From time-to-time, I receive emails from churchgoers whose pastors resigned suddenly. These concerned individuals want to know what, if anything, they can do about their pastor’s unexpected departure.
Someone wrote me recently asking that very question. This is how I responded (with some slight modifications):
Thank you for writing. I’m sorry for what happened to your pastor. It’s happening a lot these days.
I’m going to suggest some things you can do that are perfectly within your rights as a longtime church attendee. More than anything, YOU WANT TO DETERMINE IF THE PASTOR RESIGNED VOLUNTARILY OR IF HE WAS FORCED TO RESIGN.
*Contact the pastor and/or his wife directly. Ask them what happened. Write down what they say for accuracy. If the pastor signed a severance agreement, he may not be able to discuss anything until the agreement expires. If he didn’t receive a severance agreement, he should be able to speak freely, although some pastors believe they’re being divisive if they say anything about their departure. (I don’t hold that particular viewpoint.)
*Find a copy of your church’s governing documents: the constitution and bylaws. Find the section on removing a pastor from office. (Some churches don’t have any governing documents, while others don’t have a section on removing a pastor.) Familiarize yourself with the key sections of those documents.
*Contact a member of the governing board of your church, whether they’re called elders, deacons, trustees, the church council, or something else.
*Ask the member you know best, “Which process did the board use that led to our pastor’s resignation?” It’s not time to ask about any charges that might have led to the pastor’s exit. Just focus on the process.
*Tell the board member you’ve contacted – or the entire board in writing – that you would like a written copy of the process that the board used to deal with the pastor. My guess is that most boards won’t have one in writing, but you’re doing them a favor by asking them for it anyway. They will be forced to think through the steps they used to secure the pastor’s departure. Since board members are usually voted into office by the congregation, the board needs to account to the congregation for how they treated the pastor. (And in congregationally-run churches, the pastor is voted on by the church as well.)
*If the board resists, don’t threaten or make demands. Just tell them that you’d prefer not to take things further. You just want a copy of the process. If they can’t or won’t produce it, then they may be hiding something.
A couple I know well told me that the board in their previous church forced out their pastor. Soon afterwards, due to feedback from the congregation, a board member stood up at the end of a Sunday service and told the body that the board wasn’t going to talk about why the pastor left and so people needed to stop talking about it.
My friends left that church soon afterwards … and I would have done the same thing.
A church board doesn’t need to tell their congregation everything about why their pastor left, but they do need to tell them enough. Most parishioners love and trust their pastor, and if he suddenly leaves, the board needs to be as forthcoming as possible to keep people’s trust. The quickest way to lose it is for them to say nothing.
This is why I recommend asking the board for a copy of the process they used. It doesn’t ask them to violate any matter that is strictly confidential. It just asks them to recite the steps they used. However, if they won’t reveal the process, or you sense they operated by the law of the jungle instead, your board members may be trying to cover up their role in you’re pastor’s departure.
*Compare the process they used to (a) the governing documents; (b) Scripture; and (c) labor law in your state. There are many articles on my blog that deal with the scriptural way to correct or remove a pastor.
*If a bully was involved in pushing out the pastor, and the board felt pressured by the bully, he/she won’t show up on the written process. But even if that’s the case, the board is still responsible for their decisions and actions.
*Ask around discreetly. Find people in the church’s inner circle who know what happened. Contact them directly. Ask them why the pastor resigned. Make sure their information comes from a reliable source.
*Ask questions of the right people, but refrain from offering your own opinions. If anyone wants to know what you’re doing, just say you’re trying to learn what happened. Assume that when you offer your opinion, you will be quoted and whatever you say will get back to the board. While no one can stop you from asking questions, they can and should stop you from forming a faction or making outrageous statements.
Sometimes a pastor may appear to be godly and gracious in public, but is nasty and mean in private. Sometimes the board will ask such a pastor to change his behavior but he will refuse. Sometimes a pastor resigns because he’s had an affair, or because he’s a tyrant. It’s hard to know who a pastor really is when parishioners only see and hear from him for an hour or two every week.
The church board may act independently of the congregation, or they may have received complaints against the pastor from certain key members. Board members can become incredibly anxious when important leaders or longtime friends threaten to leave the church unless the pastor is sacked.
Sometimes the pastor hasn’t been getting along with a staff member or a key leader and he’s pushed toward the exit as people choose sides. Many years ago, I attended a church where the pastor fired a popular staff member and soon afterwards, the pastor himself was forced to quit. In cases like these, the board doesn’t want to talk about the issues because they don’t want to reveal the names of those who weren’t getting along with the pastor.
Keep a written record of the questions you ask and the answers you receive. It is not divisive to try and find out what happened. It is divisive to form a faction, use it as a power base, and begin to issue threats and ultimatums. You should be allowed to have your say but not your way.
Once you’ve absorbed what I’ve written, feel free to respond or ask questions. I hope I’ve been helpful!