Death to the One-Year Rule!

There is no sin that cannot be overcome, no transgression that cannot be put to death, no consequence so grave it cannot be undone in 365 days. At least, that’s what you might think as you read about pastors and other Christian leaders who rise, fall, and rise again. It’s the unwritten but often-followed “one-year rule.”

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Every month, or every few months, at least, we hear of another pastor or ministry leader who has been exposed as a fraud, an abuser, an adulterer, or something else. His church or ministry reacts by removing him from his position. Sometimes he is fired and sometimes he is placed on a kind of administrative leave. Whatever the case, we can pretty much set a timer for 365 days and expect that just as it elapses, we will begin to see his name again. He will re-open his social media accounts, he will preach a sermon somewhere, he will accept a conference invitation. He will begin his comeback.

There are exceptions, of course. Some men fall into such grave and repeated sin that they have no chance of ever regaining trust and reclaiming a position, despite their best attempts. Others fall into lesser sins but are truly repentant and convicted by God that, for the sake of family, church, or gospel they should not attempt a return to ministry. But for so many others, they wait out the year and sidle (or stride) right back in.

In some cases a year will prove sufficient. Where transgressions have been relatively minor and damage has been minimal a year may be time enough for a man to truly search his heart, to address his sin, to form new patterns, to express genuine repentance. It may be enough time for him to make apologies and, if necessary, restitution. It may be enough time for a family and church to regain its confidence in the man, to become convinced that he is once again qualified for ministry. Some churches or ministries experience the joy of welcoming back a man who has been forgiven and restored.

But in many more cases, a year will prove insufficient. This should not be a surprise because there is nothing magical about a year. There is no intrinsic power in the passing of 365 days and nights. A year gives us a date to put on a calendar, a reminder to enter into a task management app. In that way it can be a helpful milestone, a useful date to reconsider a situation. But a year seldom gives enough time for a man to properly evaluate, repent of, and replace the patterns that led him into disqualifying sin. It is seldom enough time for him to regain the trust of his family, to rebuild the bridges that were burned. And even if it is enough time to accomplish all of that, it is not necessarily enough time to pass the test of being tempted toward those same old sins, to be challenged in that new resolve. A year can feel like a long time, but how many of us look back at our lives and see one year as the time it took to overcome a besetting sin? Sanctification is a slow process, a slow progress. How many can see that we have regained forsaken trust in just 365 short days? Trust is gained slowly and shattered in an instant.

I understand the desire for haste. Many men in ministry have no other skill to fall back on, so they go from the generous salaries of megachurches to the hourly aisles of Home Depot. Many men in ministry have their very identities tied up in their vocation and find it excruciating to forgo the respect afforded to pastors for the apathy afforded to overnight clerks at the Holiday Inn. Many churches and ministries want to regain their charismatic figurehead, they want to resolve the unanswered questions, they want to express kindness and grace to a man they love. But we are rarely served by haste. We are never served by emphasizing haste at the expense of godly character.

As long as there is depravity in the human heart, there will be depravity in the church. As long as there are sinful men leading churches, there will be sinful men exploiting their position and becoming disqualified. It’s a sad reality that at times a man will need to be removed from his ministry. When that happens, we do well to carefully consider the unwritten “one-year rule” and whether it will be helpful or harmful. A year may be a long time, but as often as not, it will not be long enough.