Worst practices for dismissing a minister
Talking with ministers who have lost their jobs can feel…
Somewhere in the unwritten but badly needed handbook for elders are three rules:
1. Do hard things well.
2. Do painful things kindly.
3. If you must fire your preacher, use your head — and your heart.
This is the first column in a two-part series. Read the second part.
Experts agree, and many ministers know from painful experience — sometimes career-ending and faith-challenging experience — that even unwritten rules can be broken, often with devastating consequences.
That’s not how it begins.
Individuals don’t accept the call to ministry planning to be ineffective or to be a bad match with a congregation. Similarly, elders may desire the position and fulfill the qualifications written in I Timothy and Titus, but they may have little experience with hiring and firing, certainly not with dismissing a member of the church they were called to shepherd.
But ministers battered and broken by employment problems share stories of financial peril, protracted searches for a new position and hurt spouses unwilling to risk going through it all again.
They didn’t begin that way. They started with prayerful intent and the excitement of a new position. But over time, ministers’ naïveté can blind them to signs of dissatisfaction, and elders’ lack of communication skills about their expectations can lead to surprises when finally trying to work through the problem.
“The end of a ministry may be legitimate, but that will never make it easy.”
Eddie Sharp, senior consultant with the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University in Texas, says sometimes a minister makes an immoral mistake or may just be a poor match with a particular church.
“The end of a ministry may be legitimate, but that will never make it easy,” Sharp says.
Resource organizations, such as the Siburt Institute, provide support for churches dealing with a ministerial crisis, but many elders are unaware of these groups. Also, elders may not recognize the complexity of searching, hiring and firing a minister.
Still, some congregations do get it right. They find a way to successfully transition ministers from employment to unemployment to new employment. Effective transitions share some best practices.
1. Begin with a good hiring process.
Robert Oglesby, director of the Ministers’ Support Network, a program of the Siburt Institute, advises churches to be more discerning on the front end. Too often, he says, search committees get desperate and don’t check references.
Doug Peters, minister and consultant for Interim Ministry Partners, which mentors leaders and guides churches, agrees.
“In one sense, every minister is an interim,” says Peters, who preaches for the Grace Crossing Church of Christ, north of Houston. “Rarely does someone spend their whole life with one church until they retire or die. I really focus on clarifying an understanding up front in writing that can be used as the basis of yearly evaluations,” he says.
Carson Reed, executive director of the Siburt Institute, advises churches to have written policies guiding hiring and termination that provide clarity for all parties, a document that says: “Here’s how we’ll behave. Here’s how this will end if it ends — the expectations on both sides.”
2. Evaluate regularly, and put it in writing.
If employment details and expectations are provided up front, then regular evaluations can help avoid surprises. These appraisals can provide time to review progress, establish new goals and address any problems.
If the makeup of an eldership changes, new elders need to be informed of these expectations so they can participate in assessing what plans going forward should be. If this doesn’t happen, ministers may be blindsided by the new, unspoken expectations.
“If things are not going well, it may be better for the minister to move on, and it may be clear to a group of elders that it would be better — but can we do it in a way that’s helpful for both.”
For example, in a church setting, unlike the corporate world, ministers’ spouses may be included in the interview process, or churches may have certain expectations of spouses. That would be illegal in secular employment, but one HR lesson applies: Write it down. Document. Document. Document.
Oglesby says documenting any problems that arise helps the minister know, “this is not just someone who’s picking on me.”
He also advises elderships to be judicious about who conveys concerns to ministers: the elder who has a strained relationship with a minister shouldn’t be the one communicating problems. “You’re the last person who should speak to him about that. He knows you don’t like him. He can’t hear you at all.” Likewise, Oglesby says the elder closest to the minister would not be the right person to have the conversation.
If elders have done annual reviews and documented them, they will be able to refer back to them and say, “Remember all these instances we’ve tried to coach you on. That’s not a good fit. That’s not how this church works.”
3. Be honest and transparent. Always.
Reed, like others who work regularly with ministers and elders, admits that sometimes ministers need to be dismissed, in which case honesty should be foundational.
“Ideally, elders should frame the dismissal in ways that demonstrate hopefulness for the church and the minister,” Reed says. “It takes some art to do that. If things are not going well, it may be better for the minister to move on, and it may be clear to a group of elders that it would be better — but can we do it in a way that’s helpful for both.”
Sharp recalls when he was “mentored out of a job” by elders who communicated honestly and clearly with him. Just out of grad school, he accepted a youth ministry position at a church in Las Vegas, Nev.
“I was really bad at it,” Sharp recalls. “About six months in, the elders say, ‘We don’t think this is what you should be doing. We have a preacher, and we’re going to keep him. So we think in about six months, you should be somewhere else preaching.’ Boy were they right. I wasn’t so much fired as mentored out.”
Honesty and transparency with the congregation are equally critical. Grady King, co-leader of Hope Network and director of church resources at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City, says elders must take responsibility.
“The buck stops with them. They have to say honestly, ‘We asked him to resign.’ To say it’s a mutual agreement, if it’s not true — it’s a lie.”
King recalls one elder who, after an announcement was made about a minister’s departure, went to the middle of the auditorium and took the hits from anyone who didn’t like what they had heard. “I told him, ‘God bless you for that.’ ”
4. Provide adequate time, money and resources for the transition.
If a church has hired well, evaluated regularly and communicated openly, a compassionate transition should be achievable. While Oglesby says he can’t cite a standard, a three-month severance package is common. Even that time is often inadequate since it takes many ministers three, six or even 12 months to find a new position.
Corporate dismissals often come with a month of pay for each year of service, which is worth considering for ministers with extended ministry in a single location. But even ministers with shorter tenures need time and resources to relocate a family and heal from the trauma of losing a job.
5. Shepherding and redemption.
Even when a dismissal results from immorality, an addiction or financial dishonesty, experts say the goal should be redemption.
If a church has hired well, evaluated regularly and communicated openly, a compassionate transition should be achievable.
“Say the minister had an affair. In the worst of circumstances, it’s best to provide care, counseling. If it’s embezzlement, let someone pay it back,” Oglesby advises.
King agrees. “I still think the ultimate goal is redemption, counseling, therapy. Provide support, even if you let him go. Provide help for the spouse. How can we be redemptive, be helpful?”
Spouses and children often report that the most painful part of the family’s separation from the church is they have lost their church, their community, their children’s friends — not just a job and income. Thus, the delicate intersection of employer and shepherd must be traversed with care.
“An elder group has to attend to matters of employment and be aware of certain things you can and can’t do or say as an employer,” Reed says. “On the other hand, there’s the pastoral side of that. It would be a helpful exercise to be able to tend to both hats in gracious ways. It may be necessary to dismiss a minister, and you want to do that well and ethically and with integrity. But there’s still the pastoral dimension. How do we attend to this family that now has lost their employment? Can we provide care or invite others to care?”
Reed says he knows of elders who have hired therapists for ministers and their families. Elders should also enlist others to make sure families receive the care they need.
“The sense of isolation, loss and abuse can be huge when just put adrift in your dinghy, and the church seems so eager to just go on.”
Sharp recommends, “Somebody in eldership needs to commit to walk along beside the family so they aren’t pushed out by themselves — so they’re not pariahs. The sense of isolation, loss and abuse can be huge when just put adrift in your dinghy, and the church seems so eager to just go on.”
Simply put, he says being responsible means, “Don’t be mean. How you go about it depends on personalities and situations, but at some point, sacrificial lambs need a shepherd, too.”
CHERYL MANN BACON served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. In retirement, she is enjoying freelance writing and consulting, especially with churches. Contact her at [email protected].
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