Pastor Jon was in trouble.
He had graduated from Yale as a young man, becoming valedictorian of his class, and later became a faculty member there. But he sensed that God wanted him to become a pastor rather than a professor.
So Jon was called to pastor the church that his grandfather had led for 57 years … a prestigious church of 600 members.
Several years later, Jon’s ministry gained great fame when 300 people were converted within 6 months. He later preached one of the most influential sermons of all time.
But although Jon was held in high esteem outside his church, his influence gradually began to wane among his own congregation.
For starters, Jon was paid by the local town council, and some people objected to the fine clothes and jewelry that his wife wore.
Since the townspeople paid his salary, they felt they had a right to know how Jon and his wife Sarah spent their money, so they requested an itemized family budget.
Sarah began having nightmares about “being driven from my home into the cold and snow” and “being chased from the town with the utmost contempt and malice.” She imagined that her enemies surrounded and tormented her, worrying “if our house and all our property in it should be burnt up.”
In addition, Jon had noticed that many of his converts seemed to be more emotional than devout about their Christian faith, so he began to stiffen the requirements for church membership.
He also insisted upon “closed communion,” believing that only believers who had given evidence of conversion should take it, eventually resulting in the suspension of the Lord’s Supper for many years.
Jon also believed that a church should be a theocracy (ruled by God through the minister) rather than a democracy (ruled by congregational decision-making).
While Jon could sense that some were rebelling against him, he was often locked away in his study. But his wife could feel what he couldn’t see.
He wrote a book to explain his views … but hardly anyone read it. People began to spread hearsay testimony against him, claiming that he wanted to “judge souls.”
After 23 years as pastor, Jon was finally voted out of office by a 10-9 vote. His ministerial career was over.
Because Pastor Jon was dismissed over a matter of conscience, the church had a hard time attracting pastoral candidates. Because Jon couldn’t sell his house, he stayed in town, and even did some guest preaching for the church that fired him.
Finally, Jon was asked to be a missionary and moved across the state. During that time, he wrote books … mainly on theology … works for which he is still known today.
Jon was asked to become the president of Princeton, and died a few months later at the age of 54. Sarah died 6 months afterwards.
If you haven’t guessed already, Pastor Jon was one of the greatest philosophers, theologians, and preachers that America has ever produced: Jonathan Edwards.
He pastored a church in Northampton, Massachusetts, from 1727 to 1750 … and found himself right in the middle of the First and Second Great Awakenings.
Edwards’ case shows that given the right conditions, every pastor is susceptible to forced termination.
There is a general consensus among Christians that when a pastor is forced to resign, he must have done something to cause his dismissal.
But I know many pastors who have sterling character … are wonderful preachers … and caring pastors … who have been pushed out of a church.
In fact, the latest statistics say that 28% of all pastors have gone through at least one forced termination … and I know good men who have been through this experience two or three times.
Yes, a small percentage of pastors probably shouldn’t be in church ministry. And yes, there are some highly dysfunctional churches out there, most of them ruled by a single individual or family.
But many … if not most … pastoral terminations occur because of a “perfect storm.”
I once knew a pastor who had great success in two churches. When he was called to the third church, things did not go well, and he quickly latched onto another position. Was that last situation all his fault – or was it simply a combination of circumstances?
In my own case – which I’ve recorded in my book Church Coup – my departure occurred because of a variety of factors, including a national recession (which impacted giving), inexperienced and over-reactive leaders, an undermining predecessor, exaggerated charges, and my own exhaustion, which caused me to be reactive rather than proactive in handling conflict.
In the case of Jonathan Edwards, here was an authoritarian pastor, a town increasingly receptive to democratic ideals, three wealthy individuals who opposed Edwards, the unfortunate death of his best ally, and the long shadow of Edward’s grandfather Samuel Stoddard, who was still venerated by the people of Northampton … and some of whose practices Edwards tried in vain to change.
But that’s not the whole story.
According to William J. Petersen’s book 25 Surprising Marriages, the union of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards produced the following descendants: “13 college presidents, 65 professors, 100 lawyers, 30 judges, 66 physicians, and 8 holders of public office, including 3 senators, 3 governors, and a vice president of the United States.”
There’s an old saying that states that history is written by the conquerors. So I suppose that whenever a pastor undergoes forced termination, those who pushed him out think that their story is the final account.
But as the life of Jonathan Edwards demonstrates, even the greatest of men can be rejected by their contemporaries.
Just like Jesus.