Posts Tagged ‘removing a pastor from office’

When a pastor is forced to leave his congregation, who is to blame?

Some inside a church will instantly proclaim, “The pastor is completely responsible for his demise.  He is 100% at fault.”

Others will insist, “The pastor isn’t to blame for his departure.  It was that spineless board … that heartless faction … or even the devil himself that caused this mess!”

The truth usually lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

In my book Church Coup, I quoted church conflict expert Speed Leas, who wrote about a research project along this line:

“While we could find some situations that were primarily the congregation’s ‘fault’ … and we could find some that were primarily the pastor’s ‘fault’ … these occurrences were rare.  Most of the time we found a mixture of congregational and pastoral causes that defied unraveling as to who ‘started it.’  Asking the question ‘Whose fault is it?’ in the church seemed to tangle people up … more than it helped … in our research into 127 ‘involuntary terminations’ or firings, we found the need to find fault to be one of the most characteristic and least helpful dimensions of the conflict … it is almost never the case that one party is exclusively in the wrong.”

This issue has been rattling around in my head for years, so let me mention five common scenarios involving a pastor’s departure … along with a general assessment of responsibility in each case:

First, if a pastor is guilty of a major offense, he is fully responsible for his own departure.

If a pastor is guilty of heresy, he should be fired and removed from office.

I read about a pastor many years ago who began teaching universalism, the belief that everyone – even Satan – will eventually be saved and go to heaven.

Since universalism perverts the gospel (if everyone can be saved, why did Jesus die?), the church was justified in removing that pastor from office, although he caused untold damage in the process.

If a pastor is guilty of sexual immorality, he should be removed from office as well.

I heard about a pastor who had an affair with a woman in his church for twenty years.  Twenty years!

How could he preach from the Holy Bible … serve Holy Communion … and even relate to the Holy Spirit while engaging in such conduct?

When the church board finally discovered the pastor’s misconduct, they took steps to remove him from office quickly.

Some experts believe these are the only two offenses that should merit a pastor’s forced termination, but I’d like to add a third: criminal behavior.

If a pastor has physically abused his wife … engaged in fraudulent financial behavior … assaulted people violently … or embezzled funds from his church … how can he stay as pastor?

He can’t.

When information about the pastor’s excessive misconduct comes to the attention of the church board, they should still:

*meet with the pastor

*ask him for his side of the story

*deliberate together prayerfully

*ask him to repent, if they discern he’s guilty

*aim for his restoration, not his destruction, if they remove him from office

But even if the board doesn’t handle the pastor’s departure perfectly, the pastor who is guilty of one of The Big Three has cooked his own goose.

However, this doesn’t mean that God is done with such individuals forever.

Second, if a church board has warned a pastor about a problem, and he’s failed to change his behavior within a reasonable time, the pastor is usually responsible for his own demise.

This scenario makes some assumptions … that the church board has:

*identified an area of the pastor’s life or ministry that needs changing

*spoken to the pastor directly and seriously about their concerns

*given the pastor enough time to turn things around

*monitored the pastor’s progress through the use of markers

*told the pastor what will happen if he doesn’t comply with their directives

Let’s say a pastor makes occasional insulting comments on Facebook to people from his church.  And let’s say that five people he has insulted are hopping mad and threaten to leave the church if the pastor’s behavior continues.

Once the church board approaches the pastor about this matter, he should do all he can to comply with their wishes, even if he doesn’t agree with each example they cite.

The pastor might choose to eliminate his Facebook page altogether … or write a message on Facebook apologizing for his behavior … or resolve to only write positive comments from now on … or at least refrain from saying anything that could be negatively interpreted.

But if the pastor continues to make insulting comments after being warned against it, then the pastor is to blame if the board reluctantly asks for his resignation.

There are church boards that work the steps I’ve listed above, but most boards don’t operate in such a clear manner.  They become anxious about the pastor’s behavior … handle things reactively rather than proactively … finally meet together in secret to discuss the issues … and only speak with the pastor directly when things have spun out of control.

And by then, it’s usually too late.

But if the board does everything right, and the pastor doesn’t change after a reasonable amount of time … he shouldn’t be surprise if he’s asked to pack his bags.

Third, if it becomes obvious that the pastor isn’t a good match for the church or the community, the blame for the pastor’s departure should be shared equally.

That is, the board should assume some of the blame, and the pastor should assume some of the blame.

Thirty years ago, I put out some resumes and had several phone interviews with search teams.

One was in Bay City, Michigan.  Another was in Rochester, New York.

The search team in Michigan liked me, but they asked me this question: “How would you feel about living so far away from your family in the West?”

Up to that time, all I cared about was leaving the church I was pastoring.  But they made me think about something I hadn’t really considered … and they were right.

Had I gone to Bay City, that church would have become our family, and neither my wife nor I would have seen our own parents or siblings very often.

If the board hadn’t asked me that question, and I had gone to Bay City, and it didn’t work out, they would be partially to blame.

But if I had gone there, and it didn’t work out, I’d share the blame as well.

I once heard about a pastor who was called from the South to a large church in Northern California.  His teenage daughter was forced to leave her boyfriend behind.

The girl became so depressed and distraught that the pastor resigned and returned to the South after less than a month in California.

It’s easy to say, “The pastor was totally at fault.  He never should have left the South.”  But it’s possible the search team didn’t look at the situation as carefully as they should have.

Mismatches usually reveal themselves pretty quickly.  It’s best if both the pastor and the search team admit, “We thought this would work out, but we can’t see it happening.  We’ll both take responsibility for this situation and not blame the other party.”

Fourth, if the board is happy with their pastor’s ministry, but the pastor is under attack, and the board fails to support him adequately, and the pastor resigns, the board is more at fault than the pastor.

Let’s say that Pastor Warren has been at Mercy Fellowship for six years.  And let’s say that Mercy’s attendance and giving have both doubled during that time.

And let’s say that ninety percent of the congregation loves Pastor Warren and that they are solidly behind his ministry … including the elders.

But one day, five people from an internal faction ask to meet with two of the elders.  They claim that Pastor Warren hasn’t been attending denominational meetings … that the church isn’t giving enough to the denomination … and that if things don’t change quickly, thirty people will leave the church.

So the two elders share this conversation with the other elders, and they speak with Pastor Warren at their next regular meeting.

Pastor Warren responds, “That’s right, I don’t attend denominational meetings.  I went to some my first several years here, but I found them to be a waste of time.  I’ve shared my stance with the elders before.  And we don’t give much money to the denomination because frankly, all we’re doing is propping up a bureaucracy run by a good old boys network.  I’d rather we invest in more productive ministries.”

The elders now have a choice.  They can back their pastor, or they can back the faction, but if they don’t back their pastor, he may choose to resign … and that will hurt the church far more than if the faction left.

I once knew a pastor who grew a megachurch.  One day, he fired a staff member.  The board hired him back.  The pastor resigned.

Pastors aren’t infallible.  Sometimes they get things wrong.  But the board needs to know that if they fail to support their pastor publicly, the pastor might choose to resign instead … and that will leave the board in charge of the church until they call a new pastor.

Finally, if a board fires a pastor without warning or explanation, the fault lies almost exclusively with the board.

Pastors aren’t mind readers.  They assume that things are going well unless somebody says, “We’re concerned about this particular issue.”

And a pastor should feel that wayYou can’t minister effectively if you’re walking around all day asking, “I wonder who’s mad at me?  I wonder if I’ve done something wrong?”

But a common scenario I hear from pastors is, “I thought everything in my ministry was going fine.  And then the board called me into a meeting after the morning worship service and they fired me.”

A board that would do that is composed of cowards.

If a church board is upset with their pastor, they have a responsibility to:

*schedule a meeting with him

*tell him to his face what their concerns are

*allow the pastor to offer feedback

*create a plan with the pastor’s input

*revisit the plan at reasonable intervals

How much time should the pastor be given?

Church conflict expert Peter Steinke says twelve to fifteen months.  If there hasn’t been sufficient improvement by then, the board has every right to remove the pastor.

The beauty of this approach is that the pastor can decide whether or not he wants to stay.  If he thinks the board has been unfair … or that he can’t change … or that he doesn’t need to change … then he has time to search for another ministry.

But most boards don’t do this.  They fail to tell the pastor their concerns directly … speak only among themselves … blame the pastor for not changing … work themselves into a high state of anxiety … and then fire the pastor abruptly.

And when a board fires an innocent pastor (that is, he’s not guilty of any major offense) suddenly, they’ve now bought their church two to five years of misery … or a gradual death spiral.


I believe there are times when a pastor needs to be removed from office.

But even when that becomes necessary, the pastor still should be treated with dignity, compassion, fairness, and grace … not abuse, insensitivity, injustice, and revenge.

The pastor and his family should also be given a generous severance package so they can transition financially into their next season of life.  Church boards that fire their pastors with little or no severance are denying the faith they claim to believe.

And the church board should tell the congregation as much as they can … not as little as possible … about why the pastor left if they want to reestablish trust.

Can you think of any other common scenarios that I missed?












Read Full Post »

Whenever I hear the story of a pastor under attack – whether the account comes from the pastor, one of his family members, or a board member – I wish I could utter some magic words and resolve the entire conflict peacefully.

In the minds of many Christians, those magic words already exist in the pages of the Old Testament.  Those words are:

“Touch not the Lord’s anointed!”

I first encountered this phrase in my early twenties when I was serving as a staff member under the supervision of a pastor.  Within a short time after I came to the church, the pastor and church council butted heads.

The council asked the pastor to carry out certain duties.  He agreed that he would do them, but then resisted.  The council became frustrated, and then the pastor promised that if they asked him to resign, he would do so.

They finally did ask him to resign, and he countered with, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed, and do thy prophets no harm.”

I guess in the pastor’s mind, those words – quoted as a proof text – were supposed to end all discussion about his future as pastor.

He had played his trump card.

I don’t remember how many council members backed off after hearing those words, but I know of two individuals who decided to go to Scripture and view those words in context.

I was one of them.

The first time we encounter the phrase, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed” in Scripture is in 1 Samuel 24 when David has the opportunity to kill Saul.  Let me share with you what I wrote about this passage in my book Church Coup:

“I have heard pastors under fire quote 1 Samuel 24:6 as a way of keeping their critics at bay.  While King Saul sleeps in the front of a cave, David – who is hiding in back with his men – creeps up and cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe, even though David’s men want him to murder Saul instead.  But David tells them, ‘The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.’  David speaks directly to Saul in verse 10 and utters a similar sentiment.  I’ve also heard pastors quote 1 Chronicles 16:22 to silence critics: ‘Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.’

“These passages teach that God appoints and anoints leaders, whether kings or prophets.  (Paul states in Acts 20:28 that the Holy Spirit appoints pastors/elders as well.)  David knew he was the successor to Israel’s throne but would only secure it in God’s time and way.  But when David agreed not to ‘lift my hand’ against the Lord’s anointed, he was refusing to remove him from office by killing him.  (Israel didn’t vote on anything.)  Because the Lord selected leaders in the Old Testament, they could only be displaced by divine decree.  But since members elect their pastors in congregationally-run churches, they have the right to un-elect them as well.”

Let me delve a little deeper into this phrase by making four observations about it:

First, while we can draw some parallels between Israel’s leaders in the Old Testament and spiritual leaders today, we can’t press every detail.

David had the chance to kill Saul, but didn’t take it.  Good for him.  He didn’t want to become king by using violence … nor to become king prematurely.

But who is trying to kill pastors today?  Almost nobody.  When churchgoers attack their pastor, they attempt to remove him from office and destroy his reputation.  But that’s a far cry from the temptation confronting David: to become king by murdering Saul while he was sleeping.

However, I will say this: a cursory study of the Old Testament reveals that most of the time, God was the One who authorized the removal of a king, prophet, or priest from office.  He may have done this through human means: Saul was killed/committed suicide in battle; various kings were assassinated; a prophet like Isaiah was sawn in two.

But most of the time, God removed the leaders of His people through death by natural causes (like David himself) … and He let “nature” take its course.

Second, some Christians quote this phrase because Scripture doesn’t give us a lot of guidance concerning how to remove spiritual leaders.

For example, Paul never says in any of his 13 epistles: “Now here is the way to remove an elder/pastor from office …”  He doesn’t seem to even have envisioned it, which is why some churches believe that elders should be leaders for life.  It would have been helpful if Paul had included several extended sections on how a congregation could remove a spiritual leader in his writings, but he never did.

In 1 Timothy 5:19-21, Paul says that those elders/pastors who sin [continually] “are to be rebuked publicly,” but he doesn’t state explicitly that they should be removed from office.

This is why many churches … but not enough … create a section in their governing documents on how to remove the lead pastor from office.  Those documents may or may not cite Scripture with their directions, but because Scripture isn’t clear on how to pull this off, many churches have chosen to follow an extra-biblical/political process instead.

I believe that whenever we discern the theology of Scripture on any given topic, we need to take the whole of Scripture into account … so I don’t think this single phrase represents the entirety of the Bible’s thinking on the issue.

Third, the good thing about David’s words in 1 Samuel 24 is that he takes the call of God on Saul’s life seriously.

As talented as David ended up becoming, he didn’t call himself to become Israel’s second king.  God did that through a “not it” process involving Samuel the prophet selecting David instead of his brothers.

I don’t think most churches – or church boards – think very much about the fact that pastors haven’t chosen to go into church ministry by themselves.

No, pastors go through training and ordination because they believe that God has called them into the pastorate.

I served as the solo/senior pastor of four churches.  Nobody in those churches ever witnessed how hard I worked to obtain my Master of Divinity degree from Talbot.  Nobody saw me research and write my 100-page thesis for Dr. Robert Saucy.  No board members in those churches were present at my ordination council or commissioning service.

In other words, they did not witness all the events that transpired when I was called, trained, and commissioned for service.

And most board members, I would guess, have never even attended an ordination council or commissioning … so they don’t view the pastor as a called individual, but as a hired one.

But I do know this: I became a pastor not because my grandfather and father were pastors … not because I couldn’t do anything else with my life … not because I thought I would become rich and famous … but because God handpicked me to become a pastor when I was 19 years of age.

My general call to the pastorate was ratified when I was ordained.  My call to specific churches was ratified when a congregation voted on me to become their pastor.

God called me to be a pastor, and no board or person can take that call away from me.  As my friend Charles Chandler is fond of saying of churches, “They can take your position, but they can’t take your calling.”

But I don’t see church boards or church antagonists even referencing God’s call upon their pastor when they attack him … either his general call to ministry or his specific call to their congregation.

I believe this is a grave mistake.

The call of God upon a pastor’s life does not mean that he cannot be criticized or even removed from office.

But it does mean that such actions need to be engaged in carefully and soberly.  David carefully weighed the idea of removing Saul through murder and decided against it because God had called Saul to be king at that time … not David.

Many church boards need to decide against removing their pastor as well … and learn how to work things out in a biblical manner instead.

Finally, the call of God upon a pastor’s life does not protect him from the consequences of his own actions.

If a pastor drifts into heresy, sexual immorality, or criminal behavior, a church has the right … and the duty … to remove their pastor from office.

*If a pastor teaches that you can earn your salvation through good works … or that Christ’s death on the cross isn’t enough to save us … or that Jesus rose from the dead spiritually but not physically … that pastor is guilty of heresy and should be removed from office.

*If a pastor has been sleeping with a woman other than his wife … or he’s been sleeping with another man … or he’s been caught with a prostitute … quoting “Touch not the Lord’s anointed” just doesn’t wash.  The pastor has disqualified himself from office.

*If a pastor robs the local Best Buy … or smacks his kids around … or, God forbid, murders someone … he can’t yell, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed” as if he’s immune from correction and removal.

But sadly, this is how this phrase is sometimes used.  The pastor is saying, “I’m special … I’m above God’s law and man’s law … you can’t touch me … and if God wants to remove me from office, He will do so directly.”

But most of the time, God removes a sinning pastor through His people.

Now should proceedings begin to remove the pastor from office, I believe the pastor should be treated with dignity, respect, and love … even if he has disappointed many people.

I think of Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13: “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who word hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.  Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.  Live in peace with each other.”

If you’re a pastor, and you’re under fire in your church, please don’t use the phrase, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed” as a way of getting your critics – or the church board – to back off.

God doesn’t include that phrase in Scripture to provide you with ecclesiastical immunity.

And if you’re a board member, and your pastor has clearly been engaging in conduct that requires correction or removal from office, don’t even hesitate to move forward, even if he should tell people repeatedly, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed.”

There are many phrases I’d prefer that Christians use instead whenever a pastor is under attack … and Colossians 3:13 just may be my favorite:

“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”





Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: