Posts Tagged ‘pastor termination’

The late 1960s band Buffalo Springfield (featuring Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and present-day Calvary Chapel pastor Richie Furay) didn’t last very long, but they had one big hit song to their name: “For What It’s Worth.”

Describing an encounter with police on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, the final verse says:

Paranoia strikes deep

Into your life it will creep

It starts when you’re always afraid

Step out of line, the man come, and take you away

Those words encapsulate not only how it feels to be caught in a mass protest, but also how it feels to be the pastor of a church in the 21st century.

It is possible for a pastor to love the Lord and his congregation and yet feel emotionally insecure and even petrified at times.

Or as a famous Christian leader once said in an interview, “I’m always running scared.”

As I reflect on my 36 years of church ministry, I can identify at least six occasions when I felt a degree of pastoral paranoia:

First, when somebody came up to me and said, “Pastor, I need to make an appointment to talk to you about something.”

People would usually say that before or after a Sunday service, and my first reaction would be, “Did I say or do something to offend them?”

I’d ruminate over our relationship and see if I could guess why they were coming to see me.

*Were they angry with something I said in a sermon?

*Were they upset with a leadership decision I’d made?

*Were they ticked off at a staff member?

*Were they upset with the way the church was managing funds?

There were times when I tried so hard to guess their concerns that I couldn’t sleep.

But more than 90% of the time, I’d guess wrong.  As Tom Petty sang, “Most things I worry about, never happen anyway.”

They usually wanted to talk to me about their spouse, or their kids, or their boss, or a friend … and they didn’t have anything negative to say to me.

But on a few occasions, someone did come in with guns blazing … and those times … however rare … stayed with me for years.

And they tended to impact every subsequent occasion when someone told me, “Pastor, I need to talk to you …”

Second, when I didn’t hear any encouraging words after a sermon.

Preaching is a funny thing.

Sometimes I’d prepare what I thought was a great message, and hardly anybody would comment on it afterward.

Other times, I’d come to the pulpit feeling dry and uninspired, and I’d receive many uplifting comments afterwards.

In my last church, I spoke to 300+ adults every Sunday.  If just two people said something positive about a message, I felt that I had done my job.

But if nobody said a word, I’d feel like a failure … and would start to wonder, “Am I losing it?”

When I first started preaching, I stood at the door and greeted everyone after the service was done.  I came to hate that time because (a) some people would avoid me altogether, (b) some people would say perfunctory things (“good message, pastor”), and (c) I couldn’t take much time to listen or pray with people.

So after a while, I stopped engaging in the “glorifying the worm” ceremony (in the words of Joe Aldrich) and just stood at the front where I had time to listen to people or pray with them after the service.

Since traffic was flowing out of the worship center … not toward the front … it was natural that I wouldn’t hear most people’s thoughts after a message.

But based on a lack of information, I sometimes wondered, “Could my preaching days be over?”

Third, when someone falsely accused me of wrongdoing.

In baseball, it’s still true that “three strikes and you’re out.”

But in church ministry, it’s increasingly true that just one strike can cause the termination of your position … and your career.

Someone once accused me of doing something that I did not do.

I did something … someone became angry … and then they attached a label to my behavior that completely misrepresented my actions.

The church board became involved, and although they didn’t declare me guilty, it felt like I had a cloud over me for years.

Because if somebody wanted to hurt me, all they had to say was, “Did you know that Jim was guilty of _______________?”

And if I was one of the last ones to hear the accusation … as can happen with pastors … my ministry … and possibly my career … could have been over.

Pastors are aware that people talk about them all the time.

When you’re first in ministry, it bothers you a great deal.  But the longer you’re in ministry, the more you expect to be discussed … and even dissected.

But when you’re slandered … and every pastor is lied about to some degree … the official board needs to use a fair and just process to evaluate those accusations … or they might choose to take the easy road instead.

The easy road involves telling the pastor, “We’re sorry, but even though you may be innocent of the charges going around the church, so many believe them by this time that we don’t see how you can stay and pastor this congregation.”

The knowledge that just one devastating false allegation can end a pastor’s ministry forever is enough to make even the most godly man shake in his boots.

And that possibility can make any pastor paranoid.

Fourth, when an influential Christian leader came to hear me preach.

During my first pastorate, an older pastor and his wife visited our Sunday service one morning.

After the sermon, the pastor’s wife shook my hand at the door and said, “Good diction.”

Good diction?  That was the best she could say?

Around the same time, our district minister … a popular preacher in his own right … visited our church and heard me preach on repentance.

He praised my message up and down … and later told me, “You’re the best preacher in Northern California.”

The truth was somewhere in between.  I was a better preacher than “good diction” but definitely not “the best preacher” for miles around!

As a pastor, if an influential Christian leader was visiting my church the following Sunday, I preferred not to know about it ahead of time.

Because if I did, I was liable to over-prepare my sermon and not be myself.  A pastor does his best preaching when he’s relaxed in the Lord.

The office manager at one of my churches had a father who was a seminary professor.

One Easter, he came to visit, and came up to me after the service and said, “Great message!”

The more “good dictions” a pastor gets, the more paranoid he becomes in the pulpit.

But the more “great messages” he gets, the less paranoid he becomes.

But as every pastor knows, you’re only as good as your last sermon.

Fifth, when I was making a controversial statement in a sermon.

The trend back in the 1980s and 1990s was for a pastor to write out a manuscript of his sermon.

The manuscript demonstrated preparation … and required exact wording.

The trend today is for a pastor to speak without notes, and although I can do that, I prefer to have structure when I speak … or I’m afraid I’ll just ramble on and on.

Over time, I learned that the more controversial the topic, the more precise … and even diplomatic … I had to be with my words … or I might needlessly offend the very people I was trying to instruct.

As my hearers can attest, I never shied away from anything controversial.  Just preaching the Bible is controversial enough!

But I often wondered, “Who might be offended by this sermon?”

During my final year, I gave a sermon celebrating sex inside marriage from 1 Corinthians 7:1-5.  I received a terrific response from some people, but some seniors were so upset with me that they promised to boycott the rest of the series on marriage.

The best pastors are bold when they preach, but when people protest against you for preaching the Word of God … that can make you paranoid.

Finally, when churchgoers told their previous pastor about me.

During my last pastorate, my predecessor visited our church one time, and while we were talking, I discovered that he knew all about the false accusation I mentioned earlier.

I tried to explain what happened from my vantage point, but I’m uncertain how much he believed me.

Then he told me, “So-and-so calls me all the time to complain about you.”

It wasn’t a surprise.  I figured that was the case.

So to what degree could I trust my predecessor and So-and-so after that?

There was a group of people in that church who were more loyal to my predecessor than to me.

Some held leadership positions when he was pastor, but for biblical reasons, I could not let them be leaders.

So they constantly called or emailed him, and when he came to town … which he did a few times a year … they would get together.

And, in many ways, those people were responsible for pushing me out as pastor.

An older man came up to me one time and said, “I drove up to see (your predecessor) recently.  We talked about you!”

What a stupid, insensitive comment that was.

And over time, such comments can make a pastor wonder if there’s a plot to get rid of him.

And in my case, there was … and my predecessor was heavily involved.


This article isn’t meant to be the last word on pastoral paranoia, but merely a starting point.

There are two extremes that pastors must avoid when it comes to paranoia:

If a pastor trusts everybody, his ministry could be over.

John writes about Jesus in John 2:24-25, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men.  He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.”

Jesus did not arrive in public and loudly proclaim, “Hey, everybody, I’m the Messiah!”  No, He gradually revealed that information only to select individuals … and only as they were able to grasp it.

He reserved certain actions and words for The Twelve but not the multitudes.  There are things about a pastor his congregation never needs to know.

Share the wrong thing with the wrong person … and your ministry could be history.

But if a pastor stops trusting everyone, then his ministry will eventually die.

A pastor has to trust his inner circle.  If he can’t, his ministry won’t last very long.

Jesus trusted His inner circle … Peter, James, and John … to the point where only they observed Him feeling “sorrowful and troubled” … and only they heard Him say, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matthew 26:37-38).

For whatever reason, Jesus didn’t want His other eight disciples to witness His emotional distress in Gethsemane.  He was willing to be transparent with only three.

During my last ministry, I trusted very few individuals with my innermost thoughts and feelings.

Several people proved trustworthy, and as far as I know, they have kept my confidences to this day.

But someone else did not.

I remember two extended conversations I had with a key leader.  I shared with him some struggles I was having, and later on, that information was used against me.

Since I shared that information only with him, I knew where the leak originated.

I’m reminded of the old joke about the three preachers who met and decided to confess their sins to each other.

The first preacher said, “I really struggle with alcohol.”

The second preacher admitted, “I really struggle with lust.”

The third preacher exclaimed, “I really struggle with gossip, and I can’t wait to tell others about you two!”

Since all too many of God’s people struggle with gossip, it’s best if pastors share their innermost thoughts and feelings with only a handful of trustworthy individuals … preferably from outside his congregation.


In my fifth year of pastoral ministry, I sank into a deep depression because the ministry was not going well.

My wife was greatly concerned for my well-being.  I was barely functioning.

She told me she was going to find me a Christian counselor.  I told her, “Just find the best-educated person you can.”

She finally found someone with two doctoral degrees.

I drove 35 minutes each way to see him twice a week for four months.

I never breathed a word about my counseling visits to anybody in the church other than my wife.

Christians have a way of panicking when they hear their pastor is hurting.  It’s unrealistic, but many churchgoers need a pastor who is always strong and even superhuman.

And when they hear the pastor isn’t doing well emotionally, they easily imagine the worst.

Years later, after I overcame that depression, I felt comfortable sharing my counseling experience both while preaching and in writing so I could help others to lessen the stigma of going for counseling.

While it was important that I become more emotionally healthy, neither the church board nor the congregation needed to know the process God used to help me become functional again.

That was between the Lord and my wife and me.

Let me ask this question of you:

What else causes pastoral paranoia?

























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The following story is typical of every innocent pastor who has ever experienced the pain of forced termination:

You were spiritually lost.

But by God’s grace, you came to know Jesus … as a child, teenager, or adult.

You read your Bible … attended church … and grew in your faith.

Then one day, you sensed that God was calling you to pastoral ministry.

You sought counsel … told your loved ones … and consulted with your pastor.

You knew that by going into Christian ministry, you weren’t going to make a lot of money … but that was okay, because God would take care of you.


You applied for and entered a Bible college or Christian university.

You worked hard and graduated several years later.

Then you applied for and entered seminary.

You graduated with a Master’s degree … often a Master of Divinity … which took years to complete … and consumed most of your time.

During seminary, you worked hard to earn money and teach Scripture anywhere you could.

But after graduation, you only wanted to do one thing: preach God’s Word.


You wanted your call to ministry recognized, so you pursued ordination.

Your pastor and church board voted to ordain you.  Your pastor put you in touch with your district minister, who explained the process to you.

You worked hard at creating a statement of faith … anticipating questions … and preparing your answers.

You met with an ordination council, which grilled you pretty good … then recommended you for ordination.

You kneeled before God and your church family as pastoral colleagues laid their hands on you and prayed.

And you vowed before God that you would follow the Lord and preach the whole counsel of God.


Along the way, you got married and started a family.  They would go wherever you went.

You sent resumes to open churches, and finally, one showed an interest in you.

You flew there … met with the search team … preached several times … answered questions … and went home exhausted but hopeful.

You received a call several days later to return as a candidate.

You preached again … negotiated a salary package … and received a call to be that church’s next pastor.

You made plans to move to that community … hopefully for the rest of your life.

You said goodbye to family and friends … packed up your belongings … and put your life in the hands of people who claimed to love Jesus like you did.

You put your books in your new church office … met the staff and the board … and threw yourself into the work.

You rented an apartment until you could buy your first house … which you finally did.

You spent hours on your messages … met with all the church leaders … visited the sick … counseled the wounded … and worked inhumane hours.

You gave everything you had for God’s people.

You assumed things were going well.  The church was growing … giving was increasing … God’s spirit was moving … and you felt joyful.

You said to yourself, “God has me doing what I was born to do.”

And then one day, it all changed.


You received a phone call from a church friend who told you that a group of members had been meeting in secret.

They had a long list of complaints against you … complaints you knew nothing about.

You felt devastated … betrayed … and scared.

Suddenly, that group was all you could think about.  You wondered:

Who is in that group?

Why are they upset with me?

What are they going to do to me … and to this church?

The knowledge that people were out to get you negatively impacted you and your ministry.

You suddenly became paranoid … not knowing who wanted to harm you.

You became guarded … not wanting to give the faction any more ammunition.

You sank into depression … couldn’t focus on studying for sermons … and began to experience the symptoms of panic.


You attended the next board meeting, and quickly discovered that three board members were among the complainers.

They accused you of petty matters that happened months before … matters you couldn’t even recall.

They said that many others in the church agreed with their complaints.

And they gave you a choice: you could either resign or be fired …  and they wanted you to decide right then and there.

If you resigned, they would give you two month’s severance pay.  If you didn’t, you’d receive nothing.

You were stunned … wounded … and paralyzed with fear.

You couldn’t think straight.  You felt like throwing up.

You wanted to vanish.

You had been rejected … forsaken … and tossed aside … but you had no idea why.


They wanted you to resign, and so you did.

You went home and told your wife, who cried all night long.

You called family members, who could not believe what happened.

You returned to your office at church the next day … packed up your books and belongings … and carted them home.

You turned in your keys and said goodbye to the staff.

You contacted a realtor and put your home on the market.

You perused the want ads to find a job … anything you could do to support your family.

But all you wanted to do was preach the Word of God.


You sent out resumes to scores of churches, but received few replies.

You made it to the first round with two churches, but they both went in other directions.

Then one day, you discovered what the problem was.  Several people from your previous church were saying things about you that weren’t true.

They accused you of being a dictator … not cooperating with the church board … and insinuated that you had mental problems.

You were shocked beyond belief.  None of it was true … and nobody at the church had ever spoken with you about any of those issues.

But somehow, those charges were circulating around, and you had no forum in which to rebut them.

You felt marked … tainted … stained … and scarred.

You obeyed God’s call to ministry … went to college and seminary … became ordained … sacrificed in so many ways … gave everything you had to God’s people … and got kicked in the teeth for it.

Should you keep trying to find a church to pastor?

Should you settle for a staff position?

Should you start a church instead?

Should you borrow money, go back to school, and start over in some other field?

Or should you accept the fact that your career is now over?


This story is replicated every month among hundreds of pastors.  I’ve heard from many of them.

And most of all, they want to know what they did wrong … but they never get the real story … and it haunts them day and night.

In her book Crying on Sunday, Elaine Onley writes about her own husband’s forced termination.  She quotes a denominational executive who told her: “Not a week goes by that this does not happen to some pastor.  I mean to a good pastor – not novices, not those of wrong-doing.  It happens to men who are good, kind, faithful men of God.  It breaks my heart.”

I’m doing what I can to make a difference.

I have a doctoral degree with a focus on church conflict.  I’ve written a book … Church Coup … about my own experience.  I write a blog twice a week, usually on church conflict or forced termination.

I’m writing an e-book designed to help church decision makers think through the process of terminating their pastor … participating in a study on forced termination … attending a three-day conflict training course later this month … providing counsel for those who go through this horrendous experience … and praying that God will stop the epidemic of forced terminations in this country.

If I can help you in any way, please comment on this blog or write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org

We have to put a stop to this epidemic before Satan ruins more pastors, believers, and churches.












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When I first became a pastor in my late twenties, I was appalled at how many pastors in our district were forced to leave their ministries because they were opposed by a handful of antagonists.

As a rookie pastor, I met on a monthly basis with the district minister and other area pastors for lunch, and whenever I heard about a pastor who was forced to resign, I wanted to know why it happened and how he was faring, especially since I had become friends with some of those pastors.  The dominant impression I received was that each minister resigned because “he had it coming” and that lay leaders reluctantly handed out the treatment he deserved.

For example, one pastor in our district told his congregation in frustration that they “didn’t give a damn” about a certain issue, but because the pastor used the word “damn” in a public meeting (not a church service) some leaders believed that he had disqualified himself from service.  But I wanted to know why he used that language.  When I first entered the district, this pastor took a special interest in me, and if he became so incensed that he used emphatic language inside church walls, then maybe some detractors pushed him over the edge.

Another pastor friend was forced to leave his church because his daughter had been falsely accused of an offense and he resigned to protect her.  (The truth came out sometime later.)

But in district circles, we rarely heard about unhealthy congregations.  Instead, the implication was that if a pastor was forced out of office, you could trace his departure to something he did or said wrong.  The very presence of conflict indicated his guilt.  It’s like saying, “Caiaphas is furious; the Pharisees are incensed; Pilate is anxious; the mob is unruly.  Who is responsible?  It must be the fault of that man hanging on the center cross.”

So early in my career, I learned how district leaders viewed pastors who experienced a forced exit.  The pastor was usually blamed for whatever conflict occurred.  Upon hearing the news that another colleague had resigned, I would call that pastor and ask him why he left, and every man was transparent enough to tell me.

Then I’d ask, “How many other district pastors have called to express their concern?”  The answer was always, “You’re the only one.”  As I recall, in my first several years as a pastor, seven colleagues were forced to leave their churches, and every one told me I was the only minister who called, which broke my heart.  I later did a study of pastors in our district and discovered that out of sixty pastors that had departed, fifty were no longer connected to the denomination.  I felt so strongly about this issue that I wrote an article for our denominational magazine titled “Who Cares for Lost Shepherds?”

Why don’t pastors demonstrate more concern for their colleagues who experience forced exits?

Maybe pastors have enough happening inside their own churches to reach out to peers, or they wouldn’t know what to say to a colleague, or they don’t want to become embroiled in another church’s issues.  But my guess is that most pastors don’t want to associate with anyone they perceive as a loser.

If you’re forced out of a church, the perception is that you must be incompetent, immoral, or ignorant of church politics.  There is something wrong with you, not the church, and if you were smarter, you wouldn’t have such problems.

For example, I recently heard a seminary professor refer to a leadership structure he utilized when he was a pastor, stating that he never really had a major conflict with a congregation over two decades of ministry.  Translation: If you handled matters my way, you wouldn’t have any conflict.

But this sentiment seems arrogant to me.

Jesus wasn’t crucified because he was unhealthy but because the political and religious leaders of his day were spiritually rebellious.

Paul wasn’t chased out of European cities because anything was wrong with him but because his hearers were hostile toward the gospel.  (Were all Paul’s problems with the churches in Corinth and Galatia his fault?  Doesn’t he usually place the responsibility for church troubles at the feet of the whole church rather than single out certain leaders?)

It’s popular to say, “If the team isn’t winning, fire the coach,” but some pastors have led their churches to growth and yet are forced to leave because the powerbrokers feel less significant as the church expands.

While a small percentage of pastors deserve termination, the great majority who are involuntarily sacked have done nothing worthy of banishment.  [David] Goetz recommends that denominations keep better records of forced exits to identify repeat-offender churches and suggests that denominations discipline churches that slander or abuse their pastors.


This is an excerpt from my book Church Coup which was published a year ago by Xulon Press.  The book describes a real-life conflict that happened nearly five years ago in my last church ministry.

I wrote the book to describe how a major conflict feels from the pastor’s side and to suggest a multitude of ways that such conflicts can be avoided.

If you’re interested in purchasing the book, you can buy a hard copy or download the e-book from Amazon.com.  Just click on the picture.


Thanks for reading!


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There are a lot of things in this world I don’t understand.  For example:

Why is one baseball pitcher paid more than $30 million per season?

Why did they have to kill off Matthew on Downton Abbey?

And why does anyone pay attention to Miley Cyrus?

There are also areas of the Christian church I don’t understand:

Why are so many Christians afraid to stand up for their faith?

Why are most churches unprepared for guests?

Why don’t pastors preach on controversial issues anymore?

We can talk about those issues another time.

However, I have five questions that center around conflict in churches – especially involving pastors – that continue to puzzle me:

First, why do so many Christians resort to lying to get rid of their pastor?

When a pastor is innocent of any major offense (like heresy, immorality, or felonious behavior), but a group in the church wants to push him out, why do they lie to get their way?

And why do so many gullible Christians believe the lies without checking their veracity?

And why do churchgoers believe the liars and proceed to shun their pastor?

Paul writes in Ephesians 4:25, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.”

I hear stories all the time from pastors whose forced resignations were preceded by one lie after the other.

Why do we permit this in the body of Christ?

Can’t figure it out.

Second, why is a forced-out pastor considered “damaged goods?”

In our day, if a pastor is forced to resign from a church, the chances that he can find another church ministry are poor.

Why do search teams make blanket judgments about such pastors without doing a little more homework?

Why does the Church that espouses grace for sinners withhold that same grace from pastors who have been battered and bullied?

I know men with sparkling credentials … who have grown churches … who are excellent speakers … who have proven their stability by leading the same church for 20 years … who have given their lives to the ministry … who can’t get a search team member to even return an email.

If Peter denied that he knew Christ in our day, would God’s people let him back into ministry?

Many pastors are forced out of their positions because they chose to obey the Lord rather than the board.

Shouldn’t we celebrate these men as heroes rather than ban them from church ministry for life?

Can’t figure it out.

Third, why don’t more denominational leaders stand behind pastors under attack?

When I became a pastor, I was told that my district minister was “a pastor to pastors.”

So I shared with him some concerns I had about my church.

That was a big mistake … because he later used what I shared against me.

If you’re a pastor under attack, and you’re looking for someone to confide in, think twice about trusting your regional minister.


Because they are usually more interested in keeping the church – and its money – in the denomination than standing for what’s right.

If you’re a pastor, and you’re under fire inside your church, and you’re thinking about asking your district executive for help, ask him this one question first:

To what extent will you stand behind me in this conflict?

If you get a wishy-washy political answer … which is likely … RUN!

Before I draw a parallel with Pontius Pilate … why don’t more denominational leaders stand up for their pastors?

Can’t figure it out.

Fourth, why aren’t more Christian leaders doing something about the problem of forced terminations?

In my book Church Coup, I quoted researcher Marcus Tanner from Texas Tech University about the increase in clergy terminations.

Tanner stated, “Everybody knows this is happening, but nobody wants to talk about it.  The vast majority of denominations across the country are doing absolutely nothing.”

If 1,500 to 1,800 pastors are leaving church ministry every month – with most of them forced out – then why are good people sitting around and permitting this evil to happen?

And don’t give me this “autonomy of the local church” stuff.  That’s just an excuse for Christian fear and dysfunction.

If pastors are being abused and battered and lied about, why are most Christian leaders silent?

Can’t figure it out.

Finally, why are congregations so blind when it comes to Satan’s influence?

Satan uses two primary tactics to destroy pastors and churches: deception and destruction.

Jesus said in John 8:44 that Satan is a liar and the father of lies … and was a murderer from the beginning.

Deception and destruction … two words that are easy to remember.

Anytime that lies are being spread through a church … Satan is involved.

Anytime that someone is trying to destroy a pastor … Satan is involved.

And yet, when Christians are in the midst of a conflict involving their pastor, some attribute the chaos and consternation to anyone and everyone except the evil one.

Why are believers so easily fooled?

Paul wrote about Satan in 2 Corinthians 2:11, “For we are not unaware of his schemes.”

But during a conflict, most Christians seem spiritually deaf and blind.

Can’t figure it out.

It’s high time that Christians took the time to study and practice what the Bible has to say about church conflict.

Or else Jesus’ church is going to have an increasing number of questions that it can’t answer.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a term … but I don’t know how it made its way into my head.

The term is “institutional truth.”  (If you can find a clear definition of the term, please send it to me.)

This term provides a partial explanation as to why some churches end up treating their pastors – and sometimes other employees – so poorly.

To illustrate this idea properly, let me share with you a story that happened more than two decades ago to a pastor I once knew.  (I will use aliases throughout this story.)

Pastor John and his wife were called to Trinity Church, a church that had been declining for some time.  Through John’s preaching and personal charisma, Trinity began to grow at a rapid rate.  In fact, news of Trinity’s growth spread to the church where I was serving, which was several hours away.

One summer, I was attending a Christian conference back east, and when I picked up my rental car, I saw Pastor John and his wife at another rental counter … but all the cars had been rented.  I immediately introduced myself to them and offered to drive them to the conference.

During the two-hour drive to conference headquarters, we became fast friends.

While driving, I casually mentioned my interest in pastoral termination and church conflict.  John and his wife seemed intrigued by some of the ideas that I shared with them.

We saw each other several other times during the conference, and I sensed I had developed an ongoing friendship with this couple.

Not long afterwards, I heard rumblings that all was not well at John’s church.  Some of the pioneers were beginning to complain loudly that they didn’t like John or the way he did things, even though both attendance and giving had significantly improved.  These complaints begin making their way to other churches … including the one that I served as pastor.

One day, I visited our district office, and a secretary told me all about the conflict from her perspective.  Her view was that Pastor John was causing trouble in that church … which she used to attend.  The evidence?

Her friends were upset.

Back at my church, a board member named Harry had a different take on the conflict.  He was good friends with Don – a board member from the “troubled” church – and Don fully supported his pastor.

One night, at a board meeting at Trinity, Pastor John arrived to find the district minister sitting across the table from him.  The district minister had been meeting with Trinity’s board members who all wanted their pastor removed from office.

Someone pushed a letter of termination in front of the pastor’s face.  The letter demanded that Pastor John resign immediately, turn in his keys, clear out his office, and never set foot on the property again.

Pastor John told me later that he stared at the letter for 45 minutes before reluctantly signing it.

However, there is more to the story … because the board waited until Don was away and absent before they staged their coup.

When Don found out what happened – and that the district minister was involved in pushing out his pastor – Don and many of his church friends were extremely upset.  They thought the church was going well!

Over the next several months, I was visited by Pastor John, Don, and Stan, a Trinity member who had moved into our neighborhood.  Stan wanted to find out if there was a connection between the district office and the church office, so he filed a lawsuit to find out the truth.

Oh, my.

I spoke with all the parties involved, trying to understand the conflict better.  (I had no official role except as a pastor interested in resolving the conflict.)

I knew and liked the district minister … and the district’s attorney … and Pastor John … and Don, the board member who didn’t attend that infamous meeting.

I also knew a lot about what happened at that meeting because Don began sending me and his friend Harry official board documents … including the minutes of the meeting where the pastor was terminated.  (And I still have them.)

Both sides had made mistakes, but neither side would admit them … and some information going out about the conflict publicly consisted of outright falsehoods.

I witnessed institutional truth up close and personal, and I did not like what I saw.  Here is what I learned:

First, institutional leaders almost never admit they’ve made any mistakes.  The board at Trinity did wait until Don was absent before removing their pastor … and they did involve the district minister … and they did concoct some deceptive explanations when they made their announcement about the pastor’s departure the following Sunday.

I am not in a position to say that they purposely lied about anything … but I never heard anyone from the district’s side acknowledge that they had committed any errors.

In Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie – a book I’ve read several times – his closing chapter states that government institutions (and he uses the military as an example) never admit that they’ve done anything wrong, even when they’re caught red-handed.  In fact, we’re seeing this principle at work right now in our own government with several scandals that have just been revealed.

Why is this?  Because it is the job of institutional leaders to advance the mission of their organization and defend it at all costs … and if they publicly admit they’ve done something wrong, they’re afraid they’ll lose people’s confidence and (a) donations will take a hit, and (b) they’ll be reprimanded, disciplined, or even removed from office.

But if God is a forgiving God … and His grace covers all our sins … then why can’t Christian leaders admit that they make mistakes?   Doesn’t the gospel apply to leaders as well as non-leaders?

Second, institutional leaders prefer to blame problems on convenient scapegoats.  When Don revealed that the church board had aligned themselves with the district office to push out his pastor, Don became the scapegoat instead.

He was blamed for all kinds of things, and because he held a national office with the denomination, attempts were made to remove him from office.

Most pastors and church leaders lined up behind the district office, which resulted in attempts to discredit Don.

And I got caught in the crossfire, too.

Harry, the board member from my church who was friends with Don, went to the district minister and told him to his face that he never should have been involved in removing his successor.  I told my district minister the same thing, only in a much kinder way.

I wasn’t trying to remove him from office … after all, every leader makes mistakes … but I couldn’t play political games and act like it was all Pastor John’s fault, either.

Pastor John undoubtedly made some errors in judgment as well, especially when he sent a letter to every church in the district insinuating that the district minister was corrupt.  But the district minister was a good man not normally given to playing politics, and I felt that John’s letter went too far.

Third, institutional leaders who do not support their institution 100% are considered subversive.  I could not support the district minister’s actions completely.  Know why?  Because Trinity was the church he had pastored for several decades!

And I believe that it is unethical for a pastor to become involved in removing his successor.

Because I questioned the actions of the district minister, I was branded by some as being disloyal to the district … and some people wrote me off from that moment on.

It’s not that I was disloyal to the district office – it’s that I was more loyal to the truth.

Some top-level leaders felt that since I wasn’t vocally supportive of the district minister, that meant I was standing behind Pastor John instead.

And they especially felt that way when Pastor John quoted from a study I had done about pastors leaving our district.

Since I was becoming persona non grata inside our district, I called the President of our denomination and told him what happened from my perspective.

He told me that I hadn’t done anything wrong … and that he was good friends with Pastor John and felt he was being unfairly blamed for things he didn’t do!

This was the point at which I asked myself:

Must I look the other way and remain silent when I see wrongdoing?

Must I tow the party line and cast blame on people that I think have legitimate complaints?

Must I support an institution completely even when I believe its leaders have done something wrong?

Must I view every conflict through institutional eyes …  or am I allowed to view conflicts through biblical eyes?

In my opinion, I was asked – along with many other pastors and church leaders – to believe in institutional truth … which states:

*Those who lead the institution are always right.

*Those who criticize the institution in any way are always wrong.

*Those who fail to protect and advance the institution will be ignored, slandered, or intimidated.

*While it is never permissible for an individual to criticize the institution, it is permissible for the institution to criticize and even destroy its critics.

What do you think of this idea of “institutional truth?”

How have you seen it play out in your church, denomination, or even your company?

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One of the most excrutiating 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 but that many of the reasons why boards fire pastors today have more to do with style than sin.  (Please see some of my previous blogs on these topics.)

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 many 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.

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.

Next time, I’ll talk about how to say goodbye to a pastor in a way in which everyone can win.

I just want to see Christian churches handle these situations in a more biblical and redemptive way.

Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org  You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and a forum where you can ask questions about conflict situations in your church.

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