Prominent Evangelical Pastor Tearfully Steps Aside After ‘Unwise’ Relationship

The pastor of a prominent evangelical megachurch near Dallas abruptly announced an indefinite leave of absence on Sunday, effective immediately, because of an online relationship he had with a woman who is not his wife.

Matt Chandler, the lead pastor of the Village Church, told his congregation in a tearful admission that took place on stage during the worship service, that the relationship was not “romantic or sexual” but “unguarded and unwise,” and included “coarse and foolish joking that’s unbefitting of someone in my position.”

The sudden departure under somewhat murky circumstances of the high-profile pastor, admired by many younger evangelicals for his preaching and dynamic stage presence, is the latest crisis of leadership in American evangelicalism. Revelations of men abusing positions of power continue to frustrate and disappoint many in the pews. Recent years have seen the downfall of prominent figures including the megachurch leader Bill Hybels, the evangelist Ravi Zacharias and the celebrity pastor Carl Lentz.

The announcement of Mr. Chandler’s departure did not include allegations of abuse. But it comes as his church’s larger denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, faces continued scrutiny for its handling of a sprawling sexual abuse crisis. Southern Baptist leaders said earlier this month that multiple branches of the denomination were under investigation from the Justice Department for sexual abuse. In May the denomination released a report from a third-party investigation that found that national leaders had suppressed reports of sexual abuse and resisted proposals for reform over two decades.

A newly formed committee tasked with implementing a series of reforms within the denomination will meet in nearby Fort Worth this weekend.

The convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, is also grappling with internal divisions over its direction — including fundamental questions around the role of women in ministry and leadership.

The church released limited details to its congregation. Mr. Chandler said on Sunday that several months ago a woman had approached him in the church foyer and confronted him with “some concerns” about his direct Instagram messages with one of her friends. Mr. Chandler found the encounter “disorienting,” and told other church leaders, who commissioned a law firm to review his messaging history on his social media accounts, email and cellphone, according to a statement on the church’s website. Mr. Chandler also said that he and the woman communicated with the knowledge of their spouses.

After reviewing the report, church leaders decided that his actions had violated the church’s social media policy and biblical standards of being “above reproach,” but did not disqualify him from leadership. Church leaders decided he should take a leave that was both “disciplinary and developmental,” the statement said.

In response to questions from The New York Times, the church said that the woman in the lobby had confronted Mr. Chandler in February, and that it had hired a boutique law firm, Castañeda and Heidelman, to conduct an investigation. The church declined to share a copy of the report, “because we want to honor the request of the woman Matt was messaging with not to be in the spotlight,” the church said in an email.

The church declined to say whether Mr. Chandler was being paid during his leave from teaching and preaching.

“Matt will spend time during his leave from the pulpit focusing on his development with the elders and guided by outside counselors,” the church said in an email. “He will also continue to fulfill limited administrative leadership duties.”

Acts 29, the church-planting network where Mr. Chandler is president, said it has asked him to temporarily step away from speaking engagements. The group said it was notified in May that an investigation “was going to happen.”

Rachael Denhollander, an advocate for sexual abuse victims who has pushed for increased transparency in the denomination, said that the church did itself “no favors” by not making the report public.

“It is always best practice to release the result of the independent assessment,” she said. “It is the best protection for everybody.”

In 2019, the Village faced a sexual abuse allegation against an associate children’s minister. Christi Bragg, then a longtime member, said that Mr. Chandler and church leaders failed to provide her family with sufficient answers and support after her family told them that her daughter had been molested. Her daughter sued the church, and the church settled the case several weeks before Mr. Chandler’s announcement, maintaining that “we committed no wrong.” Ms. Bragg and her husband responded that the church’s public communication about the settlement was “misleading.” The criminal case against the former employee was dismissed in 2020.

Mr. Chandler, 48, has been the head pastor of the Village Church for about 20 years. When he took over the congregation then known as First Baptist Church of Highland Village, it had less than 200 members. The church now attracts about 4,500 attendees to its campus in Flower Mound, Tex., and has spun off independent congregations in the region.

But Mr. Chandler’s influence went far beyond his church. His energetic sermons circulated widely online, he was a fixture as a speaker at large conferences across the country, and he wrote multiple books.

Mr. Chandler took over leadership of Acts 29 in 2012 from Mark Driscoll, a pastor then under fire for his domineering management style and who has since become a symbol within evangelicalism of the pitfalls that can come from elevating charismatic men to leadership.

The Village said in an email that the timeline of Mr. Chandler’s return “depends on meeting expectations the elders have laid.” Mr. Chandler on Sunday began his remarks by saying he planned on being the pastor of the church for the next 20 years.

He said he felt “embarrassed” by what had transpired, and finished with a prayer thanking God “that the whole ethos of this family is you take crappy things and you turn them beautiful in time.”

As he left the stage, the congregation erupted in applause, and someone in the crowd called out, “We love you, Matt.”

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