Posts Tagged ‘forced termination of pastor’

Pastor Joel could barely breathe.

The pastor of Good News Church for six years, Joel had just received a phone call from Tim, the board chairman.  Tim informed Joel that a group in the church had just held a secret meeting intended to force Joel out of his position as pastor.

So many questions whizzed through Joel’s mind, among them:

*Who was in the group?

*What were they upset about?

*Why didn’t anyone share their concerns with Joel himself?

*How long had they been meeting?

*How much did the staff and board know about them?

Joel instantly became disoriented and confused.  He couldn’t think clearly.  He began having an anxiety attack … maybe even a full-blown panic attack.

He had been targeted before in his previous two ministries.

In his first pastorate, a group of former lay leaders organized and tried to push him out.  But the board backed Joel completely, and the malcontents all left.

In his next pastorate, two staff members and three board members conspired to get rid of Joel, but their plot also failed, and they all departed together.

So Joel had been attacked before, but even though he had survived both attempts, he prayed that he would never have to go through another one.

And now this.

While Joel knew a lot intellectually about how to handle such a coup attempt, he also knew that when he was threatened, his emotions tended to overwhelm his brain, and that he quickly went into “fight or flight” mode.

He needed divine support, so he paused to ask God for wisdom and strength.

He needed human support, so he asked himself, “Which leaders do I know are 100% behind me?”

He identified three: Tim, the board chairman; Ron, the outreach pastor; and Craig, a former board chairman.

Joel contacted each person and asked if they could meet that night at a restaurant four miles outside town.  All three agreed.

When everyone arrived, Joel asked Tim to tell the others about his phone call.  Then Joel … thinking a bit more clearly … asked the following questions which he had written on a napkin:

*Tim, who told you about the plot?

*Why do you think they told you?

*Who do we know that opposes my ministry?

*What are their charges?

*What do you think their strategy is?

*Which staff members or board members might be with them?

After some discussion, Joel told his three supporters, “Based on my experience and research, I want to share with you how we can beat back this opposition and preserve congregational unity … provided that no staff members or board members are in on the plot.”

Pastor Joel told the leaders:

First, realize that nearly every plot against an innocent pastor is fueled by hatred. 

Joel shared:

“Clear away the smoke, and you’ll find an individual who has contempt for his pastor.  This individual – sometimes in concert with his spouse – has made a unilateral decision: the pastor must go.”

Joel then stated:

“If we can discover ‘the hater,’ we will have a better idea of discerning what’s happening.”

Joel went on:

“The hater is almost always the ringleader of the opposition.  The pastor hasn’t recognized his brilliance … hasn’t paid him sufficient attention … hasn’t taken his ideas for the church seriously … hasn’t let his buddies be in charge … and hasn’t kept the church the way it was when I came in 2011 … so I must leave.”

Joel then said:

“When the hater is identified, his name probably won’t be a surprise to any of us.  But others may say, ‘He really loves this church.  He’s a fine man.  He is so misunderstood.  He’s just uncomfortable with all the changes.  Cut him some slack.'”

Joel then shared:

“But once a plot is uncovered, there are only three possible outcomes:

*The hater repents of his rebellious behavior.

*The hater leaves the church.

*The pastor leaves.

Sadly, by this stage, haters almost never repent.”

Joel and his three supporters need to realize that the probable outcome of this conflict is that either Joel will leave … sending the church into turmoil … or the hater and a few of his minions will leave instead … the optimal option for the church’s mission at this point.

Second, the hater will hold secret meetings and invite disgruntled churchgoers to pool their grievances against the pastor.

Joel told his three supporters:

“The hater has already determined my fate: he wants me gone.  But if he goes after me alone, he knows he won’t succeed.  He’ll be outnumbered.  He needs allies … as many as possible … so he calls a meeting … shares a few of his complaints … and then solicits complaints about the pastor from others … the more, the better.”

Someone will be asked to record the complaints.

If the pastor has committed a major offense (heresy, sexual immorality, or criminal behavior) … and it can be documented … anyone who attends the secret meeting can take their evidence to the church board, and the pastor most likely will be dismissed.

But secret meetings aren’t intended to come up with serious charges, but many charges … any one of which are trivial and petty.

Pastor Joel told the men:

“This is what happened to me in my second pastorate.  A group of 15 people came up with a list of 22 offenses I had supposedly committed.  The list was then distributed via email all over the church as if to say, ‘Anyone so flawed should never be our pastor.'”

Pastor Joel went on:

“I was accused of not dressing appropriately for a church event … driving a car that’s too expensive … counseling women alone (even though there’s a window on my study door) … changing the worship order too often … letting my wife miss a Sunday when she was sick … and so on.  They were all that trivial … and many of my accusers were guilty of the very same things!”

Joel added:

“The problem with soliciting grievances is that everybody has a different set of complaints.  I might feel passionate about two complaints of my own, but I don’t feel as strongly about the complaints of others in the group.”

Joel went on:

“We need to find out who attended the secret meeting, and then send a message to the hater and his minions: ‘Select two people to present your complaints.  The board will select two leaders to hear those complaints.  That’s fair … a two-on-two meeting.'”

Joel then asked Tim:

“Has any list been distributed to the church yet?”  Tim said, “Not as far as I know.”  Joel replied, “Good.  Let’s put together this meeting before any list goes out.”

Third, the pastor’s opponents will assume that the sheer quantity of charges against him will be enough for him to be terminated.

Some charges might be incident-based: “We saw the pastor do this after a service … we heard his wife say this after a small group meeting … we know that the pastor’s son was sent to the principal’s office at school.”

Other charges will be pattern-based: “The pastor is too intellectual when he speaks … he never takes my phone calls … he doesn’t show up for workdays … he strikes me as being depressed.”

Joel shared:

“Once again, if my opponents can produce even one impeachable offense, they won’t need to create a list of offenses.  The list is their confession that they really don’t have anything substantive to use against me.  We could create such a list against anyone in this church.  Remember that.”

Joel then said:

“Most charges will be exaggerated to some extent.  Listen for the words ‘always’ and ‘never.’  And listen for complaints to be overstated: ‘When the pastor made that decision, fifty people left the church.'”

Joel then told his supporters:

“When two leaders meet with two others from the faction, ask them how many offenses they’ve recorded.  Then ask them to read each one … and you answer each one before they read the next one.  Do not let them read the whole list because you can’t answer the whole list at once!”

Joel continued:

“As you answer each complaint, they will begin to lose heart.  They may not even finish the list.  When their complaints have been exhausted, ask them what they expect to do next.  They will probably say, ‘We need to report to our group.'”

Joel advised:

“Ask them at that point, ‘Who is in your group?  Who is leading your group?’  They probably won’t share any information with you, but they’ll know you’re onto them.  By answering their charges, you will have exposed their plot … and their hearts.”

Joel then shared an insight from family systems theory:

“I have learned that when you can ‘peel off’ one or two of a pastor’s antagonists, the whole plot usually unravels.  Suddenly all the fun is taken out of attacking the pastor.”

Joel then shared one more step:

Finally, tell the group in writing what you expect from the pastor’s opponents … including them.

Joel explained:

“Tell them that we have a simple process for handling complaints at our church.  If you believe the pastor has wronged you personally, then set up a meeting with him and share your concern directly.  If you want, one of us can meet with you as an impartial witness.”

Joel then added:

“If you are upset about church policy, you are free to speak with anyone on the board because the board sets policy.  We will either ask you to make your complaint in writing or ask you to attend the next board meeting personally.  After we have heard your complaint, we will discuss it and make a decision, and ask you to abide by it.”

Joel then said:

“Ask them, ‘Do you understand our process?  Will you abide by it?’  Assuming they agree, then hold them to it.”

Joel then added:

“Then tell them, ‘We believe that our policy for handling complaints is consistent with Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-17 and Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5:19-21.  We believe the Bible teaches that conflict should be handled above-ground (in the light, not in darkness) and that those who are accused of sin should be able to face their accusers.'”

Joel then said:

“It’s my belief that if you handle matters this way, the two individuals will either leave the church immediately (the more likely scenario) and take others with them, or they will slink away and lose their appetite for getting rid of their pastor.  And if they bow out of the ‘get the pastor campaign,’ others will probably follow suit.”

After some discussion, Joel concluded:

“If we as leaders take control of the process for resolving these differences, then we will likely take control of the results as well.”

What do you think about Joel’s strategy for beating back his opposition?

















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Pastor Jon was in trouble.

He had graduated from Yale as a young man, becoming valedictorian of his class, and later became a faculty member there.  But he sensed that God wanted him to become a pastor rather than a professor.

So Jon was called to pastor the church that his grandfather had led for 57 years … a prestigious church of 600 members.

Several years later, Jon’s ministry gained great fame when 300 people were converted within 6 months.  He later preached one of the most influential sermons of all time.

But although Jon was held in high esteem outside his church, his influence gradually began to wane among his own congregation.

For starters, Jon was paid by the local town council, and some people objected to the fine clothes and jewelry that his wife wore.

Since the townspeople paid his salary, they felt they had a right to know how Jon and his wife Sarah spent their money, so they requested an itemized family budget.

Sarah began having nightmares about “being driven from my home into the cold and snow” and “being chased from the town with the utmost contempt and malice.”  She imagined that her enemies surrounded and tormented her, worrying “if our house and all our property in it should be burnt up.”

In addition, Jon had noticed that many of his converts seemed to be more emotional than devout about their Christian faith, so he began to stiffen the requirements for church membership.

He also insisted upon “closed communion,” believing that only believers who had given evidence of conversion should take it, eventually resulting in the suspension of the Lord’s Supper for many years.

Jon also believed that a church should be a theocracy (ruled by God through the minister) rather than a democracy (ruled by congregational decision-making).

While Jon could sense that some were rebelling against him, he was often locked away in his study.  But his wife could feel what he couldn’t see.

He wrote a book to explain his views … but hardly anyone read it.  People began to spread hearsay testimony against him, claiming that he wanted to “judge souls.”

After 23 years as pastor, Jon was finally voted out of office by a 10-9 vote.  His ministerial career was over.

Because Pastor Jon was dismissed over a matter of conscience, the church had a hard time attracting pastoral candidates.  Because Jon couldn’t sell his house, he stayed in town, and even did some guest preaching for the church that fired him.

Finally, Jon was asked to be a missionary and moved across the state.  During that time, he wrote books … mainly on theology … works for which he is still known today.

Jon was asked to become the president of Princeton, and died a few months later at the age of 54.  Sarah died 6 months afterwards.

If you haven’t guessed already, Pastor Jon was one of the greatest philosophers, theologians, and preachers that America has ever produced: Jonathan Edwards.

He pastored a church in Northampton, Massachusetts, from 1727 to 1750 … and found himself right in the middle of the First and Second Great Awakenings.

Edwards’ case shows that given the right conditions, every pastor is susceptible to forced termination.

There is a general consensus among Christians that when a pastor is forced to resign, he must have done something to cause his dismissal.

But I know many pastors who have sterling character … are wonderful preachers … and caring pastors … who have been pushed out of a church.

In fact, the latest statistics say that 28% of all pastors have gone through at least one forced termination … and I know good men who have been through this experience two or three times.

Yes, a small percentage of pastors probably shouldn’t be in church ministry.  And yes, there are some highly dysfunctional churches out there, most of them ruled by a single individual or family.

But many … if not most … pastoral terminations occur because of a “perfect storm.”

I once knew a pastor who had great success in two churches.  When he was called to the third church, things did not go well, and he quickly latched onto another position.  Was that last situation all his fault – or was it simply a combination of circumstances?

In my own case – which I’ve recorded in my book Church Coup – my departure occurred because of a variety of factors, including a national recession (which impacted giving), inexperienced and over-reactive leaders, an undermining predecessor, exaggerated charges, and my own exhaustion, which caused me to be reactive rather than proactive in handling conflict.

In the case of Jonathan Edwards, here was an authoritarian pastor, a town increasingly receptive to democratic ideals, three wealthy individuals who opposed Edwards, the unfortunate death of his best ally, and the long shadow of Edward’s grandfather Samuel Stoddard, who was still venerated by the people of Northampton … and some of whose practices Edwards tried in vain to change.

But that’s not the whole story.

According to William J. Petersen’s book 25 Surprising Marriages, the union of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards produced the following descendants: “13 college presidents, 65 professors, 100 lawyers, 30 judges, 66 physicians, and 8 holders of public office, including 3 senators, 3 governors, and a vice president of the United States.”

There’s an old saying that states that history is written by the conquerors.  So I suppose that whenever a pastor undergoes forced termination, those who pushed him out think that their story is the final account.

But as the life of Jonathan Edwards demonstrates, even the greatest of men can be rejected by their contemporaries.

Just like Jesus.



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Since I left church ministry more than four years ago, I’ve had some good days and some bad days.

Mondays through Saturdays tend to be good days.  Sunday afternoons and evenings are good, too.

But Sunday mornings are rough.


Because Sunday mornings used to be the highlight of my week.  All my thoughts, energies, and prayers culminated in those two worship services, when I would stand before God’s people and bring them God’s Word.

I lived for Sunday mornings.

But now, Sunday mornings don’t seem so exciting … and like many pastors, I wonder:

Is there life after church ministry?

That’s what many ex-pastors want to know … whether or not they deserved being pushed out of church ministry.

I’ve written extensively on this topic, especially in my book Church Coup: A Cautionary Tale of Congregational Conflict.

Let me share four quick thoughts on this topic:

First, God retires many pastors from church ministry before they’re ready.

Neil Diamond once issued an album called Tap Root Manuscript.  There was a song on there called “Done Too Soon.”

After recounting the names of a host of famous people like Jesus Christ, Mozart, Genghis Khan and Buster Keaton, Diamond sang:

And each one lived, there’s one thing shared

They have sweated beneath the same sun

Looked up in wonder at the same moon

And wept when it was all done

For being done too soon

For being done too soon

Most pastors who have experienced a forced exit thought they would retire from church ministry around age 65 … on their terms … rather than much earlier … on someone else’s terms.

Their careers were definitely “done too soon.”

But as I look back on my situation more than 50 months later, I see that God retired me from church ministry because of His grace … and it takes a long time to accept that.

Jesus had to accept that His ministry was “done too soon” after only 3 years.

But this truth doesn’t mean that God is done with ex-pastors because:

Second, God has moved many ex-pastors into kingdom work.

Who is better qualified to do kingdom work than former pastors?

I have a friend who does conflict mediation for churches … and he went through pastoral termination three times.

I have another friend who trains Christian leaders worldwide … and he went through termination twice.

The list of pastors who were pushed out of their churches includes Jonathan Edwards … Billy Graham … and many well-known leaders and authors whose ministries have become much broader than a local church.

In fact, I’ve learned that most ex-pastors involved in kingdom work went through one or more forced exits … and that God had to fling them out of the church first.

Fourteen years ago, I took a doctoral class at Fuller Seminary taught by Dr. Bob Logan.  During every lunch period, Dr. Logan met with several students and asked us what we wanted to do after we received our doctorate.

I told him that I wanted to minister to pastors and churches that were going through conflict.  (Privately, I also wanted to write.)

There was no known pathway to turn my dreams into reality.  I planned to be a pastor until retirement and then think about conflict ministry … but God had other plans … and I’m glad He did.

Because every time a pastor calls me on the phone or a church leader sends me an email, I say to God, “Thank you, Lord, for calling me to this important work.”

Third, God takes care of His children … especially former pastors.

About 2/3 of the time I served as a pastor, I enjoyed a secure income with benefits.

My wife and I didn’t worry about medical bills … having the money for vacations … or saving money.

But when you suddenly find yourself out of your career field, you have to start practicing all those sermons you gave about “trusting God.”

Over the past 4+ years since leaving church ministry, my wife and I haven’t gone into debt and we’ve met all our obligations.

Sometimes the Lord has provided us with unexpected gifts.  Other times, He’s reduced expenses that we assumed were fixed.

While our income isn’t close to what it was five years ago, God has consistently provided for us, and for that, we praise Him!

The Lord knows how to take care of His servants.

Finally, God rearranges your priorities when you’re away from the church.

When I was a pastor, I wanted my priorities to look like this:




But all too often, my priorities really looked like this:




When you’re a pastor, the local church assumes a double identity: it’s both the source of your friendships and the source of your income.

And all too often, it creeps into first place on your priority list.

In fact, there were many times when I missed a family event because it seemed like I was married to my church.

But when you’re no longer a pastor, it’s natural for your priorities to look like this:




And that can be a very good – and healing – thing.

If you know a pastor who has experienced forced termination, you can encourage him in two primary ways:

*Pray for God to use him mightily again … and to meet all his financial needs.

*Keep in regular contact with him.  (When people stop contacting you, you assume that they’ve turned on you.)

And if you are a pastor who has experienced forced termination, remember this adage I learned from my mentor Charles Chandler:

They can take your job, but they can’t take your calling.

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It’s been a while since I’ve presented an excerpt to my upcoming book, which should be published in September or October.  The book is a real-life story about a group of people who joined forces to force a pastor to resign … using any and all means at their disposal.

The last chapter of the book presents FAQs on this kind of conflict.  In most churches, there are churchgoers who know which perpetrators have launched an attack on their pastor … but to keep their friendship, they usually remain silent.

I’ll divide this question into two parts.  Here’s the first part:

What usually happens to the perpetrators?

Realistically?  Nothing.  Biblically, however, perpetrators must be corrected before they strike again. This can be done by staff members, the governing board, or deputized members.  However, if a transitional/interim pastor is hired after the pastor’s departure, he may have to oversee this thankless task.  (Some transitional pastors are trained to deal with powerbrokers and request absolute authority before being hired.)  Unrepentant individuals who target their pastor sense they are immune from correction and feel free to use the same template with the next pastor.  However, in such situations:

Peace mongering is common. With tranquility and stability reigning as premium values, congregational leaders adapt to their most recalcitrant and immature people, allowing them to use threats and tantrums as levers of influence. Malcontents’ complaints never seem to cease. Unwilling to confront the constant critic, leaders set the table for the unhappy souls to have a movable feast of anxiety.  By appeasing rather than opposing, leaders give control to reactive forces.  Feed them once and leaders can be sure they will be back for more.[i]

As far as I know, no one took action against any non-board perpetrators in our situation.  My counsel to any successor is, “Watch your back.  They know the template.”  Trull and Carter note:

Generally speaking, an incoming minister does not need to fear those who speak well of the predecessor. Those who loved, appreciated, respected, and supported the former minister will likely do the same with the new minister.  The church member of whom the minister should be wary is the one who speaks ill of the previous minister. Those who criticize, find fault with, and express disappointment in the former minister will probably react to the new minister in the same way over time.[ii]

I have to confess, this really bothers me.  For decades, pastors have been told that whenever there’s a major conflict in a church they’re leading, they need to resign to keep the church intact. But why should the pastor leave while those who initiated the conflict are permitted to stay?  I suppose it’s easier to remove one person than many.  And spiritually-speaking, the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, just as Jesus did (John 10:14-15).  But why don’t God’s people band together and ask the perpetrators to leave as well?  If the pastor can find another church, they can find another church – and it’s much easier for them than for him. I saw the highlights of a basketball game in which both players involved in a fight were instantly removed from the game.  Why doesn’t this happen in churches?  Aren’t we rewarding people for their divisiveness without expecting them to change?

If I was a layman and my pastor was pushed out by non-board antagonists, I’d approach a board member and say, “If you confront those who perpetrated this conflict, I will stay in this church.  But if you don’t deal with them, I will leave and find a church where they take Scripture seriously. And if anybody asks why I left, I will feel obligated to tell them.” While this may sound harsh, how can church leaders take no action against those who have driven out their minister?  Steinke writes:

In congregations, boundary violators too often are given a long rope because others refuse to confront the trespassers. When boundaries are inappropriately crossed and people are harmed, no one wants to name the violation.  It’s as if the disturbance of the group’s serenity is a greater offense than the viral-like behavior.  Boundary violators go unattended and suffer no consequences . . . . The lack of attention only enables the repetition of the invasive behavior.[iii]

Your thoughts?

        [i] Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, 102.

        [ii] Trull and Carter, Ministerial Ethics, 129.

        [iii] Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, 85.

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When pastors reach a certain stage in their ministries – especially if they’ve been in the same church for many years – it’s easy for them to conclude that they are immune from experiencing a forced exit.  If a pastor survives five years of ministry in the same place, he assumes that most of his critics have left and that those who remain are willing to follow his leadership.  So it comes as a surprise to pastors when they have been in a church for more than five years and yet still have to battle for control of a congregation.

I attended a prominent Christian college, and during my junior year, I took a class in The Gospel of John.  While the class met too early for my taste, the instructor – who was teaching his first class – proved to be a master teacher.  (Had all my teachers been as clear and interesting as he was, I would have emerged from college with straight “A’s.”)  The following year, I invited this instructor to lead a winter retreat for our high school and college students, and his insights into Scripture produced changed lives, including the life of my best friend, who eventually became an influential pastor himself.

Years later, this instructor became the pastor of a well-known mega-church, and it didn’t surprise me one bit.  While attending a seminary near his church for a doctoral program, I jogged over to the church one morning and walked into the worship center.  It was one of the most massive church auditoriums I have ever seen.  I could just imagine my former teacher mesmerizing and motivating the thousands of attendees with his careful and practical expositional skills.

The pastor had a large vision for reaching even more people for Christ.  This meant updating the church’s music, spending more money on the worship services, and recruiting more gifted volunteers and employees.  But the pastor ended up resigning under pressure instead.  According to the local newspaper, a small group of the old guard disagreed with the pastor’s agenda for the church.  The group believed that their seniority in the church entitled them to be consulted about any future plans and when they weren’t, they created havoc behind-the-scenes.  When the pastor resigned, he cited “personal character attacks” and “disrespect for his leadership” from a vocal minority in the church as reasons why he departed.  He had been the senior pastor of that church for fourteen years!

I went through a similar situation a year ago.  I believed that God was calling our church to reach a younger demographic in our spiritually-resistant community.  Rather than make sweeping changes, I wanted to add a third service and transition to a multi-venue format while keeping the two existing worship services largely intact.  This new vision would have required edgier music, additional gifted personnel, and generous funding, but even though most of the staff and the worship planning team were behind it, the governing board was not.  It wasn’t long before I left the church as well.

Let me draw two conclusions from the above stories:

First, pastors must pay a price for spiritual and numerical growth.  I recently heard Andy Stanley say that no one person in a church should stand in the way of a church’s ability to follow Christ’s Great Commission.  And yet when a pastor tries to reach more people, he is often met with resistance, sometimes from staff members, other times from a vocal minority (which has another agenda altogether), and often from the official board.   Sometimes the price paid is that those who are obstructing progress end up leaving the church – and sometimes the price paid is that the pastor ends up being forced to leave as well.  When the pastor has finally gone, people speculate as to why he resigned, wondering if he was guilty of moral failure or poor health or burnout, when the real reason is that the pastor’s agenda for outreach clashed with the agendas of other powerful interests.

Second, every pastor is at risk of a forced exit.  If any pastor is safe from being pressured to leave a church, it’s a founding pastor.  Almost every attendee who comes to such a church comes after the pastor was already there and usually because of the pastor.  But given a determined opposition, almost any pastor can be fired or forced to resign.  A pastor friend once told me that he looked at pastors who went through forced termination as losers – and then it happened to him.  23% of all pastors have been forced out of church ministry at least once.  While a distinct minority of pastors shouldn’t be in any kind of ministry, many great pastors find themselves in the wrong situation with the wrong group at the wrong time and end up losing their positions and even their careers.  While this scenario may be a fact of church life, it brings needless heartache to everyone involved.

Thankfully, the instructor I mentioned at the beginning of the article has become the co-pastor of a church.  The other co-pastor was also the pastor of a mega-church and he, too, was forced out of his position due to false accusations and denominational pressure.  God’s will was assuredly done in permitting both men to leave their churches and band together in their new setting, but the way they were forced out was diabolical.

If you’re in a church where the pastor is under fire, let me ask you one question:

What will you do to make sure that your pastor isn’t unfairly forced from his position?

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