Posts Tagged ‘reasons why pastors are terminated’

I have a friend who is fond of saying, “Getting fired is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

In the long run, his sentiment may very well be true … but it sure doesn’t feel that way at the time.

When I was pushed out of my position as senior pastor of an impactful church, I could not see what God was doing.

Six years later, I have a much better … and broader … perspective.

If you are struggling with why God allowed you to undergo the horror of a forced termination … or if you know someone who has endured this experience … maybe the following words can provide some insight and comfort.

Why does God allow pastors to be terminated?

First, the pastor has done something that disqualifies him from church ministry.

Many years ago, I heard about the moral downfall of a nationally known preacher.

This man had been called to lead a megachurch where some family and friends of mine had once attended.

When the news broke, I channel surfed until I found a well-known entertainment program.  One of the show’s reporters interviewed that pastor outside his home.  The pastor told the reporter, “Because of what I did, I have no business being a pastor.”

The host of the program commented, “The minister’s attitude is refreshing.”

I have a friend who served on that church’s staff at the time, and he told me that surveillance cameras confirmed that inappropriate behavior on the pastor’s part had taken place.

Being human, pastors occasionally engage in moral failure.  When they’re caught, they usually repent and resign.

But sometimes pastors are successful at dodging congregational surveillance … but they can never escape the watchful eye of Almighty God.

A pastor can be guilty of sexual immorality … plagiarism … alcoholism … criminal behavior … drug addiction … lying and manipulation … or any number of other offenses against God and His people.

And if a pastor’s spiritual and moral integrity are compromised by his actions … especially if he’s unrepentant … then the best thing for everyone involved is for the pastor to leave … and hopefully, repent and receive God’s forgiveness for his actions.

While pastors do disqualify themselves by engaging in misconduct, this is only true of 7% of all terminated pastors.

Just as Peter denied Jesus three times but was restored to ministry, I believe that God can restore and use a once-disqualified pastor again.

Second, the pastor was leading a spiritually hollow congregation.

No matter how devoted a pastor is to Jesus … or how hard he works … or how much influence he has … some churches are never going to grow or have much impact in their community.

In fact, some churches are filled with professing Christians who have rarely if ever grown spiritually.

Unfortunately, I’ve met my share of these people.

For example, the first church I pastored … in Silicon Valley … never should have gotten off the ground.

The congregation began with 38 members … all refugees from other churches.  They had one thing in common: they wanted to attend a church where they could control the decision making.

The church was financially subsidized by a denomination.  The basic rule-of-thumb is that a church needs to become self-supporting after three years.  If not, those outside funds are usually cut off.

When I arrived, the church had been in existence for five years … all five subsidized by the denomination.

Looking back, there was little spiritual vitality in that church.  The leaders were full of bitterness and legalism.

Two years after my arrival, a sister church invited us to merge with them, and my first church passed out of existence.

That church never should have been started … never should have been subsidized … and was never going to last very long.  In fact, they probably hurt more people than they helped.

I wasn’t terminated from that church … I ended up pastoring the merged church instead … but I can only imagine what it’s like to pastor a spiritually empty church for years.

It’s probably better that the pastor goes first than that he goes down with the ship.

Third, the pastor was delivered before things became much worse.

When I counsel pastors who are under attack … or who have undergone a forced exit … I often quote 2 Peter 2:9 to them.

Speaking of Lot, Peter says, “… the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials …”  Another version states, “… the Lord knows how to deliver the righteous …”

Sometimes when a pastor initially comes to a church, the wind is at his back.

But by the time he leaves, the wind is blowing directly into his face.

When I first came to my last church, I felt the wind at my back.  It seems like every idea I had … every sermon I preached … every ministry I started … had an impact.

But by the time I left, almost none of my ideas had been adopted for months … many of my sermons were falling flat … and the one ministry I wanted to start was soundly rejected.

The wind was blowing in my face … hard … and I could feel it.

Was I the problem?  Possibly.  But to be honest, I didn’t know how to work with some of the church’s newer leaders.  I was oriented toward outreach, while they were oriented toward survival and maintenance.

Looking back, it was inevitable that we would clash.

Had I stayed even another year, I believe my soul might have been severely damaged.  God in His mercy knew exactly when to remove me.

Did I like the way God chose to do it?  No.  But I wholeheartedly agree with His timing.

Months after I left, someone told me that if I visited the church again, I would no longer recognize it.  A friend visited and told me, “The spirit has gone from this place.”

I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it.

Fourth, the pastor has been given a more suitable assignment by God.

I don’t like to demean my former calling, but pastors are a dime a dozen.  There are thousands of pastors all over America … and thousands more who wish they could be pastors.

A pastor may be special to his congregation … and maybe his community … but in the Christian world, pastors aren’t treated with much respect or dignity simply because there are so many of them.

I believe there are times when God surveys all those pastors and says, “I have some assignments that I need to have fulfilled in the days ahead, so I choose you … you … and you to carry them out.  But first, I need to remove you from your present position.”

If God didn’t remove us … and use some pretty forceful means at His disposal … we’d hold onto our pastorates for dear life.

I have met scores of former pastors doing significant kingdom work.

One man was forced out of three churches … and now he does conflict mediation for churches.

Another man was forced out of two churches … and he now trains Christian leaders for short-term assignments all over the world.

Pastors who were once forced out of their churches now lead missionary agencies … serve as hospital chaplains … plant churches … engage in hospice ministry … serve as church planters … do interim pastorates … and even have writing ministries.

And yes, I know pastors who were once pushed out of their churches who have healed enough to become pastors once again.

For my colleagues who have been forced out of a church … maybe God wants you to look forward toward a new assignment rather than ruminating about the injustices of your previous assignment.

But expect for that process to take you some time.

Fifth, the pastor was pushed out because he was burned out.

Back in the mid-1980s, I did a lot of reading about the symptoms and effects of being stressed out and burned out in church ministry.

I especially devoured the book by Dr. Archibald Hart titled Coping with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions.

Over the years, I thought I was suffering from burnout on several occasions.  I visited a Christian counselor friend who assured me that I was not experiencing burnout.

But six years ago this summer, I visited a counselor who told me that I was experiencing a severe case of burnout, and that I was primed for a breakdown.

When I asked my wife, “How did burnout creep up on me?”, she said, “Jim, look what you’ve done the past few years here at the church.  You oversaw the construction of a building and you completed your Doctor of Ministry program.”

Just last week, I remembered two statistics that I had long forgotten.

First, I remember hearing that 70% of all pastors leave their churches within one year of completing a building program.

Our entire building program lasted at least four years, and I stayed four years after that.

By contrast, I know a pastor who told me that he left two churches that were in the middle of building programs.

Second, a professor from my seminary told me that 50% of all Doctor of Ministry graduates end up leaving the pastorate so they can pursue other ministry avenues.

I lasted two years after receiving my degree.

I think most pastors do what I did: they minimize all the energy they’re expending when they’re carrying out a task, but it eventually catches up with them.

My last few months as a pastor, I wasn’t myself.  I became detached … irritable … empty … and sad.  In fact, I was near tears almost every day.

I wish someone who knew me had intervened and said, “Hey, Jim, you don’t seem like yourself right now.  Is everything okay?  We love you and want you to be your best.”

For whatever reason, no one did that … until the counselor gave me his diagnosis.

I believe that burned out pastors probably need to leave their ministries so they can recover.  Their churches need more energy from them than they can muster.

But pastors become burned out because they work too hard and care too much, and it seems criminal to me to kick out a pastor in a mean-spirited way because he did his job too well.

So sometimes Jesus says to His weary servants, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31).

And He kindly calls His burned out pastors away from church ministry.

Finally, the pastor’s ministry in that church is over.

Several years ago, I visited a large church and was invited to sit next to the chairman of the board during the service.

Over the previous few years, the church had lost half its attendees.

The music was horrible (the full-time worship director led three songs by himself, without a band), the service was disorganized, and everything seemed irrelevant.

When I told the chairman that the pastor seemed to be preaching well, he said, “His last few sermons have been better because he’s retiring in several weeks.”

That pastor led that church for more than 30 years … but his ministry had ended long before he retired.

I wish that every pastor was given the ability to choose when his ministry in a particular church was finished.

The problem is … the pastor is often the last one to know.

And so God in His sovereignty sometimes says to a pastor, “You’re not going to leave here, are you?  You’re so very committed … and I appreciate that more than you could know.  But I can see the way ahead, and you’re not the pastor this church needs anymore.  You’ve done all that I asked you to do … so I’m going to remove you from office … and it’s going to sting.”

And it does sting … for a long time.

I served the Lord in church ministry for 36 years.  I hoped that I would get to retire on my own terms around age 65, but the truth is that God declared my ministry over nearly ten years before I would have stopped.

But I’m glad He did … because right now, I am far happier and fulfilled than I was as a pastor … and I’m still involved in significant ministry.

Jesus trained at least 18 years for a ministry that lasted only three.  In the end, even the Son of God didn’t get to choose when His ministry was over … the Father did … and the Son cried out from the cross, “It is finished.”

I wonder why God doesn’t intervene and stop innocent pastors from being terminated.

In fact, I’ve devoted my life to doing all I can to help pastors and boards part ways (when necessary) in a truthful, loving, and constructive way.

But regardless of how a pastor is let go … even when it’s done cruelly … every pastor can repeat what Joseph said to his brothers in Genesis 50:20:

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good …”

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Whenever a pastor is forced out of his position, there are usually two stories as to what happened.

There’s the public version … designed to placate the pastor’s supporters and congregation.

Then there’s the real version … smothered beneath a pile of rhetoric and obfuscation.

In most cases, a pastor is accountable to some kind of governing board, whether they’re called elders, deacons, a council, a vision team … whatever.

When a pastor is dismissed, that board wants to say as little as possible to the church as a whole.

In some cases, they don’t want to make the pastor look bad … but in many cases, they don’t want to make themselves look bad.

So they try and smooth matters over by using phrases in public like, “We just felt it was time” or “We’re going in a different direction” or “If you knew what we know about the pastor, you’d have asked for his resignation, too.”

But so often, nobody ever mentions the real reasons why an innocent pastor was permanently exiled … so let me take a shot at it:

First, the pastor was gaining too much power.

This is especially true in small or rural churches where a family and their cohorts have run things for decades.

A new pastor is called to the church.  He attracts lots of newcomers … who start serving in various ministries.

Some become leaders … and their allegiance is to the pastor … not to the board or even the church.

Feeling their power slipping away, the old timers resist the pastor’s leadership … resent his success … and finally decide, “He has to go.”  (Of course, this is the same scenario that happened with Jesus and the Sanhedrin.)

Most of the time, the pastor’s detractors won’t even breathe what’s in their hearts to the pastor or his supporters.  To criticize a pastor for bringing in new people looks petty … vindictive … and unspiritual.

This scenario often occurs when a church grows too fast too soon … or the pastor makes too many changes early in his ministry … but it can happen at any time during a pastor’s tenure.

And once the pastor has disappeared, the governing board is back in control … and get to choose any interims as well as the next pastor.

Second, the pastor was perceived as being too stubborn.

When I was in high school, I hung out with a group of friends who were all … and still are … great guys.  They didn’t drink (around me, anyway) … didn’t take drugs … and didn’t cause trouble.

One Friday night after a football game, they wanted to drive by the home of a song leader they liked … honk a car horn … and yell.  (It’s as close as they were ever going to get to her.)  It was fine with me if they did it … I just thought it was stupid.  So I asked to be taken home first.

Because I didn’t want to go with them, was I being stubborn or acting out of some kind of conviction?

I mention this because people … even board members … sometimes bring pastors stupid proposals … and if the pastor doesn’t say, “Oh, that’s a great idea!” he’s branded as being controlling … stiff-necked … and stubborn.

For twenty years, I wanted my ministry in churches to be characterized by four values: theological accuracy … moral integrity … methodological flexibility … and an outreach orientation.

I tried to be flexible with people’s suggestions and ideas as long as we didn’t sacrifice those values.  But if somebody wanted me to bend on integrity … or stop caring about spiritually lost people … I simply wasn’t going to do it … and if I paid for my convictions by being terminated … so be it.

For example, most pastors believe they can only marry two Christians … not a Christian to a non-Christian.  And if the daughter of the board chairman wants to marry an unbeliever … and the pastor refuses to perform their ceremony … his refusal may be termed “stubbornness” rather than “a biblical and personal conviction.”

I honestly think that many members of the church staff and board don’t understand how strongly most pastors hold their convictions … so maybe pastors need to do a better job of explaining in public why they believe what they do … even if people don’t understand or like what he’s saying.

But when a stubborn pastor meets a stubborn board … the pastor is usually the one who takes a hike.

Third, the pastor personally offended someone who wouldn’t forgive him.

If we could see into the hearts of God’s people, this reason just might emerge as Number One.

Being human and flawed, pastors sin against people at times.

I’d like to think that when a pastor is aware of his sin against someone, he seeks that person out … apologizes to them … receives verbal forgiveness … and their relationship continues unabated.

But there are two common scenarios where these steps are circumvented … or discarded altogether:

*The pastor has said or done something that offends someone … but the pastor doesn’t know anything about it.

The pastor could have said something that offended someone from the pulpit … or in a private conversation … or in a church communique … but the person offended never talks to the pastor about it.

But rather than forgive him unilaterally … or talk with the pastor personally … this individual starts finding fault with the pastor on many levels … completely hiding what their real motivation is.

How can the pastor ever make such an offense right?  He can’t.

*The pastor finds out that he hurt someone and apologizes for his actions … but the person offended either won’t forgive him or … more likely … says he or she forgives him but really doesn’t.

How can the pastor make that situation right?  Once again … he can’t.

The real offense in this scenario is not that the pastor said or did something wrong … it’s that the person the pastor hurt refuses to forgive him from the heart … because they view his offense as unforgivable.

Hebrews 12:15 says, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”

Many Christians believe that the “bitter root” refers to a believer who is angry with someone else and won’t forgive them … but in context, it seems to refer to a Christian who is so bitter against another believer that their anger spreads inside the congregation and poisons many.

If true, how ironic that a congregation that preaches forgiveness to sinners might expel their pastor because a single person refused to forgive him!

But sadly, the pastor might never discover the real reason for his departure.

Fourth, the pastor offended a group that threatened, “Either he goes or we go.”

I remember reading about a prominent megachurch pastor who angered some long-time families in his congregation.

The pastor was trying to make changes to their worship services.  He went through the proper channels … the staff, the official board, worship team personnel … but there was one group he didn’t consult: those with old money.

They weren’t in positions of official power anymore, but when they heard about the pastor’s proposed changes, they went berserk because in their eyes, they were important … and he should have run everything by them.

(This story reminds me of the truism: small churches have small problems … while big churches have big problems.)

Due to the criticisms leveled against him, this megachurch pastor … someone I knew many years ago … resigned his ministry after 14 successful years.

The conflict made the local newspaper, which is where I read about the charges made by the people with old money.

If those making this ultimatum are good friends with members of the official board … if they hold important leadership positions … if they are wealthy and/or generous donors … then more often than not, this tactic will work … and the board will send the pastor packing.

But chances are poor that the pastor will ever hear anything about it.

Finally, the pastor was hit with an allegation that he couldn’t address in public.

One pastor told me that an older woman in his congregation threatened to make some charges against him and circulate them throughout the church.

The pastor knew that the charges were false, but he also knew that if they got out, some people would automatically believe them and insist that he resign … or threaten to leave themselves … so he quit instead.

I love Christ’s church, but I can’t stand this kind of lying.  I just hate it.

This is not who Jesus is … nor who Jesus wants His people to be … and it’s exactly what Satan wants: to make a spiritual leader quit based on deception and destruction.

Once a false accusation hits the ecclesiastical grapevine, a pastor is toast unless the church/board provides him with a quick and credible way of defending himself in public.

And sadly, most churches lack such a mechanism.

If I was a member of a church board, I would not let my pastor be driven out of the church based on a lie … even if I thought his best days were behind him.

In fact, I’d do the following things:

*track down the source of the false charge

*confront the person making the allegation and ask them to repent … and ask them to leave the church if they didn’t

*ask the pastor to respond to the allegation in public as soon as possible

*support the pastor’s version of events in public

*teach the church that Christians never use the devil’s tactics to do God’s work

How could I as a spiritual leader allow Satan to have free reign in Christ’s church?

Power struggles … pastoral convictions … bitter parishioners … group threats … and false allegations … these are among the real reasons why pastors are terminated in our day.

But I believe there’s one more reason that I haven’t yet mentioned that towers above them all … and I promise to write a separate article about it soon.

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A pastor friend who reads this blog told me a story recently that seems paradoxical.

My friend became the pastor of a church several years ago that averaged 45 people on Sundays.

Three years later, the attendance had tripled and the ministry was going great … except that the rapid growth upset some key leaders.

They began making accusations against the pastor … who was shocked by what they were saying and how they started treating him.

So he eventually resigned … those who came to the church because of him left … and the church reverted to its original size.

This pastor was asked recently to attend a function where many of his pastoral colleagues were present … and many of those men pastored congregations on the small side … even smaller than 45.

But they still had their jobs, and if history is any indication, most of them will remain as pastors for a long time.

We might put this ministry paradox this way:

If a pastor grows a church too rapidly, he can find himself unemployed … but if someone pastors a stagnant church, he may keep his position for years.

For an existing church to grow in 2015, a pastor must institute change … which usually involves risk … which creates anxiety among some people … which leads to complaining … which can lead to antagonism, plots, secret meetings, charges, demands, threats, and the ultimate resignation of that pastor.

Let me give you an example of this scenario from my own ministry:

Many years ago, I pastored a church that was growing at a steady pace.  I initially focused primarily on teaching and shepherding … and the ministry went very well.

We crowded out two services in our worship center, so I had to put on my leader hat and make plans to build a new worship center on our property.

This meant putting together a building team … allotting special funds to hire an architect … letting the architect explain his ideas to the congregation … letting the congregation respond to the architect’s proposal … hiring a contractor … starting a capital funds drive … collecting pledges … overseeing construction … dealing with the planning commission … dealing with resistant neighbors … calling in a federal mediator to help with the resistant neighbors … holding a groundbreaking ceremony … overseeing construction for a year … getting final city approvals … and holding a dedication Sunday.

And I’m sure I missed at least a dozen other steps!

I kept the congregation informed at every key juncture.  Every vote that our church took on every building-related issue was unanimous.  In my view, I handled the changes well.

But there was still fallout.  We lost around 8% of our regular attendees.  Some didn’t want to contribute to the building.  Several leaders tried to sabotage the entire project.  And when the building was finally unveiled, some people complained about colors … furnishings … room functionality … you name it.

I once heard that 70% of all pastors resign soon after completing a building program.  I can see why.  You’re so worn out by the time the building goes up that you have little energy left to grow the church.

But just constructing a worship center (called “architectural evangelism”) never attracts new people.  The pastor still needs to exercise leadership to fill the building, and when he begins taking risks again, the whole anxiety/complaining/antagonism/plots/threats cycle starts all over again.

If a pastor chooses to exercise true leadership in a church, then someone is going to attack him.  Most pastors instinctively know this, and because so many pastors are sensitive individuals, most opt not to lead, which is why 80-85% of all churches in America are stagnant or declining.

But when a pastor does lead, he invariably makes some enemies.

If those people perceive that the pastor is strong, they will probably leave the church.

If they perceive the pastor is weak, they may organize to try and force him to leave.

But if a pastor chooses not to lead … but to focus on administration and teaching and shepherding instead … the chances are much greater that he’ll keep his job for a long time … even if his church never grows.

I visited a church several years ago where the pastor had been there for more than three decades.  The church had been in decline for years (the attendance was half of what it once had been) but the pastor was allowed to stay because he functioned best as a teacher and a shepherd rather than a leader.

Although the boat was taking on water, at least the pastor wasn’t rocking it!

By contrast, Dennis Maynard mentions in his book When Sheep Attack that the 25 clergy he interviewed for his study were all leading growing churches when they were forced to resign.

Maynard states that “… several of our participants noted that they believed that returning the parish to its former state of mediocrity was what they thought the antagonists really wanted.  They observed that the antagonists often objected to the increase in attendance and new members.  They resented the expanded program.  They particularly objected to having new leadership raised up in the congregation.  Once the parish is returned to its former size and activity the antagonists are in a better position to, as one priest wrote – ‘run things themselves.'”

The idea that many of the pastors of rapidly growing churches lose their jobs while the pastors of stagnant/shrinking churches keep their jobs isn’t based on a scientific study.  It’s just a personal observation.  But in my mind, it seems to ring true much of the time.

All of this leads me to ask four questions:

First, is it better for a pastor’s career prospects for him to focus on teaching/shepherding rather than leading in any meaningful way? 

In other words, should a pastor focus on a few things and leave the leadership to the staff … the board … or other influencers?

Second, at what point do a church’s lay leaders begin to turn on the pastor of a growing church?

Is it when their friends/spouses threaten to leave?  When the church grows beyond their control?

Third, to what extent can a pastor be run out of a church for doing too much good?

Can a pastor be too successful?  How does a pastor know when he’s in career jeopardy?

Finally, why do Christian leaders permit this kind of sabotage in our churches?

Why aren’t our seminaries teaching prospective pastors that church success can very well lead to eventual unemployment?  Why don’t our denominations support productive pastors over against damaging antagonists?

Jesus wasn’t executed because His following was insignificant, but because His influence and popularity were expanding.  He was crucified for being too effective.

Twenty centuries later, the careers of many pastors end for the same reason.
















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