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Popular Pastor Returns After Absence Over an ‘Inappropriate’ Online Relationship

FLOWER MOUND, Texas — The prominent pastor of a Southern Baptist megachurch in suburban Dallas received a standing ovation as he returned to the pulpit on Sunday, more than three months after abruptly announcing an indefinite leave over an “inappropriate” online relationship.

Matt Chandler, the lead pastor of the Village Church, which attracts about 4,500 attendees to its main campus and has spun off independent congregations in the region, faced a packed sanctuary and apologized for vaguely defined online misbehavior he repeatedly referred to as “my foolishness.”

“I’m sorry, I failed you,” he said. “The Lord met us and he carried us through, and I don’t want to lose sight of that.”

As he took the stage early in the service, he was greeted with cheers and whistles. Someone in the congregation yelled out, “We love you, Matt!” as he appeared to struggle to contain his emotions.

Mr. Chandler, 48, a revered national figure within evangelicalism who is known for his dynamic preaching style, had not given a sermon at the Village Church since he tearfully told his congregation in August that he had been involved in a relationship online with a woman who was not his wife. The relationship was not “romantic or sexual” but “unguarded and unwise,” he said then, and included “coarse and foolish joking that’s unbefitting of someone in my position.”

Mr. Chandler said in August that a woman had approached him this year in the church foyer to confront him with concerns about his direct messages on Instagram with one of her friends. Mr. Chandler said he immediately went to church leaders, who commissioned a law firm to review his messaging history and later placed him on a leave of absence that the church said was both “disciplinary and developmental.” The church has not publicly released any version of the investigation.

Mr. Chandler’s departure under cloudy circumstances came at a moment of uncertainty for many American evangelicals. Churches are struggling with persistently lower attendance since the pandemic and are divided by cultural and political conflicts that the Village Church has generally tried to avoid. Many evangelicals are disillusioned over a series of scandals involving prominent leaders including the evangelist Ravi Zacharias and the megachurch leader Bill Hybels.

The question of how quickly and under what circumstances a pastor should be restored to ministry has been the subject of wider debate among many evangelicals over the last few weeks. In late November, a group of four pastors who worked closely with Johnny Hunt, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said they considered him qualified to return to ministry after a report published by the denomination in May included what it said was a credible claim that Mr. Hunt had sexually assaulted a woman shortly after his presidency ended in 2010. Mr. Hunt has said the encounter was consensual. The current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bart Barber, strongly condemned the idea of Mr. Hunt’s return last week.

The scope of Mr. Chandler’s misbehavior is unclear, complicating issues of redemption and forgiveness. On Sunday, Mr. Chandler said that during his leave he participated in two “intensives,” which the church described as counseling sessions with professionals specializing in Christian leadership, and a neurological exam. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2009 and underwent treatment that included surgery. A spokeswoman for the church said there was no evidence that the cancer had returned.

In an email last week to members, church elders said Mr. Chandler “completed everything asked of him with submissiveness, steadfastness and humility, and we have received positive feedback from all involved.”

The church’s all-male board of elders joined Mr. Chandler onstage on Sunday morning, laying their hands on him in prayer. Josh Patterson, another pastor, described the group as unified in restoring Mr. Chandler to leadership.

Mr. Patterson compared Mr. Chandler to an athlete who has undergone surgery on his knee and been cleared to play by his doctor, but may still feel timid about using it. “Your knee is good,” Mr. Patterson told Mr. Chandler, to another round of sustained applause. “Run.”

The woman with whom Mr. Chandler had the online relationship has not been publicly identified. The church’s email to members last week did not refer to her, nor did anyone refer to her from the stage on Sunday morning.

Acts 29, the church-planting network of which Mr. Chandler was president, said in August that it had asked him to temporarily step away from speaking engagements. He is currently listed on its website as executive chairman of the board; the group’s previous executive director, Brian Howard, is now listed as president. A spokesman for Acts 29 said in an email that the men were given titles that “more accurately reflect the duties of each of their roles.”

Friday was the 20th anniversary of Mr. Chandler’s becoming the church’s lead pastor, and church elders called the timing of his return a “beautiful coincidence” in their email to church members. Toward the end of the service on Sunday, Mr. Chandler’s wife, their three children and his wife’s parents joined him onstage next to a screen projection thanking him “for two decades of bold teaching, faithful leadership and authentic pastoring.”

The service fell three weeks before Christmas, and the Village Church’s windowless sanctuary was decorated with Christmas trees and holiday lights. As Mr. Chandler left the stage after his first emotional appearance, the band began to play a contemporary version of a Christmas carol, starting midsong with words that were also emblazoned on a banner on the church’s facade: “O come, let us adore him.”

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