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Texas pastor steps aside over messages with woman that ‘crossed a line’

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Matt Chandler, the lead pastor at the Village Church in Flower Mound, Tex., appeared to fight back tears as he told his congregation on Sunday that he was taking a leave of absence — a move prompted by what his church’s leaders saw as inappropriate messages between him and a woman who is not his wife.

The leaders determined that the messages were not “romantic or sexual,” Chandler explained. “It was that our conversations were unguarded and unwise.”

Chandler and church officials went into scant detail about the nature of the messages. He said both his wife and the husband of the woman he was messaging knew about their communications. But church leaders thought the messaging was too frequent, familiar and resulted in “coarse and foolish joking,” Chandler said.

The pastor said the messages were called into question “several months ago” when a friend of the woman approached him and voiced her concerns. Chandler, 48, said he brought the concerns to fellow church leaders, who reviewed the messages and recommended he step aside.

Chandler’s abrupt departure is the latest setback for the Village Church, about 30 minutes northwest of Dallas, and the Southern Baptist Convention denomination — the country’s second-largest faith group, of which the Village Church is a member. Earlier this month, the SBC revealed that the Justice Department was investigating several branches of its organization. The probe followed the release of an internal report that found SBC leaders mishandled sexual abuse cases for two decades.

Also this month, the Village Church announced that it had settled a lawsuit alleging that one of its ministers molested an 11-year-old and the church was negligent in handling the situation. The criminal case against the minister was dismissed. The church maintained that it “committed no wrong.”

While the church was vague about the details of Chandler’s misconduct, officials made it clear that its lead pastor was not accused of sexual abuse.

His departure is nonetheless a blow to the church where he’s preached for two decades and become a central, admired figure. The church’s attendance is around 4,500 people, the New York Times reported.

Chandler will also pause his speaking engagements on behalf of Acts 29, an organization dedicated to starting new churches. Chandler serves as Acts 29’s board president and chairman.

In a statement, the church said that Chandler’s “leave of absence is both disciplinary and developmental” and his return will be determined by the “expectations the elders have laid out for his development.”

In front of the congregation on Sunday, Chandler explained that several months ago, a woman approached him in the church’s foyer with concerns about “how I was [direct messaging] on Instagram with a friend of hers.”

He did not think he had done anything wrong, as his spouse and the woman’s spouse were aware of their chats, he said. “Yet there were a couple of things that [the woman’s friend] said that were disorienting to me,” Chandler said without detailing the friend’s comments.

So Chandler brought the issue to a pair of church leaders, who, after looking at the Instagram conversations, determined the communications were too frequent and familiar, Chandler said.

In a statement, the church said that it hired a law firm to review the direct messages, along with Chandler’s entire social media history, including text messages and emails. The lawyers concluded that the pastor had violated the church’s social media policy. They also determined that he failed to meet the church-pastor standard of being “above reproach.” The leaders found that Chandler’s behavior was “a sign of unhealth in his life.”

“In this case, while the messages were not romantic or sexual in nature, the frequency and familiarity of the messages crossed a line,” the church’s statement said. “They revealed that Matt did not use language appropriate for a pastor, and he did not model a behavior that we expect from him.”

Even as Chandler announced his leave of absence, people in the crowd shouted their praise for him. Chandler nevertheless expressed remorse.

“I’m just really embarrassed, feel stupid … feel dumb,” Chandler told the congregation Sunday, adding: “I’m held to a higher standard and fell short of that higher standard.”