What is the best way to get rid of a minister? Keep reading. Oh, in the cartoon insert “The minister” for “Coach” and “Church” for “Team.” NOTE: This is a section from my soon to be released book (God willing), “Dancing In The Dungeon: Suffering With Hopeful Joy For God’s Glory.”
Sadly there are more quarrels and dissatisfaction in churches than most people realize. My goal in what follows is for those who find themselves involved in a difficult church/minister situation to have a few guidelines so as to not defame the name of Christ. As it is written, “Whatever happens, conduct yourself in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.”[ii]
Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest theologian and pastor… credited as a central figure in The First Great Awakening… was fired by his congregation after 23 years of service. 90% of the congregation voted against him. The reason for termination? His position that only believers should partake in The Lord’s Supper.[iii] The 230 who voted against him seem to have forgotten Hebrews 13:17…
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Church/minister relationships are not good in America. Every month 1,700 ministers leave the ministry[iv] with an additional 1,300 terminated from all denominations.[v] Five years after finishing seminary, 50% of graduates will have left the ministry.[vi] Most students entering seminary, including extension centers, choose not to become pastors because they have seen what churches do to pastors and the problems in churches.[vii] Instead they are seeking staff positions in larger churches or they are becoming church planters and missionaries.[viii]
Behind every statistic is a story. When congregants want a minister to leave they say things like, “He’s not a good leader,” “His organizational skills are lacking,” “I’m not getting fed,” “He doesn’t visit enough,” “He isn’t a people person,” “We need new ideas and a new direction,” or “He’s not a good fit for us.” When people want a minister to leave, any reason is as good as another… and the more reasons the better. Sadly, the minister’s proficiency in fulfilling his call is largely ignored.
There are times when ministers should be terminated. And much like divorce, sometimes ending the minister church relationship is the only option because of the hardness of human hearts.[ix]
When they bring disrepute on Christ by teaching or preaching heresy[x]…
When they bring disrepute on Christ by engaging in immoral behavior…
When they bring disrepute on Christ by breaking laws in an egregious manner.[xi]
The purpose of this section is not about justifiable reasons to terminate a minister, but to examine a Biblical process when termination is being considered. Since several congregations terminated the pastor prior to me (And having been asked to resign myself), I have observed the fallout of bad and improper decisions churches made when ending a minister’s tenure. I have contemplated better ways congregations could have conducted themselves if termination could not have been avoided. My prayer is that what follows will be of help to some who find themselves in difficult church situations.
Of First Importance. The most significant people to address a difficult situation with a minister are opinion leaders and/or respected elected leaders of the church… Elders, Deacons, and/or a Personnel Team member. Their first position should be, regardless of the accusation, to give the minister the benefit of the doubt as innocent. Even if the accusation seems credible, the minister should be believed because of his position, one who is worthy of double honor.
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. (1 Timothy 5:17, 19)
Because the minister is worthy of double honor, when a church member is criticizing or attacking a minister… including if another ministerial staff is participating… church leaders should approach them quickly to address their accusations to maintain the peace and unity of the congregation. For them not to do this is to avoid their call.[xii] If an accusation is entertained, it must be from a credible witness (Or witnesses), not hearsay, and then investigated thoroughly. The minister must be given an opportunity to give his side of the story, answer any accusations, and face his accuser(s). After all, if criminals are innocent until proven guilty, are allowed to face their accusers, and given fair representation for their defense, should not a minister of the Gospel be granted more as one who is “worthy of double honor?”[xiii]
Joe McKeever is a well respected pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention. He has written many articles one of which appeared in SBC Today regarding terminating a minister.[xiv] He asks church leaders to answer seven questions after which he comments, “So, church leader, think this thing through. What kind of church do you want yours to become?” Here is a synopsis of his questions.
Are you doing this in obedience to Christ or is this just something you want done?
Are you willing to stand before the Lord at judgment and take full responsibility for doing this?
Have you brought in outside counsel? (More than one person)
Has the pastor been able to present his side of the matter before a responsible, non-judgmental group?
Have you checked your church’s constitution and by-laws to make sure you are doing things right? (NOTE: I would add, have you searched the Scriptures to honor God in the process? A good start is The Golden Rule. RE)
Have you rushed into this?
Are you willing to tell the full story to the next pastor you consider bringing in?
Prayerfully and honestly answering these questions is a good starting point before seeking to force any minister to resign. The stakes are too high not to be careful and cautious. Remember what Jesus said to Saul on the road to Damascus, “Saul. Saul. Why are you persecuting me?”[xv] when it comes to the treatment of ministers who are brothers and sisters in Christ.[xvi]
God will not allow an unfaithful minister to abuse his Bride. He will chastise, discipline, and correct the minister if needed. The Chief Shepherd loves his church passionately and will not allow them to be neglected or treated harshly by anyone… especially a minister. With this in mind, make sure you consider seriously the following Scripture.
Respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. (1 Timothy 5:17)
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm… (1 Chronicles 16:22)
So what should be done when a minister does something resulting in church conflict? What should church leaders do when a minister is hurting the congregation but their conduct is not immoral, unethical, breaking the law, or teaching heresy? Is the membership just to grin and bear it till he moves… retires… or dies? There are at least four things that can be done consistent with Hebrews 13:17b, “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning…”
Pray. Pray for them, don’t prey on them. This is God’s will for his glory and your good. You might be surprised how God will change a minister or a situation when you pray diligently for them.
Encourage. Ministers mostly hear problems, complaints, and life difficulties. It is refreshing to have someone encourage and build them up. Send a card and smile when you see them. Do this particularly when times are tumultuous. And don’t forget the minister’s wife as part of this process.[xvii]
Affirm. When they do something well, tell them. When they do something right, pat them on the back. A positive word of affirmation goes a long way to transform difficult situations.
Help. Find ways to help the minister be successful in fulfilling the call. Critics look for reasons to undercut the minister, then condemn him to anyone who’ll listen. Do not criticize the minister to anyone. Do not allow anyone to criticize the minister in your presence. Consciously choose to talk to people, not about them. If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
Now to consider a few things church members can do who find themselves in a difficult situation with ministers or staff. Keep in mind, “Nothing tests our obedience to Christ like conflict.”[xviii]
When there is conflict, the question becomes not so much how the circumstance came about, but rather: Will all involved conduct themselves in manner consistent with God’s word to glorify him and address the situation? If all are not devoted to restoration, mercy, repentance, and forgiveness they have annulled the Gospel before the congregation and the community they are called to reach. If brothers and sisters in Christ will not work toward reconciliation, they have invalidated the credibility of their witness and should either repent, or withdraw from positions of leadership in the church.
There are redemptive and helpful things church leaders can do when there are staff problems. As Pricilla & Aquila helped Apollos;[xix] As Paul helped Peter,[xx] Barnabas,[xxi] and encouraged people to help two ladies in Philippians 4:2-3… it is important leaders help the minister be successful. Thus there are precedents in scripture for coming along side to help those who are having difficulties.
In 1 Samuel 2:30 it is written, “God honors those who honor him.” Regardless of what the minister does or how he conducts himself, God will honor a congregation that seeks to be graciously redemptive in how they deal with a minister in a conflicted situation. It is written, “Whatever happens, conduct yourself in a manner worthy of the Gospel,”[xxii] which applies to congregations and their leaders as much as it does to ministers. Those who terminate ministers for improper reasons, or an inappropriate manner, will be disciplined by God. Congregations that honor God by being gracious, loving, and merciful in difficult staff situations will be honored and blessed by God. Now a few more suggestions.
Do not ambush a minister by having a group sit him down, recount everything he’s done wrong, and impose what they’ve decided to do as a result. Do not include people who are a minister’s adversaries in discussions with the minister. Do not have ultimatums, a letter of dismissal, or a severance package ready when meeting with a minister. Such things are not gracious, redemptive, helpful, or productive. On the other hand, do approach the process with an attitude of humility, mercy, reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness. The goal is to glorify God throughout in everything that takes place.[xxiii]
From Matthew 18:15-18, have a person who loves the minister, and the minister knows he is loved by this person, go to him in private and talk with him one on one. This person must be honest with the minister about the gravity of the situation and the issues at hand. This person must be humble as they engage the minister in love consistent with Galatians 6:1-2.[xxiv] The goal is to find solutions and correct problems (Restoration) so as to continue a viable ministry for the church and minister’s future. The goal of meeting is not to lay the groundwork for termination. Denominational workers are not the best ones to facilitate this process because they are not objective and 90% of the time side with the congregation.[xxv]
If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2)
Paul is clear that the goal is always restoration to be done in a gentle manner. Interactions with ministers should always be conciliatory rather than confrontational or accusatory. The default objective must be toward healing rather than termination. Not only that, the one talking to the minister must have examined himself first which should at least include (“Keep watch on yourself”):
To glorify God in all things.
To protect the reputation of Christ, the Faith, and the church.
Making sure there is not a log in their own eye (Matthew 7:3-5).
The goal of restoring effectiveness to the minister’s ministry and personhood.
They must be willing to help the minister (“Bear one another’s burdens”).
Evaluate if there have been previous good faith attempts to help the minister. If this is not the case, then they should be attempted before anything else is done.
Do everything in keeping with the call to show love and the Golden Rule.
After going through this check list diligently, then they can prayerfully engage the minister with respect and humility.
Early in the process, consider the possibility of a staff member needing personal help. They may be hurting and wounded in an area of their life you are not aware of. They might need encouragement or help for a difficult situation in their life being manifested in strained work relationships. There was a time in my ministry when I needed help with personal problems outside of the church context. Had I received help, I may have been able to minister more effectively. I don’t blame the congregation, but looking back it might have been helpful. Do everything you can to restore and redeem all involved.
If after attempts to help the minister he is unwilling to change or get help, it is necessary to follow through with the rest of Matthew 18 by bringing him before a group representative of the church, as a last resort. The manner in which this is done should be humble, merciful, gracious, and loving. This group should hear the matter and follow the recommendation of those who have tried to help the minister.
Answer this question: If those involved in a situation are all Christians, who read the same Bible, pray to the same God, and are led by the same Holy Spirit, how can they not come to an agreement that embraces repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration for God’s glory? About disagreements in a congregation, Paul wrote this in 1 Corinthians 6:1-7…
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?
The minister is not the only person to which Matthew 18 applies. Churches will deal with a minister to the point of termination or forcing him to resign, which is Church Discipline by the way, while allowing worse sin in the congregation. It is not right to allow members to be gossips, divisive, liars, drunks, adulterers, thieves, and all kinds of other things… but terminate a minister for lesser causes. Matthew 18 applies to all church members… not just ministers. Meditate on that for a while…
My prayer in this section is for church leaders who are not part of the ministerial staff to give serious consideration to the implications, results, consequences, and fall out when terminating a minister for improper reasons, or terminating him ungraciously. My goal is for those who participate in such an event to still hear from Jesus one day, “Well done good and faithful servant!” I pray the reader will always conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel, even in the most difficult of times.
The next post is for ministers who find themselves in difficult situations… (God willing).
[ii] Philippians 1:27
[iv] http://www.9marks.org/blog/dont-make-your-pastor-statistic quoted from the Schaeffer Institute.
[v] http://www.9marks.org/blog/dont-make-your-pastor-statistic quoted from the Schaeffer Institute.
[vii] Dr. Ron Pate, Director of Birmingham New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Extension Center.
[ix] Matthew 19:8-9
[x] Romans 2:24; 2 Samuel 12:14
[xi] Such as theft, stealing, or other similar crimes.
[xii] Acts 6:1-3
[xiii] This paragraph is written because in one church I was not afforded these things even though I requested them more than once, with a secular judge being party to the discussions as a church leader. Then I presented these things to the deacon body without any response from them. I have talked with many ministers who have been terminated or forced to resign without the “due process” described here.
[xv] Acts 9:4-5
[xvi] Matthew 25:40, 45
[xvii] 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:25
[xviii] Dr. Dale Huff, Alabama Baptist Director of the Office of LeaderCare & Church Administration
[xix] Acts 18:26
[xx] Galatians 2:11-14
[xxi] Acts 15:36-41
[xxii] Philippians 1:27 NIV
[xxiii] 1 Corinthians 10:31
[xxiv] And 1 John 4:7, 11, 19-21
[xxv] Charles Chandler, Ministering To Ministers Foundation: “It is easier for the church to find another minister than work through the restoration and healing process. Congregations pay the denominational worker’s salary so they are more likely to side with them rather than the minister…” In his experience over the course of 12 years helping ministers and churches, 90% of the time he has seen denominational workers side with the church rather than the minister. His thought was that the pastor needs an advocate, not a “neutral party.”