Posts Tagged ‘reasons for terminating a pastor’

When I listen to the stories of pastors who have undergone a forced termination, I almost always ask them this question:

“What were the charges against you?”

If a pastor committed a major offense like heresy (and I haven’t met one yet who has), sexual immorality, or criminal behavior, then he knows precisely why the governing board removed him from office, and has only himself to blame.

But in more than 95% of the cases, by any objective measure, the pastor isn’t guilty of any major offense.

And much of the time, the pastor is in the dark as to why the board pressured him to resign.

If I was a church board member, and I was concerned about my pastor’s behavior or ministry, I would tell my fellow leaders, “We need to design and follow a fair and just process for dealing with our concerns about the pastor.  Since he isn’t guilty of any impeachable offense, we need to give him the benefit of the doubt and bring him into our deliberations.”

This means following three principles:

First, the pastor needs to know what people – including board members – are saying about him.

Second, the pastor needs to be able to respond to any charges made against him.

Finally, the pastor should be allowed to suggest ways to improve his behavior and ministry.

A minority of church boards follow the above three principles, and when I speak with such a board member, I always commend him for trying to be fair.

But the majority act differently.  Here’s a typical scenario:

Pastor Tim receives a phone call at his home late one night from his friend Nate, who tells him that the church board has met in secret twice over the past month.  Since Pastor Tim is also a board member, and he wasn’t invited to those meetings, he immediately assumes that the board is talking about him.

And Tim’s instincts are correct.

Since nobody on the board has spoken to Tim about any concerns about him, Tim asks himself a series of questions:

*Am I guilty of a major offense?  No.

*Am I aware of anyone who wants to get rid of me?  No.

*Am I aware of anyone who is angry with me?  No.

*Am I aware of any factions that are forming against me?  No.

*Have our attendance and giving slid recently?  Maybe a bit, but I can’t believe I’d be fired for a temporary slump.

Even though Tim is confident before God that he has done nothing to merit dismissal, he doesn’t sleep well that night.

Four days later, Don, the board chairman, asks to meet with Pastor Tim privately for breakfast the next day.  After another sleepless night, Don and Tim meet.

Don begins, “Pastor, a group has formed inside our church that has some serious concerns about the way you do ministry.  The board has listened to their concerns and we believe that for the good of the church, you should resign as pastor effective immediately.”

Pastor Tim cannot believe what he’s hearing.  He’s absolutely stunned by Don’s revelation.

After a long and awkward pause, Tim asks, “What are their concerns about me?”

Don responds, “We’re not at liberty to say, but they’re important enough that we think you should resign.”

Tim then asks, “Who are these people, Don?”

Don responds, “They’re spoken to us confidentially and we told them we wouldn’t reveal their names.”

Tim then says, “Don, that’s not fair!  I need to know who is making charges against me and what those charges are or you’re participating in a kangaroo court.”

But Don doesn’t budge, saying, “Look, Tim, this is in the best interests of everyone involved.”

Ready to blow his top, Tim tells Don, “I don’t agree with you, Don, unless you tell me who is saying what about me.”

But Don won’t reveal a thing to his pastor about the charges.

At this point, let me quote from church conflict expert Speed Leas in his manual Moving Your Church Through Conflict:

“A person being charged or condemned by others should have the right to know what those charges are and [have] an opportunity to respond to them. Denying this opportunity plays into the hands of real or potential manipulators, allows untrue or distorted information to be circulated and establishes a precedent that the way to deal with differences is to talk about rather than to talk with others. I have also found it true that individuals who talk about others out of their presence tend to exaggerate their charges, believing they will not be quoted.”

The process that Leas describes is eminently fair, and yet many church boards violate these principles when they conspire to get rid of their pastor.

Why do church boards do this? Why do they engage in practices toward a man of God that are utterly unjust?

Supposition #1: The board ‘s reasons for getting rid of the pastor are so petty that they’d be embarrassed to reveal them.

A common reason for getting rid of a pastor is that one or two important people just don’t like him.  But that’s not an objective charge … that’s a subjective preference … and few people are going to let their pastor know their feelings.

I have a friend who was dismissed and never given a reason.  All he could do was speculate.  He finally determined that he was fired because he didn’t visit a board member’s child who was in the hospital on an outpatient basis one day.

Supposition #2: Some key people in the church – board members, staff members, or prominent leaders – have threatened to leave the church unless the pastor is sacked. 

Some of these leaders are personal friends of board members or their spouses.  Some are longtime members or large donors.  The board reasons, “It’s easier to get another pastor than it is to replace those who stand against the pastor.”  So they jettison any kind of fair process and shut their mouths.

Supposition #3: Some board members – especially those who run small businesses – decide to treat the pastor the way they would treat one of their employees.

What do many small business owners tell their employees when they let them go?  “You just aren’t working out.”  They speak in vague terms because they feel it isn’t worth it to get into specifics.  That same mentality is directed toward pastors in too many situations … but a pastor isn’t a sales clerk or a custodian.  He’s someone called by God to lead God’s people and preach God’s Word.  Big difference.

Supposition #4: The board doesn’t want to hurt the pastor’s feelings by being specific.

But what could be worse than being summarily and instantly dismissed?  I for one would want to know exactly why I was being elbowed out the door … and I wouldn’t let the board off the hook by letting them resort to platitudes and vague generalities.  If I had a blind spot in my character or behavior, I’d want to know about it so I could work on it … or I could be dismissed from my next position.

Supposition #5: Someone in church leadership – probably on the board – has a vendetta against the pastor.

That person doesn’t want to implement Jesus’ words and confront the pastor as Matthew 18:15-17 specifies, so they bully or manipulate the board to carry out their wishes … and the board passively goes along with them.  This supposition says far more about the board than it does about the pastor.

I believe that many church boards dismiss their pastor prematurely.  They never tell him directly about their concerns so the pastor is never given a chance to make course corrections.  They also fail to bring up issues as they arise.  Speed Leas comments:

“Healthy and fair confrontation should tell the ‘offender’ what is wrong, and prepare the way for negotiation (or collaboration) toward agreement and a better relationship. Confrontation which demands that things be done one way, and does not allow for others to shape the way those things are done, is oppressive and demeaning. There are times when a board or supervisor (the one with authority to direct others) must confront without negotiation or collaboration; but even in these cases the ‘offender’ should have ample opportunity to perform differently before being dismissed from the organization. This is often difficult and done poorly in church situations. Instead of clearly describing to an employee or volunteer what is wanted and seeking to find a way to achieve a mutually satisfactory relationship, too often church leaders avoid confrontation until all hope of improving the working relationship is lost, or they confront and expect immediate change on the part of others without looking at what else in the organization might need to be changed.”

I’m sure there are other reasons why the governing board doesn’t tell the pastor why they’re pushing him out, but these are the ones that come most readily to mind.

If the board refuses to tell the pastor why they’re letting him go, what, if anything, can the pastor do about it?

If I were Pastor Tim, I’d tell Don … at breakfast or later on: “If you want to fire me, go ahead, but realize that you’re going to have to explain your decision to (a) the church staff; (b) other church leaders; (c) the congregation as a whole; (d) members who will contact individual board members; (e) the district minister (assuming the church is part of a denomination); (f) any interim pastor you might hire; and (g) the next pastor.

“And believe me, if you tell any or all of these parties why you’re letting me go, much of what you say will eventually get back to me, and you and the rest of the board will come off as cowards.

“So here is what I propose: I ask that you and one other board member meet with me as soon as possible so you can tell me the real reason why you are letting me go.  If you want to fire me, go ahead, but I will not give you a resignation letter unless you’re honest with me and until we agree on a severance package.”

If the board is intent on flexing its muscles, they might fire Pastor Time outright, but believe me … they are going to have a lot of trouble down the road.

This is just my opinion, but I believe that church boards like having a strong pastor when it comes to theology, and biblical morality, and critiquing the culture, but they want a weak pastor when they want to enforce their will upon him.  They want him to roll over and play dead, and if he doesn’t, they don’t want him around any more.

This is where church boards need to remember that nobody comes to church to watch the board make decisions.  They come primarily because they enjoy the pastor’s ministry.

All the more reason why every church board should treat the pastor fairly and justly.


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