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Posts Tagged ‘pastoral resignation’

I was given a letter this week from a parent whose child attends a local elementary school.

In just seven lines, the letter states that the school’s rookie principal “has decided to pursue a professional growth opportunity outside our district and will not be returning to [the school] for the remainder of the year.  We wish him well in his new endeavor.”

Without meaning to do so, the above paragraph speaks volumes … and provides insights into how the departure of a pastor might be handled as well.

The first thing that strikes me is that the principal left at least four weeks before the last day of school, which is June 9.  What does this tell us?

It tells us that either he wanted out – badly – or that he was pressured to leave by a person or group inside/outside the school.

My guess is the latter.

Maybe he didn’t receive high marks from the school’s teachers … or district administrators … in his latest job performance review.

Maybe he didn’t do something he was asked to do … or he did something he wasn’t supposed to do.

Maybe he just wasn’t cut out to work with kids, parents, teachers, or bureaucrats.

Or maybe he did something very, very wrong.

Did the school district pay the principal not to work for the last four weeks of the school year?

I don’t know.

But leaving before the school year concludes?

Teachers don’t do that.  Students don’t do that.  And principals don’t do that, either.

Most pastors don’t have long-term contracts, meaning they’re on a perpetual one-day contract instead.

But there are times during the year when a pastor’s tenure is up for review, especially during budget time.

If the pastor’s salary is cut, that sends a message.  If he doesn’t receive even a cost-of-living raise, that sends a message.

In churchland, maybe an apt comparison would be a pastor who resigns right before Easter or Christmas.  Since most pastors enjoy those times of year, the pastor who leaves before a major Christian holiday was probably pushed out the door.

I know what I’m talking about.  I resigned my position as pastor in my last church two weeks before Christmas … but I’d much rather have waited until after Christmas.

Makes for a tough holiday.

The second thing that strikes me is that the principal will be working “outside our district” in the future.  What does this tell us?

It tells us that either he didn’t want to work in the district anymore, or that he wasn’t offered the chance to transfer to another school inside the district.

If he chose to move out of the area for some reason, wouldn’t it have been prudent to mention that as the reason for his departure?  Announcing that a leader is moving away often covers a multitude of sins.

So my sense is that the principal didn’t want to work in the district … or that the district didn’t want him working for them.

Maybe there’s a similarity between a pastor who serves in a church that’s in a particular denomination.

A recurring theme that I hear from pastors who were forced out of their positions is that either their district minister didn’t help them when they were in trouble or that their DM was applauding their ouster.

In my case, I chose to leave the district and the denomination for good.  I discovered years before that denominations are political organizations – far more than spiritual entities – and that when a pastor needs help, the last place he should go is to anyone inside the denomination.

In fact, since leaving my last ministry seven-and-a-half years ago, I don’t think I’ve visited even one church connected with that denomination.

This is a common response that pastors have toward leaders who could have helped, but chose their own self-preservation instead.

Maybe it’s why the majority of terminated pastors jump denominations when they’re looking for another position.

The third thing that strikes me is that the personnel director chose to announce the principal’s departure in a letter.

And the letter wasn’t mailed to parents … it went home with their children.

That’s like sending home a letter about a pastor’s resignation with children who attend Sunday School.

I’m not sure how this kind of thing is normally handled in the public school system.

Should a letter have been sent to parents’ homes?

That would take a lot of time, effort, and finances.

Should an announcement have been made to parents at a school assembly?

That would dampen the mood, wouldn’t it?

Should the school have sent an email to all the parents instead?

Maybe they did.

There isn’t a perfect way to announce the departure of any leader … especially a pastor.

Normally, a pastor’s resignation is announced from the pulpit when the congregation is gathered together.

If the pastor is leaving on good terms, he may read that letter himself.

If the pastor is being pushed out, he’s usually not permitted to interact with the church anymore, so someone else – often the board chairman – announces the pastor’s departure the following Sunday.

When I left a church in the late 1990s, I read my own letter.  I wanted everyone to hear the news (a) at the same time, (b) from me personally, and (c) to hear how emotional it was for me to leave.

The principal may have read his letter to teachers or the PTA, I don’t know.

But as a pastor, I would want everyone in the church to receive a copy of my letter to avoid misinterpretation.

That means I’d either arrange to have a copy of my resignation sent to every home in the church – either through snail mail or email – or I’d have it posted on the church website for a brief period of time.

I’d want people to hear why I left – and the tone of my letter – from me directly, not from those who didn’t like me or might distort what I really said.

To me, the optimal way to handle a resignation is for the pastor to:

*write a positive letter

*read it to the church board

*read it to the congregation

*hang around to answer questions, if the board permits

*distribute that letter as widely as possible

That’s the healthy way, isn’t it?

But there’s one thing left …

The last thing that strikes me is that the school’s letter does not mention who to contact if the parents have any questions or concerns.

The address, phone number, and fax number of the school are at the top of the letter, and the personnel director signed her name.

In addition, the parents are told that “[So-and-So] will be on staff five days a week to serve students and staff” and that “[So-and-So] will be at [the school] three days a week to provide support.”

But if a parent is unhappy with the principal’s quick exit, or wants to know more, who are they supposed to contact?

By not explicitly saying anything, the veiled message is, “This situation is history.  Forget about it and move on.”

Having seen the principal interacting with students – and having interacted with him myself on several occasions – my sense was that the job was a bit too big for him.  Just an impression.

In other words, because the principal wasn’t wildly popular, or didn’t have a lot of meaningful relationships, or didn’t have any notable achievements, most parents likely will accept his departure rather than protest it.

They won’t care why he left … just that he left.

How different a school is from a church!

In a church, the person announcing a pastor’s resignation – usually the board chairman – better be ready for a deluge of questions mixed with anger.

Students rarely attend a particular public school because of the principal.

But most people do attend a specific local church because of the pastor!

And when that pastor leaves – voluntarily or otherwise – many people are going to be upset and want to know more about his exodus.

If the church board says little or nothing, some people will assume that the board pushed out the pastor and is covering their tracks.

If the church board tells the congregation everything, they’ll stir up emotions that can cripple their church for months … or years.

So I believe strongly that whenever a pastor leaves a church, the board needs to say as much as they can rather than as little as they can.

This helps the congregation transfer their trust from their ex-pastor to the present board.

But if the board says little or nothing, they will lose the trust of key leaders and opinion makers, who will either leave the church or turn on the board.

There may be some short-term pain involved by providing more context … and some people may leave the church … but it’s better to be up front than to have the truth leak out later … which it surely will … when it’s much harder to control matters.

The board also needs to tell the congregation, “If you have any questions or concerns, please contact us directly.”  Then the board needs to give the congregation their email addresses … and individual board members need to answer every email they receive as soon as possible.

If I wanted to, I could ask some parents I know to find out the real reason why the principal left.  With a little snooping around, I could probably uncover the truth.

But I’m on the fringe.  I don’t have any kids or grandkids in that school.

People on the fringe of a church usually don’t care much why a pastor left … but the closer a person is to the inner circle, the more they feel they deserve to know the truth.

And with pastoral abuse and bullying – as well as forced terminations – on the rise, many churchgoers will assume the board was at fault if they don’t tell the church enough.

I once read that the best person in the secular world to compare to a local church pastor is a public school principal.

In fact, it’s a rule-of-thumb that the salary of a school principal can be used as a gauge for the amount a pastor should be paid in a community.

Maybe a school bureaucrat can get away with sending home a letter about the principal’s departure.

But a church board can’t try the same tactic without generating a gigantic train wreck.

The more that’s said … and the more honestly it’s said … the better it is for everyone.

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Sixty years ago, a young pastor lived across the street from my uncle and aunt in Garden Grove, California.

This pastor told them that he was starting a new church in the community and asked them to join it.

They declined.

That pastor’s name?

Robert Schuller.

Dr. Schuller believed that when a pastor was called to a church, he should be committed to that church for life.

Although Schuller’s story didn’t end well, he remained the pastor of Garden Grove Community Church … and then the Crystal Cathedral … for his entire ministry career.

I believe that most pastors take that attitude when they’re called to a church: “I’m going to stay here for the rest of my life … or until God takes me home … and that means I’m not going to run whenever trouble starts.”

My ministry is primarily focused on helping pastors and church board members who are struggling in their relationship to handle their disagreements in a biblical, just, and loving manner.

Yet pastors are being forced out of their positions – often by church bullies – at an ever-increasing rate … and I don’t think that pastors should automatically resign when that happens.

But I believe there are times when the best decision a pastor can make is to resign unilaterally and voluntarily.  In such cases, the pressure doesn’t necessarily come from outside the pastor, but often inside the pastor.

When should a pastor resign?

First, when he’s disqualified himself morally.

The first thing most of us think of when we read the above phrase is adultery.

I’m sure many pastors think to themselves, “If I was ever guilty of sleeping with someone other than my wife, I’d quit immediately.”

And yet it’s shocking how many pastors have fallen morally and yet continue on as if nothing ever happened.

Rather than leaving, they wait until they’re caught and then resign … sometimes years or even decades later.

And I always wonder, “How could they hold and preach from the Holy Bible … and serve holy communion … and do it all in Christ’s holy church … when they’re leading such unholy lives?”

More than twenty years ago, I remember a nationally known pastor who resigned from his church for “inappropriate behavior.”

Interviewed in front of his house by a television crew, this pastor stated that he had no business ever being a pastor again.

I thought to myself, “Wow.  You just don’t hear that anymore.”

After running the clip, the female host told her television audience, “The minister’s attitude is refreshing.”

But I have since discovered … from two reputable sources … that the pastor didn’t resign voluntarily but was caught doing things pastors shouldn’t do.

There are other sins that might disqualify a pastor from office as well, including stealing church funds, physical abuse, blatant lying, or even murder.

But for some reason, it’s relatively rare for a pastor to blow the whistle on himself.

Is that due to a pastor’s high commitment level, or his pride?

Second, when the congregation no longer responds to his preaching.

Many years ago, I had lunch with a former pastor who had led a megachurch for more than two decades.

This pastor was well-known in many circles and had written a book that still sold thousands every year.

He told me that for some reason, his people had stopped listening to his sermons.

In fact, he felt they needed to hear a fresh voice.

So he went to the church board and told them he wanted to negotiate a settlement so he could leave.

I can relate to this pastor’s story.

During my final pastorate, over my first few years, my sermons were very well received.

But over my last few months, I just wasn’t connecting as I once had.  Some of my humor fell flat … I started repeating myself … and I may have preached in a tone of frustration.

Looking back, maybe I was trying to work out solutions to my own problems through my preaching rather than dealing with the congregation’s issues.

Toward the end, there were Sundays where nobody told me they “liked my sermon.”

When a pastor receives positive feedback from a sermon, it provides much-needed fuel for his next message … but when he receives little to no feedback, it can become very demoralizing … and, in some cases, serve as a signal that the pastor needs to leave.

Third, when you’re hanging on for a paycheck.

I once worked with a pastor who had announced to the church that he was going to retire at a future date.

After he made his announcement, he didn’t do very much around the office.

He signed checks … came to my office and talked … and spent most of his time just killing time.

I never saw him read a book.  I never saw him study for a sermon.

He came to the office late, and left early.

There’s a sense in which we can understand a situation like this.  If a pastor has served a church faithfully for years, and wants to give them plenty of advance notice that he’s going to retire, maybe he shouldn’t be expected to be a ball of energy.

But what bothers me is that there are thousands of pastors around who aren’t nearing retirement and yet act just like they are.

Life’s too short to be unhappy and unfulfilled in your job.

My counsel to a pastor who is just putting in time would be, “Get out … as soon as you can … because your people deserve a more energetic and effective shepherd.”

Fourth, when attendance is in a death spiral.

Forgive me for the following cynical statement, but I believe that it’s true:

“Many churches exist to pay the pastor’s salary.”

This statement refers to churches that:

*were once growing and vibrant.

*have been in steady decline for years.

*struggle just to put on a service every Sunday.

*are wearing out their few remaining lay leaders.

*nobody wants to invite their friends to attend.

*allocate the overwhelming bulk of their income to the pastor’s salary.

*have no positive plan for turning the church around.

I wrote an article about this situation a while back because it’s so common:

When Should the Pastor of a Church in Steady Decline Leave?

After soliciting responses from some top Christian leaders, I synthesized their counsel and then wrote this article:

Turning Around a Declinling Church

Let me make this bold statement: unless the pastor of a church is willing to reinvent himself, the pastor who presided over a steady decline rarely presides over a turnaround.

It would be helpful for a church in steady decline to bring in an outside consultant to take an objective look at their situation as well as their future, but such a church usually needs a new pastor with fresh vision and energy.

Fifth, when the pastor can no longer endure personal and family attacks.

If a pastor is a strong individual, most people unhappy with his ministry will just leave the church … a few loudly, most quietly.

If a pastor is more passive or perceived to be weak, a bully may try to take him out … or organize a faction that starts making demands and threats.

Pastors know they’re going to be criticized: after sermons, on response cards, through emails, via anonymous letters, and worst of all, through messages relayed by others.  (“So and So is mad at you.”)

Much of this is par for the course, but when people threaten the pastor’s reputation or job, and add threats and demands, it can become a bit much … and sometimes, become abusive.

I believe that when a pastor is being abused, the church board needs to step in, calm down those making the threats, and encourage them to modify their behavior … or leave the church.

But if the board won’t do that … or the threats originate with board members … then most pastors can only take so much.

But what pushes most pastors over the edge is when professing Christians attack his wife and children.

This happened to me during my second pastorate.  The seniors class rebelled against me and drew up a list of all my faults … including those of my wife and kids.

My wife’s offense?  Her slip was showing one Sunday.

When the board unanimously stood with me, my attackers immediately left the church, but it was almost more than we could take.

We all have a different threshold for criticism.  Maybe you can take more than I can.

But when pastors are “mobbed” by a sizeable portion of the congregation, why put up with it?

And short of a heaven-sent revival, what can a pastor do to mollify such people?

Just leave ’em behind.

Sixth, when the pastor would rather be doing something else.

Years ago, I knew a pastor – a very godly man, in my view – who was being consistently attacked at church.

The pastor lived across the street from the church campus, and had some used refrigerators in his garage, which he loved to work on.

One Sunday night, after a terrible congregational meeting, my friend walked across the street to his home and decided to resign and fix refrigerators and appliances for a living.

I began serving in church ministry at age 19, and worked only for churches for nearly the following four decades.

So when I was forced out of my church, I couldn’t identify any transferable skills that I could use to start a business or land a decent secular job … unless flipping hamburgers and cooking fries counts for something.

But many pastors do have those skills, and if the day ever comes when they’d rather make a living in a previous profession, then maybe that’s what they should do.

My first seminary professor was the great Dr. Charles Feinberg.  He told my Old Testament class, “Gentlemen, if you can do anything other than being a pastor, do it!”

He was right.

Finally, when the church board asks for your resignation.

I sometimes hear stories about pastors who were fired by their elders or deacons.

Sometimes he’s fired after a Sunday service … or at a special/regular board meeting … or by two board members who meet with the pastor privately … or sometimes through an email or a letter in the mail.

In a perfect world, it would be preferable if the board asked the pastor for his resignation, and the pastor traded it – and a unifying letter – for a generous severance package.

But all too often, the pastor is fired unilaterally … without any explanation … without letting him ask questions or give feedback … and without any severance package.

However, if a board has prayed about it … consulted with outside experts … and every person on the board is in agreement, then the board should ask the pastor for his resignation rather than firing him outright.

This not only preserves the pastor’s dignity, but sounds much better on a resume.

However, if the board does ask the pastor for his resignation, they shouldn’t force him to quit right then and there.  (Some boards prepare a letter they want the pastor to sign ahead of time.)

The pastor needs time to think, pray, and speak with his family … and yes, giving him time runs the risk of his saying, “No, I’m staying” or even leading a counterattack.

But if the board unilaterally fires the pastor without notice or any good reason, many in the congregation may rebel, and the church may dwindle significantly, and require years to rebuild.

In almost every case … unless a board is composed of cruel and godless individuals … I believe that a pastor should resign if the board asks for his resignation.

Can you imagine other scenarios where a pastor should resign voluntarily?

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