Several weeks ago, I wrote an article called “Ten Suggestions For Pastors Under Attack.” You can read that article here: http://blog.restoringkingdombuilders.org/2015/05/12/ten-suggestions-for-pastors-under-attack-part-1/
I received an extended comment from a former pastor afterwards. (I’ll call him Rich.) Rich went through a terrible forced termination at a rural church less than two years ago. He was there only three years, yet the church tripled in attendance with many people coming to faith in Christ. By anyone’s measure, his ministry was a huge success.
But some church leaders chose to force Rich to resign. With Rich’s permission, let me reprint his comment … and then I will endeavor to answer his five questions at the end.
Hello Jim, I enjoyed your article, and have a few comments on the subject matter at hand. You have known me over the course of the last year and a half, and have been a tremendous help to me in recovering from my ministry loss. What is amazing, and quite eye opening to me is that there are people who sit in the pews, make claims about Christianity, and possess little semblance to Christ other than their empty, and shallow professions. Their sole investment is towards themselves, and how they think church should be done; and they will stifle or eliminate anyone who gets in their way. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE AND WHAT ARE THEY DOING IN THE BODY??! I apologize for the capital letters but I use them to express my emotion and frustration.
You had mentioned that there was a faction that threatened to leave the church if the pastor didn’t leave…my suggestion would be…THEN LEAVE!! The church will continue, and most likely in a much more healthy condition than if they stayed. These people are a cancer, eating away at the foundation of unity of the church body. They are an anchor weighing down the church, as they hold onto graven images that they deem valuable.
You had also mentioned that there was a group of people that brought up a bunch of your “faults” including those of your children. As a minister who has been pushed out of his vocation and is now working in a secular job, I have never heard of anyone in the corporate world making charges or accusations against someone’s children. Quite honestly (and I know this sounds bad for a minister to say) if anyone in the corporate world said anything negative about my children I would punch them in the mouth with no regret.
What is amazing to me is that we allow this subversive behavior to be exorcised within the church body! If anyone went through what I went through with my malicious antagonists there would be lawsuits in the corporate world. The way they tried to fire me after I gave my notice, the way they slandered my name, the way they cut my pay, and took away my medical benefits even knowing that my daughter was suffering from neurological issues and we had a MRI pre-scheduled…it was horrendous!
What I have realized that for many…church is something that many people do to feel good about themselves. They have made a religion of attendance, and are so consumed with being in the “church” they have forgotten or discarded Jesus. The only relevance in the lives of these people is that they are in the building, and having been in the building, therefore they must be sanctimonious. I am very weary of these polyester wearing, artificially flavored, self-centered, pre-packed, power hungry, low self-esteemed, and self serving leaches that suck the life out of the church. They have made a covenant with themselves, and their commitment is only to themselves. I realize that this post is filled with emotion but having been forced from my position because of some power brokers., I am still trying to get back to my calling, and get my life back. There has been a deep injustice, and things for me and my family have been difficult to say the least.
My questions to you are:
Can legal action be taken against such atrocious actions?
Should these people be held liable for their actions?
What can the church body do to prevent these people from their power?
How can the pastor who has been forced out find help getting back on his feet financially, and help into a ministry position?
What steps can the family take who has been affected by the trauma? (My wife is having a hard time considering being back into a ministry position…she does not want to allow herself to be vulnerable again).
Before answering Rich’s questions, I think his sense of outrage is healthy. His feelings might make some people feel uncomfortable, but sometimes Christians need to express themselves in strong terms before the wider body of Christ is willing to consider making significant changes in local church ministry.
Let me try and answer Rich’s questions:
First, can legal action be taken against such atrocious actions?
In most cases, probably not. A labor attorney told me that if a judge saw a church personnel issue on his docket, he would refuse to hear the case based on “the separation of church and state.” This constitutional provision prevents churches from being taxed but also prevents churches from being accountable to anyone outside of their congregation for internal decisions.
It seems to me that pastors have the following options if they believe they’ve been wronged by a church:
*Tell their supporters inside the church how they’ve been treated and let the supporters handle matters.
*Tell the local denominational leadership what’s happened and ask if they will intervene.
*Tell a church conflict interventionist … a church consultant … or a church mediator if they can step in and help … but this must be done before the pastor resigns … and the church board/faction must agree to it.
*Forgive everyone who wronged you quickly and move on … but it’s nearly impossible to do.
Pastors tell me all the time that they were slandered right out of their church. It’s true that if you’re employed in a company, you’re much better protected from slander than if you’re a local church pastor.
For this reason, I believe that when pastors negotiate the terms of their call, they need to insist that a clause be written into their contract that after they leave the church … regardless of why they leave … the official leaders must insure they will not be openly slandered. This implies that if the pastor discovers he is being slandered … and especially if it negatively impacts his ability to make a living … then he’d be justified in taking some kind of action against the church.
Of course, if the pastor slandered the church, don’t you think that he would be threatened with a lawsuit?
Second, should these people be held liable for their actions?
The term “liable” sounds like a legal term and implies that destructive churchgoers can be controlled by secular law. A better term might be “held accountable” … and the answer is “Yes,” they should be held accountable for their actions.
But this hardly ever happens in churches … and for the life of me, I don’t know why.
The New Testament is very clear that churchgoers guilty of heresy, division, slander, and rebellion must be confronted and asked to repent of their sin. Paul’s instructions in passages like Romans 16:17 and Titus 3:10-11 are clear that believers must be disciplined for corporate sin.
But when a group forces out their pastor … and that group happens to be the church board … who is going to hold them accountable? They hold the reins of power … and they know it.
In their minds, they won … the pastor lost … and to the winners go the spoils.
If a faction pushes out the pastor against the will of the church board, then the board can and should take action against the members of the faction … not as retribution, but to cleanse the congregation from sin. But this is done all too rarely, usually because some people on the board are friends with the rebels.
It’s ironic that some board members have no problem confronting their pastor about an issue but can’t bring themselves to confront their friends about anything.
In the end, God’s people have to believe that God will right all wrongs … either in this life, or in the next life. As Hebrews 10:30-31 says:
“For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.'”
Third, what can the church body do to prevent these people from their power?
If “these people” refers to the official church board, there are several things the members of a congregation can do to limit the power of those who abuse their pastor.
*Churchgoers need to hear both sides of the story as to why the pastor resigned and left. If they only hear one side … the board’s side … they can’t make any kind of objective judgment. For that reason, if I was attending a church where the pastor suddenly resigned, I would not believe the first thing I heard. (But sadly, brain-dead Christians often do.) Instead, I would sit down with a board member and hear his side, and then I’d contact the pastor and hear his side.
If one party wants to talk, and the other doesn’t, that makes it difficult. If neither party will talk (possibly due to a “gag order” in the pastor’s severance agreement), then finding out what happened is going to be hard … so I’d widen the circle of my knowledge.
The truth will eventually come out … it always does … but by then, most people won’t care anymore.
*Churchgoers who feel that the pastor was mistreated can insist that members of the church board tell them the process that the board used to deal with the pastor. In fact, I’d ask for a copy of the process in writing. And if I didn’t get it, I’d assume that the board either didn’t use any process, or that they used the law of the jungle.
Then I’d take that written process to the pastor and ask if the board followed the steps they’ve outlined.
*Churchgoers can attempt to remove board members through a process outlined in the church’s governing documents. If only the board stood against the pastor, and everyone else in the church supported the pastor, this might be a real option.
I was once in a homeowner’s association where the five-member board voted to make every homeowner re-shingle their houses at a cost of up to $70,000 per home. The homeowners rebelled and voted the board out of office … and discovered in the process that three of the five board members had homes with more than $100,000 in damages … and that they wanted everybody else to subsidize those improvements.
Throwing out that board was the right thing to do. I suppose in some instances, some church boards need to be removed as well. It just needs to be done very, very carefully.
*Churchgoers can hear both sides, protest the way the church board handled matters, and then leave the church for good. This is the way most churchgoers register their disapproval when a pastor has been forced to resign.
Fourth, how can the pastor who has been forced out find help getting back on his feet financially, and help into a ministry position?
If a church board forces out their pastor and does not give him a generous severance package … especially if the pastor has a family … to me, that’s a serious offense against God … and should be viewed as a form of retribution against the pastor.
A church board member wrote me recently and said that their new pastor … who had been at the church for less than a year … was not working out. The board gave him a six-month severance package even though it nearly emptied out the church’s savings.
But that’s the right thing to do, especially since most pastors are only qualified for one thing: being a pastor … and because it takes at least a year for a pastor to find a new position.
If a board doesn’t want to give the pastor a generous severance package, then they need to bring in someone from the outside who will help them negotiate their differences with the pastor.
If the pastor resigns abruptly because he’s being pressured to resign, the board should still offer him something to help him and his family.
But the best thing for the pastor to do is to trade a resignation letter for a severance agreement … and if the board won’t give him a severance, then the pastor should continue as pastor … which may lead to the resignation of the entire board.
If the pastor doesn’t receive any kind of severance agreement, then he has several options for money:
*Find an entry-level secular job … and quick.
*Try and live off the income of the pastor’s wife … if she has any.
*Take early withdrawals from the pastor’s retirement account … provided he has an account.
*Move in with family … if they’re willing … even if they live cross-country.
*Solicit gifts from friends and family on a temporary basis.
But here’s the problem: if the pastor has been forced to resign … and believes it was done unfairly … then he will carry that hurt and pain with him to the next job.
It takes a long time for a pastor to heal emotionally after going through a forced termination.
As far as how to find a new ministry … check out this article:
Finally, what steps can the family take who has been affected by the trauma?
This is such a great question that I’m going to write a separate blog article on this within a few weeks.
I’ll just make one comment: everybody in the family needs someone from outside the family who will listen to their thoughts and feelings without judging them.
It’s all right for family members to discuss the situation with each other … but a family can implode if they’re only talking with each other.
I realize this article is quite long, but I felt it was important for you to read the words of a pastor who has gone through a forced termination … and still struggles with its aftermath many months later.
May God help His people to act with kindness, grace, and truth whenever there’s an impasse between a pastor and a group in their church.