Matt Chandler returned to the pulpit of The Village Church on Sunday, restored to ministry by the Texas church’s elders a little more than three months after he took a leave of absence to deal with what one elder called “some challenges that arose.”
A few minutes later, 48-year-old Chandler started preaching about sin.
“It is my understanding that I have fallen short of the glory of God and he has met me with grace,” he said. “It is my understanding that I am inconsistent and I do have spots that are hypocritical, and there are parts of me I don’t even understand.”
Quoting Ephesians 2:13–17, Chandler urged the congregation to see that the true promise of Christmas is reconciliation with God. But that can only start, he said, if people acknowledge their sin, as he himself had done on that same stage in late August.
“To humble ourselves before a living God gives us a shot at peace,” he preached. “I’ve got a part of this I’ve got to own. It might just be 1 percent, but that’s my 1 percent. Forgive me. Now we’ve got a shot at reconciliation.”
While he acknowledged his sinfulness again on Sunday, Chandler didn’t offer any more details about the situation that led to his leave of absence. In late August, he confessed to an inappropriate online relationship with a woman he was direct messaging on Instagram. Chandler said at the time that the ongoing exchange was neither sexual nor secret—his wife knew about it—but the church’s elders were nonetheless concerned “about frequency and familiarity,” and specifically “a familiarity that played itself out in coarse and foolish joking.”
A statement from the church in August said the direct messages violated its social media policy and “crossed a line.” The elders determined Chandler was not disqualified from ministry, the statement said, but there was “unhealth in his life.”
There is no available information about the woman Chandler was talking to and whether she was hurt in any way by the online relationship. Her view of the discipline and the restoration process are also unknown. She was not mentioned, even obliquely, in the service on Sunday.
Lead pastor Josh Patterson told the congregation that Chandler was disciplined because the church holds its leaders to “a higher standard.”
He said that after a three-months leave and a discipline and development process, the elders were affirming Chandler’s restoration without any second thoughts. Chandler’s return, he said, reminded him of when an athlete comes back after knee surgery.
“That athlete steps back on the field maybe with a little bit of timidity, saying, ‘Is the knee good?’” he told the church. Then he turned to Chandler: “Brother, the knee’s good. Run.”
The restoration comes at a time when Southern Baptists are wrestling with questions about the standards for ministers to return to the pulpit after a scandal or a moral failing. Former Southern Baptist Convention president Johnny Hunt was restored to ministry last week, six months after a third-party investigation found he was credibly accused of sexual assault.
The ministers on Hunt’s spiritual care team compared him to the man beaten and wounded on the side of the road in the parable of the Good Samaritan, without expressing any concern for the pastor’s wife who said that Hunt assaulted her. The four men said that because Hunt expressed “genuine brokenness and humility before God,” he could return to ministry. The current president of the convention, Bart Barber, said that if he had the power, he would defrock Hunt.
At The Village Church, Patterson pointed to Chandler’s willingness to accept the discipline of the elders and follow their restoration plan as evidence that Chandler is ready to return to leadership.
“He has faithfully worked that plan, genuinely worked that plan, authentically worked that plan,” Patterson said. “He’s had a very full three months and he’s been faithful to do what the elders have put before him.”
The church declined two requests from Christianity Today to answer questions about that restoration process. Few details were offered in the service on Sunday. Chandler mentioned a visit to a neurologist—he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2009—and some “intensives,” without sharing any more information.
According to posts on Instagram, Chandler spent some time at a men’s summit led by pastor Jim Burgen, who wrote a book about deliverance from bad choices.
“One day you glance at yourself in the mirror and a monster is staring back at you,” Burgen wrote. “You aren’t who you used to be. You aren’t who you wanted to be. You’re not who you were created and designed to be. Instead, you’re a dragon.”
In October, Chandler attended an Acts 29 gala and spoke on the opening night. Later that month, he wrote about spending time at a river cabin, going for walks, practicing jiu-jitsu, and praying the words of Psalm 27, “that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”
In November, Chandler went elk hunting in Colorado, on a trip arranged by Burgen. He posted a picture of himself in camo in the snow with a rifle slug over his shoulder.
“We spent hours talking about Jesus, marriage, kids and the dark things that can plague men,” Chandler wrote. More than 10,000 people liked the Instagram post and several commentators said they were eager to see him return to ministry.
On Sunday, Chandler thanked the elders for loving him and his family and working with him on his plan for his leave and eventual return.
“What a gutsy, godly group of men,” he said. “Gutsy—I almost used another word, and then would have to sit down again.”
The church laughed at the joke. At other times, the congregation urged Chandler on with shouts of encouragement. “Come on, Matt,” or “You got this, Matt,” several people said when the pastor appeared to be overcome with emotion.
Ten elders gathered around Chandler on the stage before his sermon. They laid hands on him while Patterson prayed. He said they were marking “a moment in Matt’s heart, to say, ‘restored.’”
At the end of the service, the congregation thanked Chandler for his 20 years of service. He was joined on the stage by his wife and three children, and the church rose to its feet, giving the pastor a standing ovation.