I have a friend who is fond of saying, “Getting fired is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
In the long run, his sentiment may very well be true … but it sure doesn’t feel that way at the time.
When I was pushed out of my position as senior pastor of an impactful church, I could not see what God was doing.
Six years later, I have a much better … and broader … perspective.
If you are struggling with why God allowed you to undergo the horror of a forced termination … or if you know someone who has endured this experience … maybe the following words can provide some insight and comfort.
Why does God allow pastors to be terminated?
First, the pastor has done something that disqualifies him from church ministry.
Many years ago, I heard about the moral downfall of a nationally known preacher.
This man had been called to lead a megachurch where some family and friends of mine had once attended.
When the news broke, I channel surfed until I found a well-known entertainment program. One of the show’s reporters interviewed that pastor outside his home. The pastor told the reporter, “Because of what I did, I have no business being a pastor.”
The host of the program commented, “The minister’s attitude is refreshing.”
I have a friend who served on that church’s staff at the time, and he told me that surveillance cameras confirmed that inappropriate behavior on the pastor’s part had taken place.
Being human, pastors occasionally engage in moral failure. When they’re caught, they usually repent and resign.
But sometimes pastors are successful at dodging congregational surveillance … but they can never escape the watchful eye of Almighty God.
A pastor can be guilty of sexual immorality … plagiarism … alcoholism … criminal behavior … drug addiction … lying and manipulation … or any number of other offenses against God and His people.
And if a pastor’s spiritual and moral integrity are compromised by his actions … especially if he’s unrepentant … then the best thing for everyone involved is for the pastor to leave … and hopefully, repent and receive God’s forgiveness for his actions.
While pastors do disqualify themselves by engaging in misconduct, this is only true of 7% of all terminated pastors.
Just as Peter denied Jesus three times but was restored to ministry, I believe that God can restore and use a once-disqualified pastor again.
Second, the pastor was leading a spiritually hollow congregation.
No matter how devoted a pastor is to Jesus … or how hard he works … or how much influence he has … some churches are never going to grow or have much impact in their community.
In fact, some churches are filled with professing Christians who have rarely if ever grown spiritually.
Unfortunately, I’ve met my share of these people.
For example, the first church I pastored … in Silicon Valley … never should have gotten off the ground.
The congregation began with 38 members … all refugees from other churches. They had one thing in common: they wanted to attend a church where they could control the decision making.
The church was financially subsidized by a denomination. The basic rule-of-thumb is that a church needs to become self-supporting after three years. If not, those outside funds are usually cut off.
When I arrived, the church had been in existence for five years … all five subsidized by the denomination.
Looking back, there was little spiritual vitality in that church. The leaders were full of bitterness and legalism.
Two years after my arrival, a sister church invited us to merge with them, and my first church passed out of existence.
That church never should have been started … never should have been subsidized … and was never going to last very long. In fact, they probably hurt more people than they helped.
I wasn’t terminated from that church … I ended up pastoring the merged church instead … but I can only imagine what it’s like to pastor a spiritually empty church for years.
It’s probably better that the pastor goes first than that he goes down with the ship.
Third, the pastor was delivered before things became much worse.
When I counsel pastors who are under attack … or who have undergone a forced exit … I often quote 2 Peter 2:9 to them.
Speaking of Lot, Peter says, “… the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials …” Another version states, “… the Lord knows how to deliver the righteous …”
Sometimes when a pastor initially comes to a church, the wind is at his back.
But by the time he leaves, the wind is blowing directly into his face.
When I first came to my last church, I felt the wind at my back. It seems like every idea I had … every sermon I preached … every ministry I started … had an impact.
But by the time I left, almost none of my ideas had been adopted for months … many of my sermons were falling flat … and the one ministry I wanted to start was soundly rejected.
The wind was blowing in my face … hard … and I could feel it.
Was I the problem? Possibly. But to be honest, I didn’t know how to work with some of the church’s newer leaders. I was oriented toward outreach, while they were oriented toward survival and maintenance.
Looking back, it was inevitable that we would clash.
Had I stayed even another year, I believe my soul might have been severely damaged. God in His mercy knew exactly when to remove me.
Did I like the way God chose to do it? No. But I wholeheartedly agree with His timing.
Months after I left, someone told me that if I visited the church again, I would no longer recognize it. A friend visited and told me, “The spirit has gone from this place.”
I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it.
Fourth, the pastor has been given a more suitable assignment by God.
I don’t like to demean my former calling, but pastors are a dime a dozen. There are thousands of pastors all over America … and thousands more who wish they could be pastors.
A pastor may be special to his congregation … and maybe his community … but in the Christian world, pastors aren’t treated with much respect or dignity simply because there are so many of them.
I believe there are times when God surveys all those pastors and says, “I have some assignments that I need to have fulfilled in the days ahead, so I choose you … you … and you to carry them out. But first, I need to remove you from your present position.”
If God didn’t remove us … and use some pretty forceful means at His disposal … we’d hold onto our pastorates for dear life.
I have met scores of former pastors doing significant kingdom work.
One man was forced out of three churches … and now he does conflict mediation for churches.
Another man was forced out of two churches … and he now trains Christian leaders for short-term assignments all over the world.
Pastors who were once forced out of their churches now lead missionary agencies … serve as hospital chaplains … plant churches … engage in hospice ministry … serve as church planters … do interim pastorates … and even have writing ministries.
And yes, I know pastors who were once pushed out of their churches who have healed enough to become pastors once again.
For my colleagues who have been forced out of a church … maybe God wants you to look forward toward a new assignment rather than ruminating about the injustices of your previous assignment.
But expect for that process to take you some time.
Fifth, the pastor was pushed out because he was burned out.
Back in the mid-1980s, I did a lot of reading about the symptoms and effects of being stressed out and burned out in church ministry.
I especially devoured the book by Dr. Archibald Hart titled Coping with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions.
Over the years, I thought I was suffering from burnout on several occasions. I visited a Christian counselor friend who assured me that I was not experiencing burnout.
But six years ago this summer, I visited a counselor who told me that I was experiencing a severe case of burnout, and that I was primed for a breakdown.
When I asked my wife, “How did burnout creep up on me?”, she said, “Jim, look what you’ve done the past few years here at the church. You oversaw the construction of a building and you completed your Doctor of Ministry program.”
Just last week, I remembered two statistics that I had long forgotten.
First, I remember hearing that 70% of all pastors leave their churches within one year of completing a building program.
Our entire building program lasted at least four years, and I stayed four years after that.
By contrast, I know a pastor who told me that he left two churches that were in the middle of building programs.
Second, a professor from my seminary told me that 50% of all Doctor of Ministry graduates end up leaving the pastorate so they can pursue other ministry avenues.
I lasted two years after receiving my degree.
I think most pastors do what I did: they minimize all the energy they’re expending when they’re carrying out a task, but it eventually catches up with them.
My last few months as a pastor, I wasn’t myself. I became detached … irritable … empty … and sad. In fact, I was near tears almost every day.
I wish someone who knew me had intervened and said, “Hey, Jim, you don’t seem like yourself right now. Is everything okay? We love you and want you to be your best.”
For whatever reason, no one did that … until the counselor gave me his diagnosis.
I believe that burned out pastors probably need to leave their ministries so they can recover. Their churches need more energy from them than they can muster.
But pastors become burned out because they work too hard and care too much, and it seems criminal to me to kick out a pastor in a mean-spirited way because he did his job too well.
So sometimes Jesus says to His weary servants, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31).
And He kindly calls His burned out pastors away from church ministry.
Finally, the pastor’s ministry in that church is over.
Several years ago, I visited a large church and was invited to sit next to the chairman of the board during the service.
Over the previous few years, the church had lost half its attendees.
The music was horrible (the full-time worship director led three songs by himself, without a band), the service was disorganized, and everything seemed irrelevant.
When I told the chairman that the pastor seemed to be preaching well, he said, “His last few sermons have been better because he’s retiring in several weeks.”
That pastor led that church for more than 30 years … but his ministry had ended long before he retired.
I wish that every pastor was given the ability to choose when his ministry in a particular church was finished.
The problem is … the pastor is often the last one to know.
And so God in His sovereignty sometimes says to a pastor, “You’re not going to leave here, are you? You’re so very committed … and I appreciate that more than you could know. But I can see the way ahead, and you’re not the pastor this church needs anymore. You’ve done all that I asked you to do … so I’m going to remove you from office … and it’s going to sting.”
And it does sting … for a long time.
I served the Lord in church ministry for 36 years. I hoped that I would get to retire on my own terms around age 65, but the truth is that God declared my ministry over nearly ten years before I would have stopped.
But I’m glad He did … because right now, I am far happier and fulfilled than I was as a pastor … and I’m still involved in significant ministry.
Jesus trained at least 18 years for a ministry that lasted only three. In the end, even the Son of God didn’t get to choose when His ministry was over … the Father did … and the Son cried out from the cross, “It is finished.”
I wonder why God doesn’t intervene and stop innocent pastors from being terminated.
In fact, I’ve devoted my life to doing all I can to help pastors and boards part ways (when necessary) in a truthful, loving, and constructive way.
But regardless of how a pastor is let go … even when it’s done cruelly … every pastor can repeat what Joseph said to his brothers in Genesis 50:20:
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good …”
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