When a pastor is dismissed or involuntarily resigns from a church without having another job, it is customary in the Christian community to give that pastor a severance package. This is especially important if the pastor would like to stay and serve at the church but has been asked to leave by official church leaders.
Why give a terminated pastor a severance package?
1. It usually takes at least a year for a pastor to find another ministry. Because there are fewer church openings than ever today, finding a ministry job is a job. A severance package allows the pastor to pursue his divine calling, which is why the Lutheran Missouri Synod passed a resolution in 1998 to give forced-out pastors a severance of one full year’s salary.
2. Most pastors lack the required training and skills to land a secular job that pays them a livable wage. Many secular jobs require a lengthy certification process – including further education, which costs money – and even if a pastor completes the requirements, there is no guarantee that anyone will hire him. In addition, many secular employers are fearful that an ex-pastor may spend time trying to convert other employees or customers rather than doing his job. Because of their divine call to ministry, pastors are often unsuited for other professions.
3. Since pastors do not pay into unemployment, they are not eligible to receive it. A severance package – which includes salary plus medical insurance – provides the pastor the best possible bridge to his next position.
4. After a pastor resigns, he still has to meet his financial obligations. He has to pay his mortgage, property taxes, and utilities; car payments and auto insurance; food and gasoline bills; and medical insurance for his family, among other payments. When church leaders want a pastor to resign, but are unwilling to give him a severance agreement, the leaders seem to be engaging in retribution rather than moving toward reconciliation.
5. The terminated pastor usually has to rebuild his life and ministry, and that takes anywhere from one to three years. When pastors leave a church abruptly, it devastates them mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, often sending them into depression. A severance package allows the pastor to pull away from ministry and promotes the healing process.
6. Many parties carefully watch a church to see how they treat their pastor when he leaves, including: (a) church young people who are thinking about going into ministry; (b) new believers inside the church, who often have a strong connection to their pastor; (c) unbelievers in the community, especially the friends or relatives of church members; (d) the pastor’s supporters, many of whom will leave the church if they discover their pastor has been mistreated; and (e) prospective pastors, many of whom will turn down a church that mistreated the previous pastor. When a church grants their pastor a severance package, it’s a tangible way of saying, “In spite of our differences, we want to assist you with this transition so that God can heal and bless both you and our church.”
7. A good rule-of thumb is that the pastor should receive at least one month’s salary for every year of his tenure. The absolute minimum length of the severance package should be six months, especially if the pastor was asked to resign. If the pastor has been dismissed after more than six years of service, he should receive a severance package of at least one year.
*What if our church can’t afford to pay the pastor a severance agreement?
Unless your pastor is guilty of a major offense (like heresy, sexual immorality, or criminal behavior), do everything you can to work things out so the pastor can stay and enjoy a fruitful ministry. Bring in a mediator, church consultant, or conflict manager/interventionist to negotiate your differences. Sometimes church leaders seek to dismiss their pastor prematurely without ever working through issues with him directly. If you truly believe that the pastor needs to leave, then trust God to provide the funds when you need them.
*What if the pastor seems to have disqualified himself from ministry by his misbehavior?
If your pastor has a family, make sure that they are cared for financially. Whatever the pastor has done to merit dismissal, his family members are likely not responsible. And be careful of declaring a pastor who is innocent of a major offense as being “disqualified from ministry” as justification for not giving him a severance agreement.
*How should we pay the severance?
You can pay the pastor just like you’ve been paying him all along: either weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. If you don’t already use direct deposit, this would be a good time to start. Some churches may choose to pay the pastor a lump sum up-front, or pay him half the money up-front and half at another time.
*What might happen if we choose not to pay a severance?
When you give your pastor a severance package, he may have enough money to move from your community, minimizing the chance that he will interfere in your church’s future plans. If you don’t give him a severance package, he may not have the funds to move, and he may choose to start a new church in your community – and people from your church may constitute his initial mission field.
But more than anything, Jesus’ Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) applies here: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
*What are some of the stipulations church leaders can put into the severance agreement?
You can ask the pastor (a) not to sue the church; (b) not to start a new church within a certain mile radius; (c) not to disclose the terms of the severance agreement.
*When should the severance agreement be presented to the pastor: before or after his resignation?
If you plan to dismiss the pastor according to church bylaws, then present him with a written severance agreement as soon after you’ve met with him as possible. The pastor should be permitted to take a few days and ask his attorney to review the document before he signs it. If you plan on asking the pastor for his resignation, then he may ask for the outline of a severance agreement in writing first. It is customary for the pastor to trade a unifying resignation letter for a generous severance package.
*Should we ask the congregation to approve or ratify the severance package?
If you ask the church to vote on the severance agreement, you will almost always foster congregational division. Members will tend to vote on whether or not they like the pastor rather than the merits of the severance package. It’s better for the official board to negotiate the package with the pastor directly and then announce an outline of the agreement with the congregation at a later time. I’ve heard about church boards that “kick the can” to the congregation in hopes that they will vote it down. In my mind, such behavior is despicable and unworthy of a Christian congregation.