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Posts Tagged ‘aftermath of a pastoral termination’

This morning, I received an email from a PhD student at a Christian university.  He wants to interview me as to what happens in a congregation after a pastor is involuntarily terminated.

I’ve been hoping someone would do a study like this for some time.

During my second church staff experience, my pastor was voted out of office, so I have undergone such a scenario firsthand.  I have also heard from scores of churchgoers and leaders who have shared with me what happened in their church after their pastor left.

Most of these consequences are not matters that church leaders anticipated when they forced out their pastor.  There isn’t much in print on this issue, so most leaders are flying blind when they get rid of a pastor.

This is what God’s people have told me:

First, a few people – usually the pastor’s supporters – leave the church immediately.

When I was in my early twenties, my pastor was removed from office by the congregation.  I assumed there would be a mass exodus, but as I recall, only one family left the church, which still surprises me.

In my own case, after a horrendous congregational meeting – one that indicated that I needed to leave my church – a veteran Christian came up to me and expressed great sorrow at the way I was treated.  He told me that he had seen this kind of thing before, knew where it was going, and wanted no part of it.

After that meeting, he and his wife left for good, ending up at a friend’s church instead.

The more unfairly the termination is perceived by the congregation, the more people will leave … and among those will be some who can never be replaced.

Most staff members will stay … at least initially … because the church pays them, but if a key board member or leader leaves, their example might persuade others that they’re on a sinking ship and need to dive off … quickly.

Second, church leaders will feel overwhelmed as the pastor’s duties land on them.

If a senior pastor is forced out, and the church has an associate pastor, most of the ex-pastor’s duties may fall on him by default.

If the church has a larger staff, those duties may be spread out among staffers.

But if the church doesn’t have staff, the pastor’s duties will probably revert to the board, and the chances are high that they won’t know what to do … which is why many boards hire an interim prematurely.

My guess is that most board members don’t know all that their pastor does in a given week or month, and when they force him out … especially if it’s abrupt … they have no idea how much work won’t get done … and the pastor they just pushed out won’t be available to help them.

Without their pastor, many people won’t know where to go for counseling, either … and chances are poor that they’ll seek out the very board members who pushed out their beloved shepherd.

Third, the congregation craves stability.

For many people, a pastor is the father they never had … and the pastor’s wife is the mom they wish they had.

It’s tough enough in a family when either dad or mom leaves home, but can you imagine how hard it would be if they both left at once?

But that’s what happens when a pastor is forced out of office.  The church’s spiritual father and mother vanish overnight.

Some big sisters and brothers usually try and assure their church family that things will be okay, but to many in the congregation – especially new believers and newcomers – the church feels like a plane in free fall.

Sadly, some leaders and churchgoers become so desperate for normality that they will do almost anything to feel better again.

It’s at this point that many leaders make a foolish mistake.

Fourth, the church board hires an interim pastor too quickly.

When my pastor was removed many years ago, the district sent us an older man: J. Wilbur Bullard.  Dr. Bullard was a spiritual man … and a sweet man … but he was also an experienced pastor … and he righted the plane immediately.

Dr. Bullard happened to work out, but all too many church boards … feeling anxious and confused … fail to take the time to hire the right interim for their church.

Instead, they hire the first interim available … sometimes, a friend or colleague of someone in district leadership.

Of course, a district minister wants someone he knows to become interim pastor.  If the DM shows loyalty to the interim, he expects the interim will show loyalty in return and keep funds flowing from the church to district coffers.

But what’s most important is that a church hire the right interim … preferably an intentional interim … and not all interims recommended by districts know what they’re doing.

The average interim comes to a church and buys time while the search team looks for a new pastor.

An intentional interim comes with a structured plan and helps the congregation define who they are and what they want – and need – in a new pastor.

A church board or search team should interview multiple interim candidates and find the one who fits best in their situation.

In fact, it’s better to hire no one than the wrong person.

I trained with Interim Pastor Ministries led by Tom Harris.  I highly recommend Tom’s approach to interim ministry.  Tom gave me the opportunity to serve as an interim at a wonderful church in New Hampshire, and although I chose not to pursue any more opportunities after that, he runs a first-class organization.

If you’re a board member or church leader, and your pastor recently left, and you haven’t yet hired an interim, you owe it to yourself to contact Tom first.  Here’s his contact information:

http://www.interimpastors.com/

Fifth, the church board says as little as it can about why the pastor left.

Not long ago, I spoke with the chairman of a church board that had fired their pastor … and for good reason.

The chairman spoke with an attorney who told him to say nothing about why the pastor left.

But I told the chairman that if the board said nothing, that might keep them out of legal trouble, but they would subsequently have problems with others in the church.

Why?

Because when a pastor is fired … especially if the whole process is abrupt … many churchgoers will be highly anxious, and need an explanation from church leaders to help them make sense of things … and to stay.

Churchgoers also want to trust their leaders, but if the only explanation they receive is, “We can’t say anything, but trust us,” I for one wouldn’t trust them at all.

Why not?

Because that’s not the reasoning of a board that rightly terminated their pastor … that’s the reasoning of a board that’s trying to cover up their part in their pastor’s departure.

I’m a firm believer that a church board needs to say as much as they can about why their pastor left … not as little as they can.

The board doesn’t need to say, “Pastor Smith committed adultery with Betty Lou, the head of women’s ministry.”

But they do need to say, “Pastor Smith was guilty of moral failure” … and if the board has a statement from Pastor Smith admitting that fact, so much the better.

There’s a fine line between harming a pastor’s reputation/future earning power and telling a church the truth … but church boards need to walk that line if they want to restore confidence in congregational leadership.

For the optimal way to remove a pastor from office, you might find this article beneficial:

https://blog.restoringkingdombuilders.org/2016/04/15/removing-a-pastor-wisely/

And for more on sharing information with a congregation, I recommend this article:

https://blog.restoringkingdombuilders.org/2015/01/12/telling-the-truth-after-a-pastoral-termination/

Sixth, many of the church’s best people still may eventually leave.

Nobody attends a church because of the church board, which meets and makes policy in private.

No, most people attend a church because of personal relationships … and because they like their pastor.

In fact, many believers who end up choosing a particular church have visited other churches for months before finally settling down.

When I left my last church, I encouraged everyone I knew to stay.  A few left right away, but most gave it their best shot for as long as they could.

But over time, some contacted me and said, “I really tried to stay, but in the end, I had to go.”

For example, one friend stayed for a year but finally left when she saw someone who helped push me out sitting near her … and knew that his divisive actions and comments were never addressed by church leaders.

Over time … without solicitation … people told me, “I just left the church.”  Sometimes they told me why … sometimes not.

Some friends also told me on occasion, “So and So no longer attends.  They’re now going somewhere else.”

And I’d think to myself, “The church can’t thrive without these people unless many more like them are coming in the front door.  They’re solid believers … regular attenders … generous givers … and faithful volunteers.”

It’s my belief that when a good pastor – who was not guilty of any major offense – is forced out by the church board, most of the “good people” at the church will eventually leave.

And sadly, without those “good people,” the losers end up in church leadership, plunging the church into a downward spiral that’s nearly impossible to stop.

Finally, terminating an innocent pastor can have tragic consequences for a church for years to come.

By innocent, I mean a pastor who was not guilty of any major offense … only manufactured offenses.

When a church terminates such a pastor, they invite these results:

*Some churches that terminated a pastor find it easier to terminate the next pastor(s).  This is what happened in my father’s case.  Even though he was the founding pastor of a church, the board pushed him out … and then pushed out the next two pastors.

Some churches are “repeat offender” congregations, and most healthy pastors won’t even consider serving them.

*Some churches that terminated a pastor hire a new pastor who eventually takes the church down the tubes, but the congregation experienced such trauma after removing the first pastor that they give the next pastor immunity … even if he’s unqualified or incompetent.

This means that the church fired a pastor they should have kept while keeping a pastor they should have fired.

*Some churches – although a relatively small percentage – may thrive in the days ahead, but I don’t hear about these churches.  Nobody calls me up and says, “Hey, Jim, we fired our pastor a year ago, and now our church is doing better than ever!”

I’m sure this happens … just not very often.  (This would make another good study.)

*Some churches dissolve several years after terminating an innocent pastor.

This is what happened in my father’s case.  After pushing my dad to the sidelines, the church board terminated the next two pastors, and the church then dissolved.

Years after the congregation removed their pastor, the church I served as a staff member eventually dissolved as well.

A friend who reads this blog told me that after he was forced out, the board forced out the next pastor, and then the church disappeared.

Nothing kills a church’s morale like firing their divinely called shepherd.

_______________

When a church board believes they’re at an impasse with their pastor, they may very well want to engage in “fight or flight” … that is, either “the pastor goes or we go.”

Some board members tell their colleagues, “In my business, when I have an employee who isn’t working out, I just fire him and hire somebody new.  Let’s do that here.”

But a church isn’t strictly a business … it’s more like a family.

And although a small business owner or a supervisor might be able to control the consequences after firing an employee, no church board can control what happens after they force a pastor to leave.

One of my aims with this ministry is to say to boards who have issues with their pastor, “Think Christianly.  Think biblically.  Think broadly.  Think compassionately.”

I am not saying you can’t or shouldn’t terminate your pastor.  I am saying that unless he’s guilty of a major offense (heresy, sexual immorality, or criminal behavior), don’t let your anxiety cause you to do something that will damage your church for years … or end its very life.

Seek God’s face … get professional counsel … take your time … do it right.

What are some other consequences you’ve seen after a pastor is terminated?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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