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Posts Tagged ‘how a terminated pastor says goodbye’

As a child (and a young man, and an adult), I was an avid reader of the Peanuts cartoon strip.  There was often more wisdom and true-to-life observations in those little panels than you’ll get in most places.  One time, Linus and Lucy were going to be moving away because their father had taken a job in another city.  Charlie Brown hung his head in sorrow and said, “I need fewer goodbyes.  I need more hellos.”

Exactly.

But there comes a time when all of us must say goodbye – to a departing friend, to a graduating class, to a treasured house, to a dying loved one – and even to a church family.  During my ministerial career, I’ve said goodbye to six church families.  In some cases, it was a wonderful experience.  As people said kind things about you, it was almost like listening in at your own memorial service.  In others … well, let’s just say that people aren’t always thoughtful.

Let me discuss five ways that a terminated pastor might say goodbye to his church family:

First, he needs to tell his side of the story.  When I first became a pastor, I was shocked at how many of my colleagues were forced out of their churches by either a small minority or the governing board.  In each case, I contacted these men and heard their side of the story, and in each case, they were grateful that they could tell their story to somebody.  Know why?

Because they had been told that if they told their side of the story to anybody, that would be divisive.

Unbelievable.

For years, conventional wisdom held that when a pastor was forced to leave his church, he should fall on his sword, refuse to say anything to anybody, and walk away.  But the pastors that I spoke with regretted that they had followed that counsel.  After they left their church, these pastors (a) allowed their enemies to define their legacy, (b) saw friends flip on them (because they only heard one side), (c) watched their reputations be destroyed, and (d) felt they had to leave the pastorate for good because they felt stigmatized.

There is a lawsuit currently on its way to the Supreme Court.  It involves a claim by a pastor that he was terminated and then defamed by two pastors within that church.  You can read about it here:

http://www.thestreet.com/story/11000761/1/us-supreme-court-weighs-review-of-pastor-defamation-verdict-first-amendments-free-exercise-of-religion-clause-at-issue.html

While all of us should be sad that Christians feel they must use the secular legal system to settle disputes, this trend will continue until the Christian church gets its act together and allows pastors who have been unfairly treated to defend themselves in a structured and just manner.  Mainline churches have their own court systems – why not evangelicals?  Even Jesus had the opportunity to defend Himself at several trials, crooked as they were.

While I don’t believe a falsely accused pastor should publicly tell his story inside his church (then accusations will be tossed back and forth), he can do so privately, and should.  The best way to do this is to contact selected church friends and tell them your account of what happened.  The devil doesn’t want this to occur because he only wants one side of the story told: his side.  And the devil will use his side to not only defame the pastor, but to defame the church as well.  Because while Satan does target pastors and their families, he hates churches most of all.

Then when the pastor leaves, when his detractors try and smear him, there will be those who have heard “the other side.”

Maybe the biblical example of Jesus is a good pattern to follow.  While Jesus did not tell His side of the story to Caiaphas or Pilate or Herod, His disciples (like Matthew and John and Peter) did tell His side in the pages of the New Testament.  The Gospels are both apologetic and evangelistic documents.  In fact, the gospel itself encapsulates Jesus’ side.  He died – that’s the verdict of Jesus’ enemies.  He arose – that’s the verdict of His followers.  We know the full story today, but for a long time, many people only heard that Jesus was a criminal, not the promised Messiah who became the Lamb of God.

Second, he needs to act with class publicly.  And this isn’t easy, especially if the pastor believes that he’s been unjustly treated.

This kind of class starts with his resignation letter.  It should be brief rather than long, positive rather than negative, thankful rather than bitter, and unifying rather than divisive.

If the pastor is permitted to preach one more time – which he often isn’t when he’s terminated – his message should look back with gratitude and look forward with hope.  It’s not the time or the place to burn bridges.  The memory of an effective ministry can all but be wiped out with a few thoughtless public remarks.

By the way, if a pastor needs to leave a church to keep it united, shouldn’t those who perpetrated his departure leave as well?  In other words, shouldn’t the church begin again with a clean slate?

Third, he should allow a goodbye event.  Sometimes when a pastor is forced to leave a church, no one wants to throw him a party of any kind, so he just kind of slinks away.  But even if the pastor doesn’t wish for an event like this for himself, it’s part of the grieving process for the church as a whole.  If the church’s leadership doesn’t wish to throw a huge party, they can at least … order cake.  (Just make sure the pastor and his wife get some.)

A better event would be for the pastor and his wife to attend a party at the home of one of their trusted friends.  They can invite those they still feel comfortable being around.  The pastor and his wife can also arrange for photos to be taken with their precious supporters.

Fourth, the pastor should encourage people to stay in the church.  Frankly, I cannot understand how a pastor would leave a church – under any circumstances – and later want that church to be destroyed.

Which is the greater legacy: to leave a church and then have it flourish years later, or leave a church and watch it flounder and eventually die?

The growing church makes Jesus look good and enhances the legacies of all pastors who have come before.

When mistreated, some pastors will leave a church and start another one down the block or across the city – and their core group will consist of followers from the church they just left.  They will encourage people to leave that church and join them in their new endeavor.  This kind of move guarantees bad blood between those two groups for a long, long time.

It’s far better to encourage people to stay in the church and make it better.

Finally, he should not interfere with the church’s affairs.  It is a breach of professional ethics for a pastor to leave a church and yet continue to exert influence within the fellowship.  When a pastor leaves a church, in most cases, he should leave the community and not return.

If he stays in that community, there will be people in the church who will complain to him about the pastor or the board or certain decisions, and the former pastor – being human – may not be able to resist offering his opinions.  Whether or not it’s his intention, too many pastors undermine their successor through their offhand comments.

When a pastor leaves a church, he should leave in every way possible.

He can and should keep some friendships.  He can receive news about how the church is doing.  (And should rejoice when the church is doing well.)  He should pray for the church and its new pastor, and if he hears criticism about his successor, he should either support him or say nothing at all.

One of the worst church crimes imaginable is when a pastor seeks to undermine his successor.  It’s not your church or my church: it’s Christ’s church.  Can you imagine Joshua undermining Moses, or Paul undermining Timothy?

I guess some pastors, in the words of Michael Jackson, “never can say goodbye.”

Because conflict situations like a forced termination may only occur once in the life of a pastor and a congregation, it’s wise to think through some of the issues ahead of time.

May you never have to experience a situation like this, but if you do, may the Lord give you the grace, wisdom, and courage to do what is classy and right.

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