One of the most excrutiating experiences that a supervisor can have is to fire someone from their job. The first time I had to do this with a staff member, I felt horrible. Although I did not hire the person initially, I felt partially responsible that the staff member didn’t work out. I wondered, “What if I had supervised this person better? What if I had given them more attention? More training? More warning?”
Most pastors will leave a church via their own resignation. They will choose the method and timing of their departure. In the great majority of cases, they will leave one church for another. Sometimes they will leave a pastorate to teach in a Bible college or join a parachurch organization. And one day, they will preach their last sermon and then retire.
But many pastors – surveys now indicate more than 25% – leave church ministry involuntarily. They are usually forced from office by a faction of ten people or less … sometimes by their governing board. Most of the time, the process is handled clumsily, resulting in seething anger, ecclesastical division, and incalculable damage.
How can the termination of a pastor be handled in a more biblical and optimal fashion?
An attorney can recommend the legal way to terminate a pastor. The CEO of a company might suggest how it’s done in business. The church’s insurance agent might propose ways the church can minimize risks. And I could mention the way the federal government terminates employees … except they almost never terminate anyone!
If you’d like to read what the Bible says about correcting an elder/pastor, please check out 1 Timothy 5:19-21 (which applies Matthew 18:15-20 to spiritual leaders). I believe a pastor should be removed for heresy and for immorality but that many of the reasons why boards fire pastors today have more to do with style than sin. (Please see some of my previous blogs on these topics.)
I was a pastor for nearly four decades, and I saw a lot of my colleagues terminated in senseless ways. If I was still in pastoral ministry, and the board decided I had to go, here’s how I would like that process to be conducted:
First, I’d like to see a possible termination coming. If attendance was plunging, and giving was going south, and church opinion makers were unhappy, I would probably sense that my time in that place was coming to a close. And if members of the church board had talked with me about making changes in my ministry, but I either wouldn’t or couldn’t pull them off, that would suggest to me that my days in that church were numbered.
Some pastors have confessed to me that they stayed too long in a previous pastorate and wished they had left before they did.
Last fall, I had lunch with a former mega church pastor. He had been in his church for more than two decades, but for some unknown reason, attendance suddenly began declining at a rate where nothing he tried worked anymore. When he preached, he sensed that people weren’t listening to him. He eventually reached a settlement with the church board and resigned. The Lord confirmed to his spirit that his time in that spiritual community was over.
If a board has shared their concerns with their pastor, and if matters haven’t turned around after a reasonable time frame (maybe six months to a year), then the pastor should not be surprised if the board openly talks to him about leaving.
But if the ministry is going well, and attendance and giving are holding steady, and the board has never discussed the pastor’s behavior or ministry with him in a formal way, and then the board decides to terminate the pastor … the pastor will rightfully feel blindsided, and the board may very well lose control of the situation. While the board may have the legal and ecclesiastical right to remove the pastor from office (and in most congregational churches, they don’t have that right – only the congregation does), blindsiding a pastor with termination may be considered a destructive act that results in ripping apart both the pastor’s family and the church family. (Just know up front that many of the pastor’s supporters will leave the church within a few months.)
If I’m going to be involuntarily terminated, I want to see it coming a mile away. And if I do see it coming, I will try and make my own plans to depart before the board ever has to deal with me.
Second, I would like the process to be fair, not fast. When one member of a church board decides that “the pastor must go,” his anxiety can become contagious. Before anyone realizes the full ramifications, the entire board may then fall into line and quickly decide to fire the pastor. While anxiety drives us to make fast decisions, Jesus encourages us to make fair decisions.
Let’s say that a pastor has recently displayed inappropriate anger several times in private. The board should not convene and decide to fire the pastor immediately. Instead, Jesus says in Matthew 18:15 that if a believer sins [and this includes the pastor], it’s your duty to “show him his fault” in private [one-on-one, not in a board meeting]. Then Jesus says, “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen …” then you are to take one or two witnesses along, and ”if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” Some scholars believe that the board should be informed between verses 16 and 17, although Jesus doesn’t say that. In other words, the process is:
*A single believer [maybe the board chairman] talks with the pastor about his sin in private.
*If the pastor refuses to change, that single believer asks one or two more people [a staff member? a friend of the pastor?] to witness a second confrontation.
*If the pastor still refuses to change … only then does it become a board matter.
*If the pastor refuses to listen to the board (that’s three refusals), then either they can terminate him (if the church’s governing documents allow for this) or the church as a whole can vote him out of office in a public meeting (although there will be lobbying and it may become very divisive).
I don’t pretend to know how much time is needed between steps (maybe a month or two between each one?) but Jesus did not necessarily intend for the process to work instantly. The person being confronted – in this case, the pastor – is not being corrected for getting angry, but for refusing to acknowledge his anger and make the necessary changes in his life.
Before saying, “But pastors should be able to change their behavior immediately,” how long does it take you to make a major change in your life?
That’s why we need to give a pastor some time to make changes in his life.
Third, I would expect to be offered a generous separation package. The minimal severance a pastor should receive is six months. If a pastor has been in a church for more than six years, then a good rule-of-thumb is that he receive one month’s salary for every year he’s served in a church. While some board members might exclaim, “I would never receive severance pay like that at my job,” please realize the following facts about pastors:
*They are ineligible for unemployment benefits.
*They and their family members will suffer tremendously. It is common for the older children of a terminated pastor to stop attending church and even leave the faith. The wives of terminated pastors go from being somebodies to nobodies overnight. If the marriage has already been strained by ministry, the couple might head for divorce.
*The terminated pastor is often in so much pain that he turns to alcohol, drugs, or illicit sex.
*They will lose almost everything dear to them by being terminated: their careers, their income, their church family, their local friends, their house (if they have to leave the community and sell), and their reputations – in other words, they will lose their life as they know it. (This is why pastors often hang on at a church long after they should leave.)
*They will be stigmatized as a “loser” in much of the Christian community. As a veteran pastor told me when I first entered the pastorate, if a pastor resigns with no place to go, it’s the “kiss of death.” If he applies for another church position, his resume will most likely go to the bottom of the pile because he was fired from his previous church. The Christian world is very small and word gets around quickly.
*They will suffer constant depression, great anxiety, and feel like God has abandoned them.
*They will be shocked to discover that many of their ministry colleagues will turn away from them.
*The terminated pastor usually has to rebuild his life and ministry, and that takes time. The separation package allows for the pastor to pull away from ministry so he can take stock of his life and begin the healing process. If the pastor is given a token separation package, he and his family will feel that he has been “kicked to the curb” and it will take them a long time to recover and forgive those who hurt them.
We talk a lot in the church today about social justice. This is ecclesiastical justice.
If a board cannot or will not give the pastor a generous separation package, then they need to think twice – or ten times – about letting him go. Getting cheap here borders on being unchristian.
Finally, I would welcome the opportunity to resign rather than be fired. If the members of a governing board want to be vindictive toward a pastor, they can fire him outright – but the word will quickly get around the church, and the board will be severely criticized by many while others will angrily leave the fellowship and encourage others to come with them.
When some churches blindside a pastor by firing him, they never recover … and it becomes easier to fire the next pastor. When I was a kid, my dad felt forced to resign as a pastor, and after the board fired the next two pastors, the church went out of existence.
But if both the pastor and the board announce that the pastor resigned voluntarily, it takes the heat off the board and allows the pastor to leave with dignity.
The optimal win-win scenario is for the pastor to trade a unifying resignation letter for a generous separation package. That is, the pastor cites multiple reasons for his leaving in his letter, doesn’t harshly criticize anyone in the church (especially the leaders), and encourages everyone in the church to stay and support the next pastor. Years ago, I learned this adage: “The way you leave is the way you will be remembered.” Leave bitter, and you will leave a legacy of bitterness. Leave with class, and you will leave a legacy of class.
A small percentage of pastors deserve to be terminated – maybe even quickly – because they have inflicted great destruction on their ministries, their families, and themselves. But even then, they should be treated with dignity and their families should be cared for. But the great majority of terminations go wrong because the board wants the pastor to leave as quickly as possible, and they run the risk of dehumanizing him in the process.
Next time, I’ll talk about how to say goodbye to a pastor in a way in which everyone can win.
I just want to see Christian churches handle these situations in a more biblical and redemptive way.
Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and a forum where you can ask questions about conflict situations in your church.