This is my 500th blog article, and for the past few months, I’ve been thinking and praying about how I should mark this milestone.
After much reflection, I’ve decided to distill some of the things I’ve learned about pastoral termination that I haven’t written about before.
After earning a doctorate in church conflict … after writing a book called Church Coup … after providing counsel for scores of pastors and board members … and after writing all those blogs … let me share with you five hidden realities surrounding pastoral termination today:
First, evangelical Christian churches rarely treat a pastor under fire justly.
When a faction inside a congregation attacks their pastor, they don’t consider treating him fairly … they just want him to meet their demands or resign.
When a staff member sabotages his pastor – personally or professionally – he’s not concerned about justice … he just wants to avoid doing what the pastor wants.
When a governing board prematurely forces their pastor to resign, they will avoid Scripture … ignore their governing documents … and later declare that everything they did was justified.
The standard seems to be “how we feel about the pastor” or “let’s make sure the pastor gets what he deserves” rather than anything related to Scripture or even love.
When a pastor is under fire inside his own church, all the rules tend to get tossed aside.
There should be a rulebook for treating a pastor under attack fairly … but most of the time, there isn’t.
I’ve written nearly 100 pages of such a rulebook, but haven’t been able to finish it. If you think it’s important, please pray that the Lord will help me to get it done.
Ironically, mainline churches – which tend to be theologically liberal – treat their pastors much more fairly than evangelical churches … which claim to believe and practice divine truth.
By the way, I shouldn’t have to say this, but the goal of discipline/correction in the New Testament isn’t revenge, but restoration (Matthew 18:15-16; Galatians 6:1). My guess it that at least 80% of the time, the restoration of a “wayward” pastor isn’t even considered by the governing board.
They just want him gone … and will use any weapon in their arsenal to accomplish their goal.
We can do better than this … much better.
Second, pastors who have been attacked in the past have a limited pain threshold.
A friend of mine called me several weeks ago and asked if I would be interested in becoming an interim pastor at a church not far from my home.
I didn’t have to think about it or even pray about it … my answer was a swift “No.”
I know some older pastors who have suffered through an unjust termination, and they love ministry so much that they are open to an interim position.
But I’m not … and maybe it goes back to something I learned from Jay Carty.
Jay Carty played basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1968-1969 season. Lakers’ announcer Chick Hearn once nicknamed Carty “Golden Wheels” because he was so slow on the court.
Carty became a popular Christian speaker. I once sat next to him at a pastors’ meeting (I told him I still had his autograph from that 68-69 season) and he told me this story:
He said that if you put a fly in a jar, the fly will try to fly out by hitting the lid of the jar once. The fly will try again a second time, but after that, the fly will give up because it doesn’t want to go experience any more pain.
I’m unsure whether that’s how flies really act, but when it comes to church ministry, there’s definitely some truth there.
Back in the mid-1980s, I survived two separate attempts to get rid of me as pastor in the same church. Both times, my antagonists left instead of me, but I was bruised and bloodied emotionally for months.
Somehow, God enabled me to lead the rebirth of that congregation (I contributed a chapter to Gary McIntosh’s book Make Room For the Boom … or Bust detailing what happened) but it about killed me. A nationally-known church consultant told me, “It’s a wonder you’re still standing.”
Even though I was exhausted, a pastor friend told me, “I think you have one more church left in you.”
So I became the pastor of a congregation that seemed healthy. Attendance and giving nearly doubled during my tenure … we built a new worship center … and we became the largest Protestant church in our city … but church leaders eventually turned on me, and even though I chose to resign, some people were pushing me toward the door … hard.
Even when you’re successful as a pastor, there’s a limit as to how much pain you can take before you reluctantly admit, “I can’t do this anymore.”
Three attacks and you’re out.
Third, the Christian community observes a “winner take all” mentality when it comes to pastoral termination.
When a pastor presides over a growing congregation, he will make enemies … on the staff, on the board, among key leaders … and if they pool their complaints, the pastor’s tenure may end swiftly and harshly.
I’m thinking of a megachurch pastor … one of the best Bible teachers I’ve ever heard … who was forced to resign because he tried to make changes to the worship service. He received approvals through all the proper channels except he didn’t consult the people with old money … who no longer held official positions … and they made his life a living hell until he quit.
In the Christian community, pastors like that gifted megachurch minister are labeled “losers” if they’re forced out even when they have done nothing wrong.
I have a pastor friend who reads this blog who told me that for years, whenever he heard about a pastor who experienced an involuntary exit, my friend would think to himself, “What a loser.”
After it happened to him, he found himself singing a different tune.
However, the pastor who is pushed out of a church is a “loser” in one respect: he loses most of his church friends … his reputation … his income … his position … his house (sometimes) … his career (often) … and occasionally, even his wife … and all those losses together brand him in many people’s eyes as someone to be shunned and abandoned.
Yet it doesn’t matter if the pastor’s antagonists harassed him … lied about him … or misrepresented him … if he’s forced out, he’s the loser … and by default, those who successfully removed him are crowned the winners.
And in the words of the pop group Abba, “The Winner Takes it All.”
In the Christian world, people don’t care about the details of a pastor’s ouster … they only care about outcomes.
There’s only one problem with this shallow thinking:
By this reckoning, Jesus was a loser, too … as were His apostles.
Even though I was pushed out of my last ministry, I have never viewed myself as a “loser,” but I know that some do, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Except to say that the values of the evangelical community are often more tied to worldly success than biblical faithfulness.
Fourth, those who force out an innocent pastor should be exposed and asked to repent.
Here’s something I will never understand:
If a pastor starts bullying and manipulating people in his church, shouldn’t he be confronted and asked to repent?
Of course … and if he refuses to repent, he’s subject to being removed from office.
By the same token, if a group in a church … even if they’re the governing board … start bullying and manipulating the pastor behind-the-scenes, shouldn’t they be confronted and asked to repent as well?
Yes, they should … but if they’re successful in getting rid of their pastor, nobody will ever ask them to repent.
The governing board won’t. The staff won’t. The congregation won’t. The district won’t.
Even if they know the facts, no single party will approach the pastor’s detractors because the pastor lost and his opponents won.
And in the evangelical world, that’s the end of the matter. (Remember, according to 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, we’re not supposed to sue one another.)
In fact, if a church is denominational, the district minister will often spin the pastor’s departure and make him look bad … and make those who pushed out the pastor look good … even if the latter group acted wickedly.
I’ve seen this scenario played out scores of times over the years.
This kind of cover up … slander … and lying has nothing to do with biblical righteousness … and everything to do with crass politics.
District ministers in evangelical denominations (many of which are congregational in nature) like to say, “Oh, we can’t intervene in disputes in a local church. We respect the autonomy of the local church.”
But that bromide is a lie.
Because district ministers do interfere in the lives of local churches (almost always behind closed doors) … and I can tell you story after story where that’s exactly what happened … including my own case.
I have learned over time that 90% of all district ministers handle church conflicts in a political way … not a spiritual way … because they aren’t interested in truth or righteousness … they’re interested in keeping donations flowing from the church to the district office to pay their salary.
And if they side with the pastor … or even hint he’s right and the board is wrong … he’s afraid the church will cut off those funds.
So he either remains silent or aligns himself with the church board … and nobody is asked to even consider their part in their pastor’s departure.
Because after the pastor is gone, the whole conflict can be blamed on him.
Finally, pastors get into trouble when they forget they are persons first, pastors second.
Nine months before I left my last ministry position, I was struggling with whether I could be a pastor anymore.
Instead of being a pastor, I longed to be just a person.
I didn’t want to be Pastor Jim … just Jim.
I would come home from a day at the church office … park my car in the garage … rush inside to eat dinner … and rush back to church for a meeting.
But I didn’t want to go to the meeting … I just wanted to stay home.
I began avoiding tasks I didn’t want to do … and avoiding people I didn’t want to see … and trying to figure out what was wrong with me.
Part of me wanted to tell the church board how I was feeling. I knew I needed some time away to recover, but when I looked at the composition of the board, I decided I couldn’t risk telling them anything.
That particular group would not have understood.
I reasoned, “If I tell them how I am feeling … because they don’t seem to care for me as a person … they will probably fire me outright or force me to quit.”
And I couldn’t take the chance.
So I decided to tough it out and hope that I’d improve over time … and at times, I behaved uncharacteristically.
People like it when their pastor’s behavior is predictable. When the pastor becomes unpredictable, some will clamor for him to leave.
I finally went to see a Christian counselor, who diagnosed me with a severe case of burnout … and said I was headed for a breakdown.
Thank God, I didn’t break down … not even when the conflict surfaced two months later … but I came awfully close.
I don’t blame the church board for my condition because I never told them about it … but I do blame them for not saying to me, “Hey, Jim, you don’t seem like yourself. Are you okay? Is something wrong? Can we pray for you?”
There is no doubt that my burnout was the result of being overcommitted to my ministry. I cared too much … and maybe that was my undoing, but I needed somebody to say, “Hey, it’s okay to back off … we’ll help carry the load.”
I wore the “pastor” hat too often … and longed to be just “Jim” … a normal, anonymous person … instead.
I finally got my wish.
This is my 500th blog article. I started writing … with trepidation … in December 2010.
I wasn’t sure if anyone would find … much less read … anything that I wrote. And because my son warned me that I would attract critics, I braced myself for mean-spirited comments that never came.
Some blog articles have done very well. Some died the day I wrote them. In the early days, I wrote three in five days. Now I only have time for one per week.
From the beginning, my primary passion has been the relationship between pastors and their antagonists in a local church … especially those who pursue the pastor’s termination.
If you’re a subscriber, or an occasional reader, thank you so much for reading what I write.
I try to tell the truth with grace.
When you think about it, let me know if what I write is helpful.