The latest statistics I’ve seen state that 28% of all pastors have experienced a forced termination at least once and that 1500 to 1900 pastors resign from church ministry every month … the majority of them being forced out.
When pastors are under attack inside their own church, they become shocked and disoriented. They often go into hiding … wish they could run away … and sink into depression.
When politicians are under fire, they put out statements … hold press conferences … respond to their critics … and fight back.
But pastors? More often than not, they tend to wilt, and when their critics sense that the pastor is on the ropes, they continue punching until the pastor is lying on the canvas … out cold … and out of ministry.
Why do most pastors handle conflict so poorly?
First, seminaries aren’t training pastors to expect church conflict.
In my book Church Coup, I recounted a story that happened to me nearly twenty years ago.
One Sunday evening, I spent five hours in the home of a well-known Christian leader who also taught at my seminary … although he wasn’t there when I was a student.
I asked this professor why pastors aren’t taught “street smarts” in seminary. He said that the accreditation committee insisted that core classes be academic in nature (like Hebrew/Greek, hermeneutics, apologetics) and that practical issues like church conflict could only be covered with electives.
I did take a class in church conflict management in seminary … it met very inconveniently in the middle of the afternoon … and there were only eight of us in the class. As a church staff member, I had just gone through a situation where my senior pastor had been voted out of office and I wanted to learn all I could about how to handle such situations better.
Since my Doctor of Ministry program was focused on church conflict, I also took a class in managing conflict from Dr. David Augsburger – one of the foremost authorities on personal/church conflict in the world – and wrote my final project (dissertation) on dealing with church antagonism using both the New Testament and family systems theory.
But even though I’ve had more formal training than many pastors in conflict management, that doesn’t mean that I’ve always handled the conflicts in my ministry expertly.
I believe that pastors need to supplement any seminary training they’ve received in conflict management by reading insightful books and by attending any conflict training they can find.
Because if and when churchgoers attack, you need to respond instinctively and decisively or you’re toast.
Second, church antagonists don’t fight by the rules.
Whenever there is a conflict in a church – especially one focused on the pastor – there are three primary sources for guidelines:
*There is the Bible … especially the commands, practices, and principles of the New Testament Christians.
*There is the church’s governing documents … the constitution and bylaws … which are often a summary of what the Bible teaches on a particular topic. (For example, many bylaws use Scripture to summarize how to handle church discipline.)
*There is the law … especially what your state has to say about termination practices and ruining someone’s reputation and livelihood.
Pastors are well-versed in Scripture, and they assume that if they’ve done something to offend or anger another believer, that person will approach the pastor with a desire to make things right as the New Testament prescribes.
But no matter how many times pastors preach on Matthew 18:15-20, most people who are angry with the pastor don’t go and seek him out … often choosing to complain to their friends instead.
And when someone is so upset with the pastor that they want him to leave, they will circumvent Scripture altogether … avoid their church’s governing documents … and bypass the law as well.
Instead, they will attack the pastor using the law of the jungle. They react emotionally … exaggerate his faults … deny him due process … and judge and sentence him without ever letting him respond to his accusers or their accusations.
We might say that while the pastor knows to handle conflict spiritually, his opponents choose to attack him politically.
There are ways to handle those who use the law of the jungle … and I love sharing them with pastors who are under fire … but when pastors discover that they’re being bludgeoned by lawless believers, they become disheartened and nearly quit from despair.
They ask themselves, “How can professing Christians act like this when they’re so clearly disobeying God?”
But the pastor needs to understand that his adversaries … often as few as 7 to 10 people … aren’t focused on keeping any rules, biblical or not … they’re focused on “mobbing” him until he quits under pressure.
Third, most pastors are sensitive individuals.
My friend Charles Chandler, the president of the Ministering to Ministers Foundation, says that 77% of all pastors are feelers, not thinkers, on the Myers-Briggs Temperamental Analysis test.
That’s what makes them good pastors.
They empathize with their people’s hurts and struggles. They feel joy when a couple gets married … sorrow when a church attendee suddenly dies … and exhilaration when a new believer is baptized.
Many men … and leaders … in our country are insensitive toward the hurting, but a good pastor feels what his people feel. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 11:29, “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?”
So when someone attacks a pastor, his first instinct isn’t to defend himself, or to fight back.
Instead, his first instinct is to feel numb … and shocked … and betrayed … and wounded.
I believe that a pastor’s antagonists have studied his personality and can predict how he will respond to their criticism. They sense that his sensitivity plays into their hands and that he will choose to resign rather than fight them in any manner.
To fight back, the pastor needs to feel some outrage … to realize that an attack on his position is really an attack on the church as a whole.
But being sensitive … and acting nice … isn’t going to help him keep his position.
Finally, most pastors are blindsided by their attackers.
The late Ross Campbell was a Christian psychiatrist and a great man of God. He wrote the Christian classic How to Really Love Your Child (his book changed my wife’s parenting) along with many other books on child raising.
He also had a heart for hurting pastors, especially those who experienced forced termination, and regularly attended the Wellness Retreats sponsored by the Ministering to Ministers Foundation as a consultant.
Here’s a picture of my wife Kim with Ross:
Ross shared with us the template for forcing out a pastor one evening, and since he had counseled hundreds of pastors and their wives, I wrote down everything he said.
Ross said that most pastors are asked to resign right after they return from having time away. With the pastor away, the church board feels they can plot without the pastor becoming suspicious, and when he returns from his trip, he’s in a vulnerable state and not yet operating at an optimal level.
I hear this all the time from pastors: “It all happened so fast. I didn’t see it coming. I had no time to prepare … and I thought things were going so well.”
And that’s the whole point: when you return from a trip, you’re trapped in an emotional no-man’s land, and you’re in no mood to handle matters confidently.
When I was going through my conflict in the fall of 2009, I received a phone call from a megachurch pastor who knew all about what was happening to me. He told me that one particular individual had been speaking negatively about me for years and that the whole plot had been in the works for some time.
This pastor encouraged me to fight back. He told me that five ex-pastors attended his church and were miserable because they couldn’t find a new ministry.
In the end, I chose to resign, but if conditions had been different, I might have fought back.
But not long after our conversation, that megachurch pastor was abruptly forced to resign himself. As soon as he left, his biography had vanished from the church website.
If you’re a pastor and you’re reading this, I encourage you to do some reading in the area of church conflict with a special emphasis on forced termination.
In fact, I’ll recommend some books on conflict management in my next article.
Doing such reading might sound negative, but believe me, it may just save your job … and your career.