Two weeks ago the former pastor of Highview Baptist Church in Louisville passed away. For 25 years Bill Hancock served as pastor of this church until his tenure came to a sudden end. It ended in 1995 due to his marital infidelity. After he left, ugly details circulated as he headed to rebuild his life in Texas. He found a way to minister to hurting people by working for a funeral home. The reporting of his death by the newspaper in Louisville has generated quite a bit of buzz. Some of the comments were gracious and thankful for his positive influences in people’s lives. Others gave evidence of having been hurt by the duplicitous life of this Christian leader. Still others were extremely harsh towards a man who demonstrated the height of hypocrisy.
As I read through the articles and comments about this man, I thought about my own legacy — what it will be. My story is similar to Hancock’s in many ways. First, his fall came while serving as the pastor of a baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky. So did mine.
Second, his fall came over a decade ago in 1995. Mine happened two years later in 1997. I had moved to Louisville in January of 1996 to do PhD work at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and was pastor of the new Trinity Baptist Church (since merged with Clifton Baptist Church). I remember visiting Highview Baptist Church in my early days in Louisville. This was after Hancock’s tenure.
Third, some of the same people were involved in the cleanup of both falls. Highview was strongly connected to Southern Seminary since it was the home church for President Al Mohler. I was a student and a teaching fellow at Southern. I don’t know about Hancock, but I had many face to face encounters with some of the folks at Southern.
In response to the printed account and responses to Hancock’s death, I am left with a number of things that I know and some things that I question. Here are some of my thoughts:
1. I am extremely grateful for those who have demonstrated grace and forgiveness to me. It is obvious that Hancock had many who treated him the same way. Some of these people will never know (this side of heaven) what that grace has meant to me. Last week I received a phone call from one of these guys. He was merely checking to see how I am doing and to chat. I hung up the phone with a surge of gratitude to God for such a friend.
2. I understand those who have a hard time expressing that kind of grace. I cannot demand nor expect them to wipe the slate clean. In fact, I have never understood those who so egregiously violate trust and expect others to forgive when an apology is offered. If it is expected and can be demanded, then it is not grace. Hancock nor I deserve to be forgiven and to have grace extended to us. The problem is not with the response of people. The problem was in our betrayal of our pastoral fidelity.
3. I know that the consequences for this kind of sin will always exist, even if we leave this world. Our actions have tarnished our name and the name of our God. God can handle the defense of his name because of his holiness. I have no defense.
4. I know that the consequences are not limited to the individual sinner. My family, in particular, was deeply wounded by my actions. Several people expressed sorrow for Hancock’s family for having to read about this one segment in the life of their kin. Unfortunately, that’s part of the deal. My children will always have a father who failed to demonstrate godly love towards their mother. They will continue to have to split holidays and special occasions.
5. I am a bit envious that Hancock found a way to minister to hurting people. I try to do the same in my writings and personal interactions with people. My path has taken me into the business world. I hope that I have had a godly influence on those with whom I have encountered. Too often I have failed at that, too.
6. I also have realized afresh that the sin of adultery did not negate the genuine heart-felt love and ministry to those before the fall. One writer indicated that his own marriage has been solid and wonderful as a result of the teaching and advice received from Hancock prior to his/her wedding day. I have heard from many of those among whom I had lived and ministered that have benefited spiritually from my pastoral leadership.
7. I hope that those who are currently in pastoral ministry or preparing for the ministry will learn from those of us who have fallen. It wasn’t worth it. Period.
8. I long to stand before my Lord and fall before the one who gave his life for my sin. Hancock has now experienced that.
A few weeks ago, I opened up an email late at night while laying in my bed. It was from somebody very dear to me. It was a message of grace and love. It expressed admiration for growing through this horrendous time of life and demonstrating a better love to those around me. The message left me unable to speak with tears flowing down my cheeks. Any struggles, as painful as they have been, pale in comparison to this amazing demonstration of grace.
I pray that I will continue to grow, be gracious and loving. I pray that when I die, my legacy will be more than the stupidity of my actions in 1997.