Best practices for dismissing a minister
Somewhere in the unwritten but badly needed handbook for elders…
Ministers don’t come with a “good church-keeping seal of approval” or a money-back guarantee. They make mistakes, which should surprise no one. If Moses, Jonah, Peter and Paul were far from infallible messengers, why do churches expect Tom, Mike, Jordan and Heather to be perfect?
When facing trouble with a congregation, ministers don’t always handle the situation well — especially when their job is on the line.
While elders have a responsibility to document their expectations and to provide regular evaluations, ministers also have the responsibility to seek honest feedback.
Grady King, co-leader of Hope Network, an organization that mentors leaders and guides churches, and director of church resources at Oklahoma Christian University, advises ministers to find people who will give them honest feedback — before it’s too late.
When Eddie Sharp became minister for the University Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, he had been preaching for less than 10 years. He was quite young for a congregation that had previously employed ministers with prominent names in the brotherhood.
Early on, in what became a 28-year ministry at the church, Sharp enlisted Dr. Carl Brecheen, then a Bible professor at Abilene Christian University, and said, “If this is ever not going well and I don’t know it, would you please tell me? I need people I can trust if I’m blind to something.’”
Not every congregation has a Carl Brecheen, but Sharp, who now serves as a senior consultant for the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at ACU, says ministers need to find worthy mentors.
“You should set up some kind of network of feedback and accountability,” Sharp said. “There will be people who don’t like you and some who like you too much. So you need a good and godly person, maybe an older person, someone – a man or woman – who will tell you the truth.”
Whether the evaluation and feedback are formal and written, or informal over coffee, Doug Peters said it should be done gently.
Peters, minister for Grace Crossing, a community Church of Christ in Conroe, Texas, and a consultant for Interim Ministry Partners, said some ministers may be insecure and may not want to be evaluated.
“They need to grow up and do that,” he says. “They need to take the kingdom mindset as well. Just because you’re not a good fit at congregation X doesn’t mean you’re not (a good fit) at congregation Y. You have to put kingdom interests above your own.”
Robert Oglesby, director of Ministers Support Network, a program of ACU’s Siburt Institute, said resigning emotionally because a meeting goes badly — or whatever — is a lack of maturity.
“Ministry is bigger than that,” he said.
When knowing that a job is at risk, anyone, ministers included, will probably take it personally. Oglesby emphasizes that sometimes the partnership is just a bad match.
“Maybe you didn’t interview the church well. Next time you’ll be smarter, pay closer attention to their leadership style, how they treat ministers,” he said.
Just as elders sometimes hire too quickly, ministers might grab too quickly because everything looked great during that one tryout weekend.
“They need to learn — I’m not going to be as naïve next time,” Oglesby says.
If a termination occurs, shutting off communication out of pain or anger is counterproductive. Oglesby said great ministry can happen in conversations and lunches between the minister and leaders after the decision has been made.
“Just because you’re not a good fit at congregation X doesn’t mean you’re not (a good fit) at congregation Y.”
Similarly, ministers can create problems for themselves and the church if they insist on trying to set the record straight, as they see it.
Sharp says the worst thing a preacher can do is try to get allies in the church to fight the dismissal.
“It’s divisive,” Sharp said. “It puts other people in a difficult spot that they’re going to have to deal with when the preacher is gone. If it’s time to go, continue to minister to the church. Sometimes you have to be bigger than yourself.”
“You have to learn and move forward, or you’ll have a hard time embracing the future.”
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.
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