Unspoken epidemic: Forced pastoral termination
>> by Cleve Haley, Pastor, Noble, First
One out of four ministers will be fired at some point during their ministry. I was one of them.
One of every three ministers is serving in a church that forced a previous minister to pack up his books, empty out his desk and turn in his office keys. These statistics are not just numbers but represent names, faces and families—and belong to you, a friend or a colleague.
One minister named Don said, “It never stops hurting. That’s the bottom line. I loved ministry so much, but because of two or three people….It just doesn’t stop hurting.”
He went on to say, “Former church members see me and walk in the other direction.”
Karen, a minister’s wife, said, “Bill was in church one morning for the service, and that night we went up to his office, collected his stuff and left. No one said anything. We walked through it alone. Even other ministers acted as if we had the plague.”
According to the Southern Baptist Church Minister Relations Department, an estimated 72 SBC ministers are dismissed every month.
Why do ministers and churches part ways? The top reasons are (1) control issues—who will run the church?; (2) poor people skills; (3) leadership styles either too strong or too weak or (4) the church was already in conflict before the pastor came. Take your pick. Often, once the decision is made to vacate the pulpit, any reason is good enough.
Since going through my own ministry crisis of forced termination nine years ago, I determined to use my pain to try and help others endure theirs. As a part of the ministry of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma’s (BGCO) Pastoral Leadership office, I’ve had the blessed privilege of walking with more than 50 such men since returning to my Oklahoma roots. Reflecting on what I have learned along the way leads me to offer three humble suggestions relating to this unspoken pastoral epidemic.
First, if at all possible, skip it. Termination, after all, isn’t inevitable. Remember, 75 percent of ministers remain unscathed. We can help ourselves avoid termination by being intentional about our pastoral ministry and leadership. A good place to begin is a book called Preventing Ministry Failure, by Michael Wilson and Brad Hoffman. The book lists seven ways ministers can equip themselves to stay the course in ministry and do all in their power to avoid termination.
The list includes things like establishing relationships and friendships in the church, settling the issue of calling and improving people and leadership skills. Whether ministers admit it or not, we often bring termination on ourselves or at the very least contribute to it. Be intentional about staying.
Second, if you can’t skip termination, survive it. I did. How? Not without a lot of help from God and a supportive wife. While walking through my own desert, I discovered I have a much bigger God than I ever realized. I also discovered my wife is stronger than she looks. She came alongside of me and ministered to her minister husband. Like Esther, she was born for such a time.
Although I never want to walk down that road again, I wouldn’t take anything for what I learned along the way: things like the importance of maintaining my love relationship with God, not retaliating against those who hurt me, dealing with raw emotions I never knew I had, relearning how to write a resume and not giving up. These are just a few of the things I learned in the backside of the desert. And I learned that you really can survive.
If you find yourself in a forced termination scenario, or if you know a fellow pastor who is in that situation, be aware of the resources made available through the Ministerial Crisis ministry of the BGCO. Funded through the annual Edna McMillan State Missions Offering, it provides financial assistance for force terminated ministers as well as grief counseling through a network of partnering Christian counselors. You can contact the Pastoral Leadership office of the BGCO for more information, or visit their web page at www.bgco.org/leadership.
Third, whether you skip it or survive it, by all means share it. It’s ironic that pastors are the only people in the church who don’t have a pastor themselves. It raises the poignant question: “Who encourages the encourager and who serves the servant?”
Look and listen for hurting pastors. Make the first move by reaching out to them through a phone call or a visit. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume that it is their fault. Sometimes it is, but they still shouldn’t be left bleeding on the field. Don’t try to fix anyone, that’s God’s job. Listen a lot and talk a little. Be positive and encouraging. Keep confidences.
Don’t be surprised if hurting people are angry or depressed. Pray for them and with them. Above all, don’t forget them. It could be you someday.
I hope you skip this pastoral epidemic. If not, know that you can survive it. In any event, determine to be a friend to a hurting pastor.