Posts Tagged ‘dismissing a pastor’

By far, the article that has received the most views on my blog – out of more than 500 – is an article I wrote in March 2011 called “If You Must Terminate a Pastor.”

This particular article outpolls everything I’ve written … before or since … by at least a four-to-one margin.

I don’t claim that this article covers every facet of pastoral termination.  It’s not the last word on the subject, but may be viewed as the beginning of the conversation.

As a pastor, I sometimes had to deal with wayward staff members … and was attacked by church bullies at various times throughout my ministry … and finally was pushed out of office nearly seven years ago.

This article is directed toward church decision makers … usually members of the official board … and is a plea for them to understand that the way they treat their pastor will affect him … them … and their church for many years to come.


One of the most excruciating experiences that a supervisor can have is to fire someone from their job.  The first time I had to do this with a staff member, I felt horrible.  Although I did not hire the person initially, I felt partially responsible that the staff member didn’t work out.  I wondered, “What if I had supervised this person better?  What if I had given them more attention?  More training?  More warning?”

Most pastors will leave a church via their own resignation.  They will choose the method and timing of their departure.  In the great majority of cases, they will leave one church for another.  Sometimes they will leave a pastorate to teach in a Bible college or join a parachurch organization.  And one day, they will preach their last sermon and then retire.

But many pastors – surveys now indicate more than 25% – leave church ministry involuntarily.  They are usually forced from office by a faction of ten people or less … sometimes by their governing board.  Most of the time, the process is handled clumsily, resulting in seething anger, ecclesastical division, and incalculable damage.

How can the termination of a pastor be handled in a more biblical and optimal fashion?

An attorney can recommend the legal way to terminate a pastor.  The CEO of a company might suggest how it’s done in business.  The church’s insurance agent might propose ways the church can minimize risks.  And I could mention the way the federal government terminates employees … except they almost never terminate anyone!

If you’d like to read what the Bible says about correcting an elder/pastor, please check out 1 Timothy 5:19-21 (which applies Matthew 18:15-20 to spiritual leaders).  I believe a pastor should be removed for heresy and for immorality as well as felonious criminal behavior and that many of the reasons why boards fire pastors today have more to do with style than sin.

I was a pastor for nearly four decades, and I saw a lot of my colleagues terminated in senseless ways.  If I was still in pastoral ministry, and the board decided I had to go, here’s how I would like that process to be conducted:

First, I’d like to see a possible termination coming.  If attendance was plunging, and giving was going south, and church opinion makers were unhappy, I would probably sense that my time in that place was coming to a close.  And if members of the church board had talked with me about making changes in my ministry, but I either wouldn’t or couldn’t pull them off, that would suggest to me that my days in that church were numbered.

Some pastors have confessed to me that they stayed too long in a previous pastorate and wished they had left before they did.

Last fall, I had lunch with a former mega church pastor.  He had been in his church for more than two decades, but for some unknown reason, attendance suddenly began declining at a rate where nothing he tried worked anymore.  When he preached, he sensed that people weren’t listening to him.  He eventually reached a settlement with the church board and resigned.  The Lord confirmed to his spirit that his time in that spiritual community was over.

If a board has shared their concerns with their pastor, and if matters haven’t turned around after a reasonable time frame (maybe six months to a year), then the pastor should not be surprised if the board openly talks to him about leaving.

But if the ministry is going well, and attendance and giving are holding steady, and the board has never discussed the pastor’s behavior or ministry with him in a formal way, and then the board decides to terminate the pastor … the pastor will rightfully feel blindsided, and the board may very well lose control of the situation.  While the board may have the legal and ecclesiastical right to remove the pastor from office (and in most congregational churches, they don’t have that right – only the congregation does), blindsiding a pastor with termination may be considered a destructive act that results in ripping apart both the pastor’s family and the church family.  (Just know up front that many of the pastor’s supporters will leave the church within a few months.)

If I’m going to be involuntarily terminated, I want to see it coming a mile away.  And if I do see it coming, I will try and make my own plans to depart before the board ever has to deal with me.

Second, I would like the process to be fair, not fast. When one member of a church board decides that “the pastor must go,” his anxiety can become contagious.  Before anyone realizes the full ramifications, the entire board may then fall into line and quickly decide to fire the pastor.  While anxiety drives us to make fast decisions, Jesus encourages us to make fair decisions.

Let’s say that a pastor has recently displayed inappropriate anger several times in private.  The board should not convene and decide to fire the pastor immediately.  Instead, Jesus says in Matthew 18:15 that if a believer sins [and this includes the pastor], it’s your duty to “show him his fault” in private [one-on-one, not in a board meeting].  Then Jesus says, “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.  But if he will not listen …” then you are to take one or two witnesses along, and “if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”  Some scholars believe that the board should be informed between verses 16 and 17, although Jesus doesn’t say that.  In other words, the process is:

*A single believer [maybe the board chairman] talks with the pastor about his sin in private.

*If the pastor refuses to change, that single believer asks one or two more people [a staff member? a friend of the pastor?] to witness a second confrontation.

*If the pastor still refuses to change … only then does it become a board matter.

*If the pastor refuses to listen to the board (that’s three refusals), then either they can terminate him (if the church’s governing documents allow for this) or the church as a whole can vote him out of office in a public meeting (although there will be lobbying and it may become very divisive).

I don’t pretend to know how much time is needed between steps (maybe a month or two between each one?) but Jesus did not necessarily intend for the process to work instantly.  The person being confronted – in this case, the pastor – is not being corrected for getting angry, but for refusing to acknowledge his anger and make the necessary changes in his life.

Before saying, “But pastors should be able to change their behavior immediately,” how long does it take you to make a major change in your life?

That’s why we need to give a pastor some time to make changes in his life.

Third, I would expect to be offered a generous separation package.  The minimal severance a pastor should receive is six months.  If a pastor has been in a church for more than six years, then a good rule-of-thumb is that he receive one month’s salary for every year he’s served in a church.  While some board members might exclaim, “I would never receive severance pay like that at my job,” please realize the following facts about pastors:

*They are ineligible for unemployment benefits.

*They and their family members will suffer tremendously.  It is common for the older children of a terminated pastor to stop attending church and even leave the faith.  The wives of terminated pastors go from being somebodies to nobodies overnight.  If the marriage has already been strained by ministry, the couple might head for divorce.

*The terminated pastor is often in so much pain that he turns to alcohol, drugs, or illicit sex.

*They will lose almost everything dear to them by being terminated: their careers, their income, their church family, their local friends, their house (if they have to leave the community and sell), and their reputations – in other words, they will lose their life as they know it.  (This is why pastors often hang on at a church long after they should leave.)

*They will be stigmatized as a “loser” in much of the Christian community.  As a veteran pastor told me when I first entered the pastorate, if a pastor resigns with no place to go, it’s the “kiss of death.”  If he applies for another church position, his resume will most likely go to the bottom of the pile because he was fired from his previous church.  The Christian world is very small and word gets around quickly.

*They will suffer constant depression, great anxiety, and feel like God has abandoned them.

*They will be shocked to discover that most of their ministry colleagues will turn away from them.

*The terminated pastor usually has to rebuild his life and ministry, and that takes time.  The separation package allows for the pastor to pull away from ministry so he can take stock of his life and begin the healing process.  If the pastor is given a token separation package, he and his family will feel that he has been “kicked to the curb” and it will take them a long time to recover and forgive those who hurt them.

*The terminated pastor will probably not be able to find another church position for at least an entire year … and that church will most likely be considerably smaller than his previous congregation.

We talk a lot in the church today about social justice.  This is ecclesiastical justice.

If a board cannot or will not give the pastor a generous separation package, then they need to think twice – or ten times – about letting him go.  Getting cheap here borders on being unchristian.

Finally, I would welcome the opportunity to resign rather than be fired. If the members of a governing board want to be vindictive toward a pastor, they can fire him outright – but the word will quickly get around the church, and the board will be severely criticized by many while others will angrily leave the fellowship and encourage others to come with them.

When some churches blindside a pastor by firing him, they never recover … and it becomes easier to fire the next pastor.  When I was a kid, my dad felt forced to resign as a pastor, and after the board fired the next two pastors, the church went out of existence.

But if both the pastor and the board announce that the pastor resigned voluntarily, it takes the heat off the board and allows the pastor to leave with dignity.

The optimal win-win scenario is for the pastor to trade a unifying resignation letter for a generous separation package.  That is, the pastor cites multiple reasons for his leaving in his letter, doesn’t harshly criticize anyone in the church (especially the leaders), and encourages everyone in the church to stay and support the next pastor.  Years ago, I learned this adage: “The way you leave is the way you will be remembered.”  Leave bitter, and you will leave a legacy of bitterness.  Leave with class, and you will leave a legacy of class.

A small percentage of pastors deserve to be terminated – maybe even quickly – because they have inflicted great destruction on their ministries, their families, and themselves.  But even then, they should be treated with dignity and their families should be cared for.  But the great majority of terminations go wrong because the board wants the pastor to leave as quickly as possible, and they run the risk of dehumanizing him in the process.

More than anything, I am pleading that church leaders deal with their pastors in a biblical, Christian, and loving way rather than a businesslike, political, and vengeful manner.

And may I remind everyone of this biblical principle from Galatians 6:7: what you sow, you reap.

Or in more contemporary parlance: what goes around comes around.

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The chairman of the church board called the pastor into a side room after his sermon one Sunday.

When the pastor entered the room, he was told by the chairman that he was being dismissed effective immediately.

The pastor had been in the church for years.  He thought the ministry was going well.

He was never told what he had done wrong.  He was not afforded a severance package or a farewell party.

His ministry … and possibly his career … now seemed over.

Nearly half the congregation left over the next several months.

The pastor’s wife was forced to work two jobs.  The pastor looked for a new ministry in vain.  And the pastor’s two kids swore they’d never darken a church door again.

One of my passions as the President of Restoring Kingdom Builders is to advocate that churches – especially church boards – utilize a biblical, just and fair process to address any issues they have with their pastor.

But much of the time, church boards become emotionally reactive and make decisions that harm the pastor and decimate their congregation.

So let me suggest a five-step process that a board can use when they’re concerned about their pastor’s behavior:

First, the church board needs to address their concerns with deliberation and patience.

If a church board is upset with their pastor, it’s important that they slow things down and discern a fair process.


Because there are usually board members who want to take shortcuts … and fire the pastor outright.

Maybe this is how some board members handle their own employees: “When in doubt, push him out.”

But a pastor isn’t just any employee.  He’s someone called and gifted by God.

And the New Testament makes it clear that pastors deserve “respect” and “the highest regard” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13) as well as “double honor” (1 Timothy 5:17-18).

Handling matters with deliberation means that official leaders read, understand, and follow:

*New Testament directives on correcting a spiritual leader (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Timothy 5:19-21).

*Pertinent passages in their church’s bylaws.

*Labor laws in their own state.

Handling matters with patience means that official leaders make decisions using realistic timetables rather than rushing toward a predetermined outcome.

When church boards are ruled by anxiety, they end up hurting a lot of people.

But when boards take their time, they handle matters with greater wisdom and dignity.

Second, those who are upset about the pastor’s personal conduct need to speak with him directly … or let things go.

Pastor Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church – America’s largest in the 1990s – stopped at the church one night and parked in a “No Parking” zone.

The next day, Pastor Bill received a note from a church custodian reminding him not to park in that spot.

Some pastors would have demanded that the custodian be disciplined for his insolence … but not Pastor Bill, who commended the custodian and said, “I need to be an example, not an exception.”

I love that story because a custodian felt he had the right to correct the pastor … and the pastor received and learned from that correction.

But pastors aren’t always examples.  They mess up from time-to-time.  And when they make mistakes, those who witnessed their misbehavior need to speak with them directly and lovingly call them on it.

But what happens in most churches is that people talk about the pastor without ever speaking with the pastor.

One time, a friend came to me before a meeting and said, “So-and-So is mad at you.”

I immediately asked, “How many people has she told?”

Counting with both hands, he stated, “Ten.”

My offense?

I didn’t say hi to her one Sunday morning.

Maybe the woman in question just needed reassurance that I cared about her.  That’s fine.  We all need reassurance at times.

But wouldn’t it have been better if she had simply spoken with me about her feelings personally?

And if she didn’t want to do that, wouldn’t it have been better to let things slide rather than involving ten other people?

This goes for board members, too.

Sometimes a church board member becomes angry with the pastor over a personal matter, but rather than speak with the pastor directly, he complains to other board members.

There are two dangers with this approach:

*Some board members may take their friend’s side in the matter, which makes them feel increasingly powerful.

*A pastor’s personal offense against one person can easily morph into an official offense against the entire board … or church.  The pastor’s perceived offense is used as a pretext for his removal.

And I have a hard time believing that God would approve of such actions.

Third, the board needs to determine the severity of a pastor’s offenses before taking action.

Sometimes pastors are guilty of a misstep and commit a spiritual or moral citation … like the equivalent of jaywalking.

Maybe the pastor skips a church event without telling anyone … or promises to visit someone in the hospital but doesn’t … or forgets to answer an important email for two weeks.

In my view, if these offenses wind their way up to the church board, they are only worthy of a citation.

Proverbs 19:11 says, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.”

Just like in marriage, some “offenses” need to be overlooked … forgiven … and forgotten as soon as possible.

If not, the church board will become the church police.

But sometimes pastors commit spiritual or moral misdemeanors.

My initial staff position was in a church that held a week-long missionary conference.  We had a missionary speaker every night of the week!

I attended the first four nights faithfully.  But on the fifth night, the movie “Gone with the Wind” was playing at a local school (this was before videos or DVDs), and my girlfriend Kim (now my wife) really wanted to see the film.

So we went, and had a great time.

However, when I next saw my pastor, he was not happy with me.

He asked me, “Where were you last night?”  I told him.  He said, “People came to me last night and wanted to know where you were.  I didn’t know what to tell them.”

I apologized to him.  Then he advised me, “Look, if you had asked me if you could go to the movie, I would have said yes.  Then if people asked where you were, I would have said, ‘I know where Jim is.  Everything’s fine.'”

Going to a movie was okay … but going without permission was not.

That was a misdemeanor because it couldn’t be quickly forgiven and forgotten.  I needed to be confronted.

When a pastor commits a spiritual or moral misdemeanor, someone needs to love him enough to confront him.  The pastor needs to know that he did something wrong … admit it was wrong … and take steps not to do it again.

And when the pastor apologizes and asks forgiveness, that should be the end of it.

But sometimes pastors are suspected of committing spiritual and moral felonies, and if so, those overseeing the pastor need to launch an investigation into the offense, as Deuteronomy 19:18 specifies.

Which offenses are felonies?

Heresy, for one.  Sexual immorality, for another.

I would also include criminal behavior, including beating one’s wife, certain kinds of theft, and committing fraud.

And in my opinion, if a pastor openly, blatantly, and knowingly lies to his congregation, he should at least be suspended, if not terminated.

Most of the time, when a pastor commits a spiritual or moral felony, he has forfeited his position as pastor, and needs to resign or be dismissed.

But all too often, some Christians … including church boards … turn offenses meriting citations into misdemeanors, or misdemeanors into felonies, because they want to get rid of the pastor and are willing to use anything they can find.

While I admit the Bible doesn’t make distinctions between these offenses, our culture does, and those distinctions can help us determine the severity of a pastor’s misbehavior.

Fourth, let the pastor face his accusers and explain his actions.

Read the Gospels.  Jesus was accused of many offenses by the Jewish leaders, but they always let Him defend Himself … even on the morning of His crucifixion.

Read Acts 7.  Stephen was accused of speaking against the temple and the law (Acts 6:13) but still offered a self-defense.

Read Acts 22 … or 23 … or 24 … or 25 … or 26.  Paul was accused of bringing Greeks into the Temple area and speaking against the Temple and the law (Acts 21:28).  But he was still allowed to face his accusers and offer a defense.

As Festus told King Agrippa in Acts 25:16, “… it is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges.”

During my second pastorate, a church leader began making charges against me to anyone who would listen.  His “concerns” finally made their way to the board chairman, who invited the leader to the next board meeting.

The leader brought a list of seven “concerns.”  After he shared each issue, the chairman asked me to respond, which I gladly did.

The leader was so disheartened by my responses that he never finished his list … and announced the next day that he was leaving the church.

The charges sounded plausible when he was sharing them with friends and family …  but when he shared them in my presence, his entire case wilted.

In his book Beyond Forgiveness, Don Baker writes about the time he received credible information that a popular staff member had slept with multiple women in previous churches.

Pastor Baker didn’t fire his staffer outright.  Instead, he met with him privately, told him what he’d heard, and let him respond.

Even if a board is convinced their pastor has committed an impeachable offense, the entire board – or chairman – should first meet with the pastor and hear his side before taking any action.

If the board meets with the pastor before deciding his fate, the pastor might convincingly refute the allegations … shed light on his accuser(s) and their motivations … or confess and offer his resignation.

In the majority of cases that I hear about, the church board fires the pastor outright … without telling him his offenses … letting him face his accusers … or allowing him to explain his actions.

And those kinds of decisions destroy a pastor and his family and throw a church into turmoil.

Finally, give the pastor sufficient time to change his behavior.

If a pastor is guilty of multiple citations or occasional misdemeanors, he should be given time to correct his behavior.

Three months isn’t enough time.  Two years is too long.

Isn’t redemption a Christian virtue?

If the board follows a process, and the pastor has made progress, then he should be allowed to stay, with the board monitoring those areas where he’s deficient.

If the pastor hasn’t made progress, then it’s okay to ask for his resignation after 12 to 15 months … although most pastors would probably resign long before they’re asked.

The pastor and congregation will be far better off one year later if the board follows a biblical, just, and fair process than if they become anxious and swiftly force out their shepherd.


Today marks my 400th blog post.  Thanks to every one of you who reads what I write!

My readers include pastors, staff members, church leaders, and lay people.

If you’d like me to cover a certain topic, please leave a comment or write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org.

And because I enjoy responding to your comments, please feel free to interact with anything I write.

Thanks again for reading!























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Someone recently told me about the time her pastor was fired.

After the church board met with the pastor to proclaim his termination, the chairman stood up at the next Sunday service, announced the pastor’s departure, and told the congregation not to contact him at all.

I can understand why a board might feel that way.  After dismissing their pastor, they’d probably be concerned that the pastor might:

*criticize the board’s decision to others.

*undermine the board’s authority.

*encourage members to leave the church.

*start a new church nearby composed of people from his former church.

But if I was a church member and I was publicly told, “Don’t contact the pastor at all,” I’d contact that pastor immediately.


Because I’d assume that the board was trying to cover up something … like how badly they bungled the pastor’s termination.

Let me tell you why this concerns me.

It is becoming increasingly prevalent for church leaders to try and destroy the reputation of their pastor after he leaves their church.


Because they’re afraid that the pastor may tell his side of the story to church attendees … and they don’t want that to happen.

Church leaders only want one version of events to become public: their version.

And if the pastor tells his version to even a few people, it may get around and contradict the “official” board version … and this could cause some people to turn against the church board and leave the church … taking their friends and money with them.

But once a church board terminates their pastor – rightly or wrongly:

*Most churchgoers are going to talk about it.

*Some churchgoers will seek to hear the board’s side.

*Some churchgoers will contact the pastor to hear his side.

*All churchgoers will make up their own minds as to what happened.

In my book Church Coup: A Cautionary Tale of Congregational Conflict, I made this statement:

“When leaders make people promise blanket confidentiality during a conflict, they are trying to control the flow of information … as well as their opponents.”

Sometimes after a termination, the church board is saying:

“We believe that we’ve terminated the pastor for just cause.  If you possessed the information that we have, you’d agree with our decision.”

But sometimes, they’re saying this instead:

“We felt that the pastor was acquiring too much power, which would minimize our authority.  So we trumped up some charges to take him out.  Nobody can contradict our version of events except the pastor, so we’re going to discredit him before anybody contacts him.  Whatever he says, he’s trying to hurt the church.”

In my mind, such an attitude indicates a spirit of control … which is why I’d contact the pastor right away to hear his version.

As Proverbs 18:17 says, “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.”

People don’t like to be controlled.  And nobody likes a gag order.

But if the board did what was right in God’s eyes, why would they need to try and control anyone or anything?

Shouldn’t they relinquish control of the situation to God instead?

Once a board forces out the pastor, they can no longer control the consequences.

And once the pastor has left the church, how can the board continue to control him?  They’ve severed the relationship.

When I was a pastor, occasionally people would leave the church angrily.

A Sunday or two later, somebody would invariably approach me and say, “I heard Joe and Betty left the church.”

Was it my place to speculate as to why they left?

I didn’t want to misrepresent them.  So I’d say, “If you’re concerned about them, why don’t you call them and speak with them?”

Was that risky?  Of course.  But any other answer would indicate that I was trying to control people and circumstances.

And that’s not the job of a church leader.

That’s God’s job.

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