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It was to have been a prayer service and routine business meeting at the church in North Carolina where John (not his real name) served as pastor. But no sooner had the business meeting been called to order than a member of the congregation asked the pastor and his wife to leave the sanctuary while a sensitive matter was discussed.
Two hours later, John was informed that his tenure as pastor had been terminated, effective immediately. No charges had been brought against John's character or doctrine, but he was not to go on the church property unless accompanied by one of the trustees. He would be given one month's salary. The action by which John was terminated ignored the church's constitution and bylaws.
Mark (Not his real name) endured the trauma of a volatile quarterly business meeting which focused on his effectiveness as pastor of the Virginia church he had served for five years. He and his wife were asked to leave the meeting and they waited in his study for two hours without an opportunity to respond to any statements made against his ministry.
Although he was not fired that night. Mark was told to look for another position immediately. The opposition, though a minority, let him know they would not give him long. The future of his ministry was thrust into uncertainty.
Today, it's both easier and harder to be a pastor - and indeed any sort of church leader. It is easier for pastors because there are so many resources available to help him/her do a professional job. (See for example, 'The Professional Pastor' in Paul Beasley-Murray's 'A Call to Excellence' , Hodder & Stoughton, 1995). But it's harder for both pastors and church leaders primarily because churches are becoming more specific in their performance-expectations of their pastor, and more likely to initiate a termination if the pastor doesn't meet those expectations. In a world of 'performance standards' or even 'downsizing', executives these days are disposable.
The key question we want to look at here is not whether that ought or ought not to happen, but _how_, given that the church is, theoretically, a Christian not-for-profit organization of volunteers. These factors add dimensions which make the whole issue very complex.
Of course, it's very painful for both church and pastor - and the pastor's family - when a pastor is 'fired', or 'let go'. No one wins when a church feels forced to terminate the services of a minister or staff member. In many instances, not all church members favor the action or the process and tempers flare and often times a church split results. If forced terminations become the "norm" for a church, there is negative witness in the community, and sometimes that church gets a 'name' for crucifying its pastors. Pastoral associations have been known to formally or informally 'black-list' a church that gets this kind of reputation, and that church may find it difficult to find a suitable pastor.
"Last year (1999) 72,000 pastors and clergy were fired across America. For reasons that were partially their fault, for reasons that were not their fault, some for reasons no one knows but God Himself. Nevertheless, they and their families were fired, force terminated, pushed out into the streets" (http://www.thecents.org/)
"A 1984 study on forced terminations in the Southern Baptist Convention indicated 1,056 pastors were terminated annually. Among causes cited in that study were lack of unity and the presence of factions in the church, conflict over leadership styles, relational incompetence and tenure. Four years later, the survey was repeated, and forced termination totals had increased to 1,392 pastors annually. Primary reasons included lack of communication, problems related to immorality and unethical conduct, performance dissatisfaction, authoritarian leadership style, power struggles and personality conflicts.
"(But by 1999) forced terminations among Southern Baptist pastors and other full-time church staff appear to have leveled off, results of an annual survey of state Baptist conventions indicates.
"The survey, coordinated by the LeaderCare ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, shows the total number of forced terminations reported by 22 state convention church-minister relations directors has dipped to 987 in 2000. The 1999 total, which also reported on full-time pastors, bivocational pastors and full-time staff, was 1,077 in 26 state conventions.
"The 1999 survey found once again the most common causes for firings cited by directors of missions in reports to state convention church-minister relations directors were:
The most shocking statistic from this study is that only 55 percent of pastors who experienced forced termination returned to church-related vocations while 45 percent did not.
Trying to resolve conflicts between pastors, church staff, and lay people -- that is the goal of the LeaderCare ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. LeaderCare was established five years ago as a ministry to ministers, their wives, and families.
Bob Sheffield is a pastoral ministry specialist with LifeWay. He says conflicts among church leaders and lay people are common, but often can get out-of-hand.
"Conflict is very common, " Sheffield says, "and conflict between pastors and congregations or [between] pastors and church leadership is a lot more common than we'd like to think, for a lot of very complex reasons -- and the reasons have not changed over the last five to six years. The reasons why there's conflict between pastors and churches have to do [primarily] with .. control issues regarding who will run the church."
According to Sheffield, additional causes of conflict and, in some cases, forced terminations include poor "people skills" of the pastor and a church's resistance to change. He says early intervention is critical when it comes to solving conflicts and disputes between ministers and their congregations, and that churches must not waste any time getting help once a conflict arises.
"The main thing is for churches to get help early, to contact their local state conventions or to contact our offices early -- because the earlier you can get ahead of a conflict that is potentially destructive, the better off the church is going to be," Sheffield says.
Google Search for Forced Terminations
After facilitating a session of participants' stories at a Healthy Transitions Wellness Retreat, I was asked, "Is there a rulebook on forced termination?" He had observed the similar "dynamics" or "rules" in the stories. At every retreat the participants are amazed at the similarities in the forced termination experience.
Several years ago, the psychiatrist assisting with a retreat was appalled as he heard the stories. He worked extensively with corporations in "downsizing" and noted that none of them treated employees like the churches treated the retreat participants. He observed three "dynamic" patterns in all of their stories. First, each minister had been "blind-sided." A group of two or three persons, usually self-appointed, approached the minister without warning and said he/she should resign because of loss of effectiveness. They convinced the minister that the whole church shared their feeling. The "group" presented themselves as merely "messengers" and insisted there was nothing personal about the request. The messengers told the minister they loved him/her and really hated to deliver the resignation request.
Second, while the minister was in a state of shock after being "blindsided," the "group" dumped guilt on the minister. They said the resignation and related conversation must be kept very quiet. If word got out, it could split the church. And, the minister would not want to be known as one who caused a split church! Any negative effect from the minister's leaving was dumped directly on him/her as though a minister could just slip away and never be missed.
Third, while the minister was still in no condition to make a decision of any kind, the group pressed for a decision. In most cases, a few weeks or a few months of severance was offered - provided the resignation was given immediately and the entire conversation kept quiet.
The "messengers" added, "We have to know what you plan to do, because if you refuse to resign or if you talk to other church members, we will take away the severance and call a church business meeting to fire you. Then you will get nothing."
Again, the minister was told there was nothing personal about the request. They had to do what was best for the church. No reasons were given for the forced termination except that the church needed new, more effective leadership.
I have worked with hundreds of ministers who have experienced forced termination. At this point, I have decided a rulebook is floating around out there somewhere and it does suggest that a few disgruntled church members can follow the above listed rules and "kick the preacher out." I've never seen it in writing, but its effectiveness can be seen in case after case.
Look with me at some of the fallacies and undesirable ethics endorsed by this phantom rulebook.
Though the "messengers" present themselves as representing the vast majority of the membership, according to a survey conducted by Leadership magazine, 43 percent of forced-out ministers said a "faction" pushed them out, and 71 percent of those stated that the "faction" numbered 10 persons or less. The self-appointed "messengers" often horde the inside information, because only 20 percent of the forced out ministers said the real reason for their leaving was made known to the entire congregation.
(David L. Goetz, "Forced Out," Leadership, (Carol Stream, IL: Volume XVII Number 1, Winter 1996) p.42.)
Ethics are often a victim of forced pastoral terminations and for that matter, the continuing conflicts in church life which lead to such traumatic moments. Nearly every minister who has suffered an involuntary termination or a 'near miss' can testify to a universal theme of compromise in congregational ethics. Likewise, under the pressure of the dynamics leading toward termination, ministers are sometimes tempted to compromise professional ethics in their responses to adversaries within the congregation and, at times, in a failure to review and correct their own actions or statements which may have led to perceptions or misunderstandings.
The most frequent violation by churches is in the failure to observe established procedures and processes for evaluation, conflict resolution or review in pastoral relationships. Terminations commonly are accomplished without a meeting of a pastoral relations committee, Diaconate or church board taking place. Instead, small groups or powerful individuals often accomplish their purpose by private meetings or conversations followed by the use of threats, intimidations or enticements designed to encourage a pastor to resign. These practices not only compromise any possibility of a pastor being treated fairly, but also compromise the integrity of congregational practice and the level of trust within the congregation.
Following a successful forced termination, ethics are sometimes also compromised when reports regarding the cause of termination are distorted or misrepresented by church members or boards and when a church refuses to fulfill the terms of a negotiated separation such as payment of sabbatical or termination compensation. Such ethical violations can seriously damage a minister's future career and also continue to poison future relationships among church members. Churches should observe strict adherence to established procedures when the termination of pastoral services is contemplated. Such church meetings and votes are often painful. But they serve to hold everyone accountable and to maintain fairness. In normal times it is the pastor who is most likely to hold a church to the high road of ethical accountability.
When a pastor's role is compromised, a congregation should seek the ethical guidance of a responsible denominational representative or a mutually respected pastor or other church leader from outside the congregation. Likewise, in the midst of conflict, a pastor should rely on the support of colleagues in ministry to provide guidance and encouragement in maintaining a high ethical road. In extreme situations, outside legal counsel or arbiter should be consulted. Business, professional and political leaders are often amazed by the low level of ethical integrity demonstrated in the midst of church conflict and pastoral terminations. Churches and pastors should instead set a high example in such 'worst of times' in order that the fundamental witness of the church and its ministry be preserved.
An interdenominational study by Leadership magazine (Winter 1996) found that
22.8 percent of responding readers have been forced out of their church
ministry positions at least once during their careers. In 65 percent of
these cases, the previous pastor had been forced out by the
same congregation. These churches are termed 'repeat offenders." Of those
who said the church had pushed out their predecessors, 41 percent indicated
the church had done it more than twice.
The conclusion drawn by David Goetz, the author, was, "churches which force
out their pastors will likely do it again," 43 percent of forced-out pastors
said a 'faction' pushed them out; 71 percent of those indicated the
'faction' forcing them out numbered 10 people or less. Another alarming fact
was the secrecy of the terminations. Only 20 percent of the forced-out
pastors said the real reason for their leaving was made known to the entire
This article is written principally from the perspective of a pastor, as they are feeling more and more vulnerable these days. However, that is not to say that the mismatch between expectations and reality is only one way. Often pastors fail to fulfil their professional obligations to the church, and, for the sake of the church's health and survival, they might have to leave.
A pastor's calling is different from other professions in that a pastor has to motivate his/her bosses. Every church member is the pastor's boss. They are the ones who define the pastor's job description, evaluate how well it is carried out and they determine the pastor's salary and benefits. Any supportive or disgruntled church member has the potential to significantly affect these areas.
The pastor is placed in the position of informing, inspiring and motivating the very people who have power to call or terminate his or her appointment. In other words often a pastor is given, to some degree, responsibility without authority.
The bottom line in the eyes of laity is that the pastor is held responsible for the health, success and growth of the church. If these areas do not measure up to the church's expectations, the pastor is held accountable.
Yet the pastor is sometimes given only minimal authority to make things happen that are necessary for the church to be strong. Often pastors feel their authority is only as strong as the quality of their previous two months' sermons, the number of new members in the last year and whether or not the church is "meeting the budget."
Further, pastoring is all-consuming. A pastor is on call 24-hours a day every day of the year. Each time the telephone rings, pastors and their families know, regardless of what they are doing or what their plans may be, the phone call could change everything. Even vacations are subject to be interrupted with emergencies.
One pastor said that for two years in a row when he and his family arrived at their beach cottage for vacation, there was a note on the door for him to return home due to a death in the church.
Another issue is the sometimes unreal expectations placed on the pastor's family. The pastor's spouse should be the epitome of virtue and godliness. Different congregants have different definitions of the spouse's role. The inevitable happens when the spouse is not able to meet everyone's expectations and dagger-like criticisms cut her to the core.
Unrealistic expectations are sometimes placed on the pastor's children as well. One pastor said that his kids couldn't win in his church. When their behavior wasn't satisfactory, they were criticized. When they achieved more than the children of some church members in athletics, arts or academics, they were ostracized.
This is sometimes referred to as the 'fish bowl syndrome'.
In the church family, the pastor often feels he or she is first loved for the role they play and not who they are as a person.
Now, ideally, in a Christian community the acceptance of people should be based on who they are regardless of the roles they perform or how well they do. But pastors feel this doesn't apply to them. They are loved with a conditional love based upon the quality of their functioning in a role.
On the other hand, from a church member's or leader's point of view, they expect the pastor to be a professional communicator, carer and leader. When they ask the pastor what his or her 'professional development' involves at any given time, sometimes the answers are not satisfactory. Because pastors believe, generally, that they have 'control' of the pulpit, they are sometimes not open to feedback about their preaching. And occasionally, in very conservative church circles, one hears the phrase 'touch not the Lord's anointed' to justify pastors' being autonomous and unaccountable. Further, if a well-informed layperson suggests a 'church audit' or 'parish review' many insecure pastors can become quite obstructionist.
We are living in times when church-people frankly expect 'value' for their input of time and money into the church. (See my article 'Does the Australian Church Have a Future?' http://www.pastornet.net.au/jmm/alpt/alpt0419.htm ). They feel they have a right to 'choose' a church where they 'fit'. The old 'one size fits all' theory doesn't apply any more. And the longer they attend a church, the more friends they make there, the more right they feel to express what kind of leadership they expect. When they become disgruntled, they may degenerate into people the church consultant Lyle Schaller calls 'permission withholders'. They are unhappy. And they may revolt.
In a wider context, we live in a day of corporate downsizings, massive layoffs, and low employee loyalty. Pastors and churches have experienced similar trends. Pastoral tenures are at a record low: a third of all churches in the U.S. forced the previous pastor to leave.
"Forced Termination" happens when a pastor's tenure in a church is terminated by a bishop, or a church's personnel committee or a congregational vote. The pastor may also resign as a result of negative criticism from a small group, or constant conflict and attacks where the pastor feels psychological pressure, loss of self esteem, diminishing ministry effectiveness, and loss of spiritual worth. The resignation may be a result of stress/burnout, fatigue, or attacks on the pastor's spouse and children.
Over the years I have heard many "horror" stories involving forced terminations. Among them are stories of ministers who have gone on vacation only to find out that while they were gone, the church voted to dismiss them from their positions. Then, there are those ministers who are told they will only get a substantial severance package if they go "quietly." Another was asked to vacate the church manse within three days - the only contact anyone made with the pastor after the vote of a church meeting to dismiss him.
"Should the congregation vote for the pastor's dismissal it shall be by two-thirds majority vote of a congregational meeting whose purpose has been announced two Sundays previously provided that at least one-third of the membership is present. This vote shall be by secret ballot. The pastor shall be given six weeks' notice of his dismissal with pay, but he may not have the rights and duties of the pastoral office."
In the same constitution:
Section 4. Call. The pastor shall be called at a regular or special congregational business meeting, the purpose of which shall be announced two Sundays in advance. He shall be chosen by secret ballot with a two-thirds majority vote required for a call, provided that at least one-third of the membership is present. The call shall be for an indefinite period of time with a minimum of six weeks notice required by the church or the pastor for the termination of his pastoral duties.
When considering terminating an employee, Australian legislation requires that the termination must not be unlawful nor must it be harsh,unjust and/or unreasonable. To avoid a successful unfair dismissal claim, the employer must ensure -
The law does not prohibit termination, it simply requires that it must be for a valid reason and must be done fairly.
A dismissal for incapacity can be for:
How badly ill or disabled the worker is (degree of incapacity) and for how long he or she is likely to remain ill or disabled (duration of incapacity), as well as the reason for the incapacity will be considered when deciding whether the dismissal is fair or not. More effort is expected of the employer if the worker was injured or got sick because of their work.
Wrongful dismissal is a common law concept, another name for breach of contract in the employment field if dismissal results. Unfair dismissal is a statutory "invention", governed by Act of Parliament.
Employees have a statutory right not to be unfairly dismissed and whilst this may seem obvious, employers can get into serious difficulties if they try and cut corners or fail to give their employees certain basic rights.
The main test is that of reasonableness. In other words, was it reasonable to treat this member of staff in this way. If you try and always deal with people in the way you would like or expect to be treated you will not go too far wrong. You do though have to ensure you follow some basic steps.
Again, stating the obvious but you must have a valid reason for dismissing someone and legally there are only five recognised categories under which you can terminate someone's employment.
This should more realistically be misconduct and would include, someone who had been given previous warnings, committed a series of offences breaching company rules etc.
If the requirement for work of a particular kind has ceased or diminished, the reason for the dismissal will be that of redundancy. If you intend to close the business in which the employee was employed or stop trading at the place they were employed, the same applies.
If the employee is unable any longer to do the job for which they were taken on or because they don't have the necessary qualifications the reason would be capability.
Here's something from Dan McGee ('Beyond Termination', 1990, p. 212):
"'You won't have any trouble finding another church' is a myth. Forced termination victims frequently hear this from well-meaning friends and family, but it isn't necessarily so... Because some form of employment is needed, many will take almost any job. You may want to do that to meet your financial obligations, while, at the same time, preparing for and searching for a more permanent position or a new career.
"But you will want to find another church in which to worship as quickly as possible... This may be difficult... When you go to worship, beward of the tendency to relive the pain of the past... This will be less of a problem if you have handled the termination and grief process well...
"It is important that you go to your next church or your next job... with the determination to do well. This is especially important when you perceive this new position to be a step down... As the old saying goes, 'Bloom where you are planted'. If God gives you a place of responsibility, the task should be done well... Understand your denominational and local church polity... The churches that practise a congregational form of government are more susceptible to forced termination problems...
"Be open with the church concerning your expectations... Investigate the history of the church... You might want to consider a written contract of employment...
"You can move ahead, going to another church, still believing in the God who calls you, but also being more in control of your own life and future.'
1. Romans 10:15 states: "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news." But some of these feet are not beautiful; they're wounded. Tell your stories about all this...
2. Ministers and their families commonly endure great disruption and distress and often find it difficult to be called to new positions, usually being perceived as "failures" or in some way "compromised" by the experience of termination. How can they be helped through these struggles?
3. Look up 'Ministering to Ministers' on your Google search engine. Is there such a body in your country/area? See (http://www.bengtson.org/mtm/
4. 'Under the pressure of the dynamics leading toward termination, ministers are sometimes tempted to compromise professional ethics in their responses to adversaries within the congregation and, at times, in a failure to review and correct their own actions or statements which may have led to perceptions or misunderstandings' (Forced Terminations and Ethics by Everett Goodwin). What are these 'ethical standards'?
5. There are pros and cons on the issue of hiring church staff from within the congregation - or, in some larger churches, even having pastors who are members of the congregation they serve (rather than worshipping somewhere else). What are they?
6. What are your local laws/requirements for security screening of employees - for example at your school?
7. 'The larger the congregation, the more vulnerable that church is to an inappropriate match of pastor and people' . 'The larger the congregation, the greater the expectations that institution placed on the senior minister to be the initiating leader.' (Lyle Schaller, The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church). Why, why?
8. Most denominations do little to help their wounded ministers. We 'shoot our wounded' or leave them to die on the field of battle. When did you last see an 'honor roll' of those who have fallen in the spiritual battle. Only one denomination in Australia, to my (Rowland Croucher's) knowledge, keeps a list of 'ex-pastors'. This list-keeping is not for prayer for these people, but for 'records'. Why is all this so?
9. Ministers who have sought mediation through denominational channels or consultants are sometimes disillusioned because denominational officials and consultants apparently fear to risk the loss of financial support from the churches. Are there other reasons for these denominational representatives to seem to take the side of the church in such disputes?
10. 'Only the congregation can terminate a call, by vote of a majority.' Does it work that way in your church/es? What do you think of the constitutional paragraphs above?
11. How much should be revealed to the church members about the reasons a pastor's services are terminated?
12. 'ABILENE--Louis Johnson knows how it feels to be a pastor forced to leave his church with nowhere to go. That is just one of the reasons why North Park Baptist Church in Abilene, where he is now pastor, is a church of refuge. The church of refuge program of the minister/church relations office of the Baptist General Convention of Texas seeks to help pastors who face forced terminations by giving them somewhere to turn, much like the cities of refuge noted in the book of Exodus.' Where does a pastor go in your part of the world?
13. Many pastors do not have job skills or a home of their own to live in once they leave the pastorate. What suggestions would you make about these situations?
14. Finally, talk about 'conflict resolution'. How is it best done in your church/es?
Ministering to Ministers Foundation (U.S.), contact Charles H. Chandler, Trinity Baptist Church, 2641 Cromwell Road, Richmond, VA 23235; phone 804-320-6463. FAX 804-320-9178.
Another Word on Forced Terminations
'Forced Exits: Preparation and Survival' by John C. LaRue, Jr.
Rights & Responsibilities Guide Discharging and Laying-off Employees
'Pastor Care' by J. Douglas Robinson
'Helping pastors get back on their feet' by Michel Eleanor Zielinski
'Employment Essentials: What you should know about hiring and firing'
by Gayla Postma
Commonwealth of Australia Unfair Dismissals Acts and Labour Law
Law in the U.K.
Jeff Barnes, 'To Fight or Not to Fight? Should a Pastor Resign Under Pressure - or Stay and Fight?', ISBN 1-58597-018-2, 2000
David Biebel & Howard Lawrence eds., 'Pastors Are People Too' Regal 1986
Ed Bratcher et al, Mastering Transitions, Multnomah 1991
Gene Edwards, 'Preventing a Church Split', Christian Books 1987
John Foskett and David Lyall, 'Helping the Helpers: Supervision and Pastoral Care', SPCK 1988
Stanley Grenz & Roy Bell, 'Betrayal of Trust: Sexual Misconduct in the Pastorate' IVP, 1995
Douglas Johnson, 'The Care and Feeding of Volunteers', Abingdon 1978
Gerald J. Jud et al, 'Ex-Pastors: Why Men Leave the Parish Ministry', Pilgrim Press 1970
Tim LaHaye, 'If Ministers Fall, Can They Be Restored?' Zondervan 1990
Christopher Ledger, 'Caring for the Carers', Kingsway 1992
G. Douglass Lewis, 'Resolving Church Conflicts' Harper & Row, 1981
Robert Lutz and Bruce Taylor, 'Surviving the Ministry: Navigating the Pitfalls, Experiencing the Renewals' Integration Books, 199i0
Myra Marshall with Dan McGee, Jennifer Bryon Owen, 'Beyond Termination: A Spouse's Story of Pain and Healing', Broadman, 1990.
Frank Minirth et. al., 'How to Beat Burnout', Moody Bible Institute, 1986
Christopher Moore, 'Opening the Clergy Parachute: Soft Landings for Church Leaders Who Are Seeking a Change', Abingdon, 1995
Roy Oswald, 'Clergy Self-Care: Finding a Balance for Effective Ministry', Alban Institute, 1991
Robin Pryor, 'High Calling High Stress', Uniting Church of Australia, 1982
Charles Rassieur, 'Stress Management for Ministers', Westminster 1982
F. LaGard Smith, 'Fallen Shepherds, Scattered Sheep', Harvest House 1988
Henry Virkler, 'Choosing a New Pastor: The Complete Handbook' Nelson 1992
Walter Wiest and Elwyn Smith, 'Ethics in Ministry: A Guide for the Professional' Fortress, 1990