather than just memorizing the words.  Amazingly, it’s working.  I still have trouble coming up with the images – but once past that hurdle, it really works.  Very cool.  Many thanks to the folks doing the class.

Scripture is God-breathed …

Anyway – one of the passages we’re using in that class is this one:

2 Ti 3:16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

So – can you see why this story made me think of this passage?

It this:  useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

This totally describes what should happen when there’s when a failure in church leadership.

Each of those four actions has a role to play in either trying to prevent a failure in church leadership, or else should kick in when the failure does take place.  They are an action plan for success – plus an action plan for recovery and getting back on track after there’s been a failure.

I used to do that with my staff when I was in management in a secular job.  Not using the Bible, especially since it was a university – and not a Christian one.  But the principles – absolutely.  Given that this is a church scenario we’re looking at, that passage is applicable in its entirety.  It should be the plan.  Here’s how it can work.

What happens before there’s a failure in church leadership?

Remember, part of the passage should take place before anything even has a chance to go wrong.


Using the Bible, everyone should have been taught.  Given that we’re talking about a situation where church leadership is involved, it’s inconceivable that this didn’t take place.  But in other cases, like where lay people are involved in church leadership – they should also have adequate training.  There will be more on that shortly –  especially regarding why this is so important.

What happens after there’s a failure in church leadership?

We’re people.  Even church leaders are people.  Failures will happen.  Hopefully not willfully.  Thankfully, forgiveness is also available, if asked for.  But they will happen. That’s when the other three things from what Paul wrote come into play.


When a failure is noticed, someone needs to be rebuked.  We’ll get into the “who” later.  But it should not and cannot be ignored.  The real question here might be what does rebuke actually mean?  What did it mean in the days of the early church, more specifically?  Because we need to act based on what the word meant then – not what it might mean today.  It’s important, because it sets the tone for how we should react with one another.  Not in the ways of the world – not in ways the may have been either watered down or made more harsh over time – but following in the ways of the early church.

2008 ἐπιτιμάω [epitimao /ep·ee·tee·mah·o/] v. From 1909 and 5091; TDNT 2:623; TDNTA 249; GK 2203; 29 occurrences; AV translates as “rebuke” 24 times, “charge” four times, and “straightly charge” once. 1 to show honour to, to honour. 2 to raise the price of. 3 to adjudge, award, in the sense of merited penalty. 4 to tax with fault, rate, chide, rebuke, reprove, censure severely. 4A to admonish or charge sharply.  [2]Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

Well, that’s kind of “all over the map”.  Not surprising, since the Gospels even have Jesus rebuking a demon in Mark 9:25 and Luke 4:33–36  [3]Anderson, K. (1996). Where to Find It in the Bible. Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers. We certainly wouldn’t expect to be told that we should speak to each other in the same manner that Jesus rebuked a demon.

Not surprising though, we actually find out the tone of rebuking a brother or sister in Christ in the verses immediately after the one about all scripture being God-breathed:

2Ti 4:1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

So we see, rebuking the one(s) involved in a failure in church leadership should be bringing it to their attention with great patience and careful instruction.  Instruction.  That sounds familiar.  Like the teaching that was (should have been) done originally?  Yes.


After the failure is recognized, and after the appropriate people have been made aware, it’s time for the third item in Paul’s list – correcting.

Let’s see what was implied by the word “correcting” at that time.

1882 ἐπανόρθωσις [epanorthosis /ep·an·or·tho·sis/] n f. From a compound of 1909 and 461; TDNT 5:450; TDNTA 727; GK 2061; AV translates as “correction” once. 1 restoration to an upright or right state. 2 correction, improvement of life or character.  [4]Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

OK – so it really is correcting something that was wrong.  But it’s not like correcting a math quiz or a multiple choice question.  We see the matter of restoration – bringing to an upright condition.  This correcting is about making things right before God again.

Obviously, this need to be done for the people involved in whatever failure occurred.  But it may also be an issue in procedures, processes, Etc.  All sorts of things can lead to a failure in church leadership.  Any and all of them need to be checked out and corrected, if needed.


Which bring us to the last of the four things Paul brings up.  Training.  Whatever came out of the correcting step – some kind of training is probably going to be required.  And not just for those who “messed up”  It’s for everyone who could be part of whatever process failed.  If we go through and only correct the issue for the people involved – then what’s going to happen to others who might be in the same position later?  If we do nothing else – they’re liable to end up in the exact same situation.

Even the teaching from step one might need to be modified.  And then everyone – whether involved in this incident or not – who might be susceptible to making the same error later, will be included in the new / revised teaching – by way of training.

teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness

So there’s the whole process.

Teach – let everyone know the way things should work – in a Biblical way – with righteousness before God as the goal.

Rebuke – when necessary, after a failure, bring it to the attention of the appropriate people within the church.  Do it in a loving and gentle way.  Again – keep righteous before God.

Correct – take whatever corrective steps are necessary to get back in a right condition with God.

Train – given that a failure occurred, be sure everyone that needs to know the new path to staying right before God is actually aware of it.

What shouldn’t happen when there’s a failure in church leadership

Yes, that heading is correct.  What should not happen when there’s a failure in church leadership?

Well, one thing that I don’t believe should have happened in the case we just looked at is what I’ve been referring to as the larger issue.  It involves those people I said we’d get to later.  Well – later is now.  And here’s the thing:

“I assume full responsibility for this decision and I believe that the sale of the house is the appropriate action,” he [the Bishop] said in the statement.

Earlier, I referred to this statement as the Bishop falling on his sword.  Why did the Bishop do this?  Better yet, why did he have to do it?

Remember – he had advisers.  He was, essentially, middle management in the church.  This was a case of failure in church leadership, no doubt.  But while all of this was going on – where were his advisers?  Did the Bishop really have $2.3 million sign-off capability, with no one higher than him having to approve it?

In my job, I was right under the Vice President.  I had a multi-million dollar budget.  But there’s no way I was allowed to sign off on an amount like that without the signature of my VP.  Even when he was unavailable, I had signing authority for him, but for something like that I still had to get sign-off by the President.  And even then, my VP would have already let him know it was coming and would have already had approval for it.  For me, at my position, to just spend that much money – It wasn’t going to happen.

So – while this Bishop certainly is part of the church leadership – where was the rest of the leadership while this was going on?  If they truly had no awareness, then I submit that also was a failure in church leadership.  Someone else should have been aware.  Even if there was no one who actually had knowledge of this – that fact alone is a problem.  A big one.

And so, while the Bishop clearly needed rebuking and correcting – I can’t help but think that he wasn’t the only one.  And if no one else was rebuked or corrected – how does another failure get prevented?


Shortly before His death, Jesus said this to His disciples:

Jn 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Love one another.  Surely this command applies to the leadership of any Christian church.  To the leadership and to the members.  In many churches, members are part of the leadership.  So we should all Love one another.  Let me ask you something.  How loving is it to let one man take the blame for something that many were involved in?  Sure – he was retiring.  It probably didn’t have much of an impact on him.  Maybe even none – other than not getting his big house.  But does that make it right to leave him hanging out there?  It doesn’t sound very loving.  Not to me.

In case more of an explanation is needed, here are Paul famous words on “love”.


Ro 12:9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Ro 12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Ro 12:17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Ro 12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Leaving the Bishop out on his own to accept the blame still doesn’t sound loving.  It doesn’t sound devoted.  Nor does it qualify for loving one another above ourselves.

Maybe you think I’m a bit too hard by including that last verse.  The one about being overcome by evil.  And yet, isn’t that what we do when we send someone else out to take full blame for something in which we’ve played a part?  Like I said – even if no one else knew what was going on with that $2.3 million – that lack of knowledge alone was a failure.  One way or another – the Bishop was not alone in what transpired.  Because even if he truly did it on his own – he never should have been placed in a situation where it was possible.

Even if the Bishop wanted to take responsibility to save the others from embarrassment, I still have to wonder – was that the right thing to do?  By that, I mean the right thing before God?  Yes, Jesus died for us – the things we did.  But are we called to “die” for the things other Christians do?  Or are we called to teach, rebuke, correct and train one another?  And how much of that takes place when we take the blame for someone else?

At some point, do we play a part in someone, maybe even us, hearing some words from Jesus that we looked at earlier?  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.

Food for thought.  You probably have to literally be there to know what you’d do in that case.

We looked at the church in this article.  We also discussed considerations for how God might view all of this.  But you know, there’s also an impact on people who aren’t even involved in the church.  Not just this particular church – but any church.  Things like this give the church a black eye.  It looks bad.  And it leads to the issues discussed in Confidence in organized religion hits all-time low in Gallup Poll.

And so – when we, as Christians, send a brother or sister out to take our blame – are we lying?  A lie of omission.  A lie that allows someone else to take the blame.  And lets us appear to be innocent.  Maybe ignorant – but appearing innocent.  It seems wrong.  To me.  Especially when it’s a failure in church leadership.

For another look, and a shorter one, into the 2 Timothy passage, please see The problem of Truth.


1The Holy Bible: King James Version. (2009). (Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version., 1 Pe 4). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
2, 4Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
3Anderson, K. (1996). Where to Find It in the Bible. Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.

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