The chairman of the church board called the pastor into a side room after his sermon one Sunday.
When the pastor entered the room, he was told by the chairman that he was being dismissed effective immediately.
The pastor had been in the church for years. He thought the ministry was going well.
He was never told what he had done wrong. He was not afforded a severance package or a farewell party.
His ministry … and possibly his career … now seemed over.
Nearly half the congregation left over the next several months.
The pastor’s wife was forced to work two jobs. The pastor looked for a new ministry in vain. And the pastor’s two kids swore they’d never darken a church door again.
One of my passions as the President of Restoring Kingdom Builders is to advocate that churches – especially church boards – utilize a biblical, just and fair process to address any issues they have with their pastor.
But much of the time, church boards become emotionally reactive and make decisions that harm the pastor and decimate their congregation.
So let me suggest a five-step process that a board can use when they’re concerned about their pastor’s behavior:
First, the church board needs to address their concerns with deliberation and patience.
If a church board is upset with their pastor, it’s important that they slow things down and discern a fair process.
Because there are usually board members who want to take shortcuts … and fire the pastor outright.
Maybe this is how some board members handle their own employees: “When in doubt, push him out.”
But a pastor isn’t just any employee. He’s someone called and gifted by God.
And the New Testament makes it clear that pastors deserve “respect” and “the highest regard” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13) as well as “double honor” (1 Timothy 5:17-18).
Handling matters with deliberation means that official leaders read, understand, and follow:
*New Testament directives on correcting a spiritual leader (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Timothy 5:19-21).
*Pertinent passages in their church’s bylaws.
*Labor laws in their own state.
Handling matters with patience means that official leaders make decisions using realistic timetables rather than rushing toward a predetermined outcome.
When church boards are ruled by anxiety, they end up hurting a lot of people.
But when boards take their time, they handle matters with greater wisdom and dignity.
Second, those who are upset about the pastor’s personal conduct need to speak with him directly … or let things go.
Pastor Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church – America’s largest in the 1990s – stopped at the church one night and parked in a “No Parking” zone.
The next day, Pastor Bill received a note from a church custodian reminding him not to park in that spot.
Some pastors would have demanded that the custodian be disciplined for his insolence … but not Pastor Bill, who commended the custodian and said, “I need to be an example, not an exception.”
I love that story because a custodian felt he had the right to correct the pastor … and the pastor received and learned from that correction.
But pastors aren’t always examples. They mess up from time-to-time. And when they make mistakes, those who witnessed their misbehavior need to speak with them directly and lovingly call them on it.
But what happens in most churches is that people talk about the pastor without ever speaking with the pastor.
One time, a friend came to me before a meeting and said, “So-and-So is mad at you.”
I immediately asked, “How many people has she told?”
Counting with both hands, he stated, “Ten.”
I didn’t say hi to her one Sunday morning.
Maybe the woman in question just needed reassurance that I cared about her. That’s fine. We all need reassurance at times.
But wouldn’t it have been better if she had simply spoken with me about her feelings personally?
And if she didn’t want to do that, wouldn’t it have been better to let things slide rather than involving ten other people?
This goes for board members, too.
Sometimes a church board member becomes angry with the pastor over a personal matter, but rather than speak with the pastor directly, he complains to other board members.
There are two dangers with this approach:
*Some board members may take their friend’s side in the matter, which makes them feel increasingly powerful.
*A pastor’s personal offense against one person can easily morph into an official offense against the entire board … or church. The pastor’s perceived offense is used as a pretext for his removal.
And I have a hard time believing that God would approve of such actions.
Third, the board needs to determine the severity of a pastor’s offenses before taking action.
Sometimes pastors are guilty of a misstep and commit a spiritual or moral citation … like the equivalent of jaywalking.
Maybe the pastor skips a church event without telling anyone … or promises to visit someone in the hospital but doesn’t … or forgets to answer an important email for two weeks.
In my view, if these offenses wind their way up to the church board, they are only worthy of a citation.
Proverbs 19:11 says, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.”
Just like in marriage, some “offenses” need to be overlooked … forgiven … and forgotten as soon as possible.
If not, the church board will become the church police.
But sometimes pastors commit spiritual or moral misdemeanors.
My initial staff position was in a church that held a week-long missionary conference. We had a missionary speaker every night of the week!
I attended the first four nights faithfully. But on the fifth night, the movie “Gone with the Wind” was playing at a local school (this was before videos or DVDs), and my girlfriend Kim (now my wife) really wanted to see the film.
So we went, and had a great time.
However, when I next saw my pastor, he was not happy with me.
He asked me, “Where were you last night?” I told him. He said, “People came to me last night and wanted to know where you were. I didn’t know what to tell them.”
I apologized to him. Then he advised me, “Look, if you had asked me if you could go to the movie, I would have said yes. Then if people asked where you were, I would have said, ‘I know where Jim is. Everything’s fine.'”
Going to a movie was okay … but going without permission was not.
That was a misdemeanor because it couldn’t be quickly forgiven and forgotten. I needed to be confronted.
When a pastor commits a spiritual or moral misdemeanor, someone needs to love him enough to confront him. The pastor needs to know that he did something wrong … admit it was wrong … and take steps not to do it again.
And when the pastor apologizes and asks forgiveness, that should be the end of it.
But sometimes pastors are suspected of committing spiritual and moral felonies, and if so, those overseeing the pastor need to launch an investigation into the offense, as Deuteronomy 19:18 specifies.
Which offenses are felonies?
Heresy, for one. Sexual immorality, for another.
I would also include criminal behavior, including beating one’s wife, certain kinds of theft, and committing fraud.
And in my opinion, if a pastor openly, blatantly, and knowingly lies to his congregation, he should at least be suspended, if not terminated.
Most of the time, when a pastor commits a spiritual or moral felony, he has forfeited his position as pastor, and needs to resign or be dismissed.
But all too often, some Christians … including church boards … turn offenses meriting citations into misdemeanors, or misdemeanors into felonies, because they want to get rid of the pastor and are willing to use anything they can find.
While I admit the Bible doesn’t make distinctions between these offenses, our culture does, and those distinctions can help us determine the severity of a pastor’s misbehavior.
Fourth, let the pastor face his accusers and explain his actions.
Read the Gospels. Jesus was accused of many offenses by the Jewish leaders, but they always let Him defend Himself … even on the morning of His crucifixion.
Read Acts 7. Stephen was accused of speaking against the temple and the law (Acts 6:13) but still offered a self-defense.
Read Acts 22 … or 23 … or 24 … or 25 … or 26. Paul was accused of bringing Greeks into the Temple area and speaking against the Temple and the law (Acts 21:28). But he was still allowed to face his accusers and offer a defense.
As Festus told King Agrippa in Acts 25:16, “… it is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges.”
During my second pastorate, a church leader began making charges against me to anyone who would listen. His “concerns” finally made their way to the board chairman, who invited the leader to the next board meeting.
The leader brought a list of seven “concerns.” After he shared each issue, the chairman asked me to respond, which I gladly did.
The leader was so disheartened by my responses that he never finished his list … and announced the next day that he was leaving the church.
The charges sounded plausible when he was sharing them with friends and family … but when he shared them in my presence, his entire case wilted.
In his book Beyond Forgiveness, Don Baker writes about the time he received credible information that a popular staff member had slept with multiple women in previous churches.
Pastor Baker didn’t fire his staffer outright. Instead, he met with him privately, told him what he’d heard, and let him respond.
Even if a board is convinced their pastor has committed an impeachable offense, the entire board – or chairman – should first meet with the pastor and hear his side before taking any action.
If the board meets with the pastor before deciding his fate, the pastor might convincingly refute the allegations … shed light on his accuser(s) and their motivations … or confess and offer his resignation.
In the majority of cases that I hear about, the church board fires the pastor outright … without telling him his offenses … letting him face his accusers … or allowing him to explain his actions.
And those kinds of decisions destroy a pastor and his family and throw a church into turmoil.
Finally, give the pastor sufficient time to change his behavior.
If a pastor is guilty of multiple citations or occasional misdemeanors, he should be given time to correct his behavior.
Three months isn’t enough time. Two years is too long.
Isn’t redemption a Christian virtue?
If the board follows a process, and the pastor has made progress, then he should be allowed to stay, with the board monitoring those areas where he’s deficient.
If the pastor hasn’t made progress, then it’s okay to ask for his resignation after 12 to 15 months … although most pastors would probably resign long before they’re asked.
The pastor and congregation will be far better off one year later if the board follows a biblical, just, and fair process than if they become anxious and swiftly force out their shepherd.
Today marks my 400th blog post. Thanks to every one of you who reads what I write!
My readers include pastors, staff members, church leaders, and lay people.
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