Best practices for dismissing a minister
Somewhere in the unwritten but badly needed handbook for elders…
Talking with ministers who have lost their jobs can feel repetitive. And depressing.
The ministers don’t all paint themselves as perfect or without weakness or fault — one described himself as “29 years arrogant” when recalling the circumstances of his dismissal at a young age.
This is the second column in a two-part series. Read the first part.
Regardless, a few themes about minister dismissals repeat like the chorus of a praise song or a lament. Those refrains are painfully familiar to mentors and consultants at places such as Hope Network Ministries and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University:
“They wanted me to lie.”
“I didn’t see it coming.”
“My family lost more than a job. We lost our church.”
“The severance was a joke.”
“My family lost more than a job. We lost our church.”
Some churches do a good job of following best practices for dismissing a minister.
But many don’t.
In addition to failing to use best practices, circumstances often are complicated by the autonomous nature of Churches of Christ. Even if an elder group takes all the correct steps, a minister can feel mistreated.
“They did the right thing,” one former minister says of a congregation that provided a generous severance and sent him and his wife to meet with Dr. Paul Faulkner, founder of the Ministers Support Network and ACU’s Marriage and Family Institute.
The minister appreciates that the church invested substantially in his transition out of service to that congregation, but he says his dismissal was still really difficult.
“I lost my wife, my career, my 6-month old daughter. I was really angry.”
“Because we had no pastoral check-in, I fell through the cracks. Then my wife left, then the Christian school [where he had taken a teaching job] asked me to resign.”
He had also taken a part-time job at a Christian church that he believed was grooming him for a full-time role. It cut ties after the divorce.
“I lost my wife, my career, my 6-month old daughter. I was really angry.”
All this, despite the best efforts of the church that fired him. Imagine how life goes for ministers leaving churches whose termination processes are less thoughtful and less generous.
Experts say these are some of the worst ways to terminate a minister:
1. If it’s not the truth, it’s a lie.
The most disturbing stories of malpractice are elder groups who ask a minister to resign but then claim the decision was mutual or was solely the minister’s. Then the elders require the minister to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to receive a severance package.
Robert Oglesby, director of the Ministers Support Network, says, “It’s deceitful to ask for a resignation and NDA.”
The most disturbing stories of malpractice are elder groups who ask a minister to resign but then claim the decision was mutual or was solely the minister’s.
And it almost always backfires. When the next minister leaves for his own reasons, people question what really happened.
“It hurts credibility of leadership,” Oglesby says. “People always find out.”
When notice needs to be made to the congregation, the elders should work with the minister to write the statement. While they may have to agree to disagree about some aspects, he says both parties should have input.
“Ministers and leaders need some control over what will be said,” Oglesby says.
That wasn’t the experience for a youth minister who went on to find a new congregation where he now is serving happily. However, even years later, he still can barely describe the day he walked into a meeting expecting to see all the staff and elders for the congregation where he had served for more than two years. Instead, only three elders and the most senior minister were present.
“They told me I had been warned six months ago that my job was under review (which was never mentioned in the previous meeting) and that the elders as a group had decided that I was not a good fit for the church,” he says.
Shocked and crushed, he still replied that he would agree to resign in three to six months and begin immediately looking for another job. The other minister in the room said that timeframe would not work.
“They required my immediate resignation or I would be fired immediately . . . . They gave me two letters, one stating that I resigned and one stating that I acknowledged that I had been fired for misconduct. When I asked about the misconduct charge, the elders and the preacher discussed several different accusations in front of me that were not true and eventually said to me, ‘Don’t worry. Whatever it is will sound bad when we are done with it.’”
The minister asked for a few days to discuss the issue with his wife. But he was told the letters were not to leave the room and the decision had to be made then, or he would be fired. With a young family to support and a mortgage on a recently purchased home, he signed the resignation letter. The young minister later learned that other elders not present that day were unaware of the meeting.
Dr. Carson Reed, executive director of the Siburt Institute, says elders don’t always speak with the same voice.
“One elder says one thing to a minister and another says something else to that minister, so the minister is often confused and unable to assess in reality what the elder group thinks or the church thinks,” Reed says.
2. Failing to provide the time and resources needed to improve.
Not every problem should lead to a dismissal. Regular written evaluations should instead lead to mentoring and an investment in resources to help a minister improve. That takes time, but it can help a church save its relationship with a minister and may even keep a young preacher from leaving ministry altogether.
With fewer young people entering ministry and more young ministers leaving after only a few years, that’s of critical importance.
Doug Peters, full-time minister at Grace Crossing Community Church of Christ in Conroe, Texas, north of Houston, also serves as a consultant for Interim Ministry Partners. He believes experienced church leaders have a responsibility to young ministers.
Not every problem should lead to a dismissal.
“We can’t expect them to be as mature as your 56-year-old elders. We bear responsibility to help shape and coach them,” Peters says.
He urges elderships to find an outside person to help coach a minister, but he emphasizes that the mentor needs to be an experienced minister — someone with training as a coach, not just a good guy or someone’s brother-in-law.
Peters says he fears churches have run many good young ministers into other fellowships or out of ministry altogether.
“Our extreme autonomy has sometimes led to kingdom amnesia. We forget we’re part of something bigger and fail to reach out and get help. Most elders are at one or two congregations. Ministers are more often in several. Elders can’t be so focused on extreme autonomy.”
3. No warning signs.
One of the best practices for an eldership working with a minister is to provide written expectations and regular evaluations with documentation of progress or problems. The opposite is when elders surprise people, specifically, the minister.
A minister who now serves productively in a congregation in the northeast recalls a surprise moment early in his career.
“My wife and I had gone away over the holiday to be with family and let family know we were pregnant with our first child,” he says. When the couple returned home, the minister told the elders that he and his wife were planning on announcing the news to the congregation during a Wednesday fellowship meal.
But on the day of the announcement, the elders told him his position was being terminated. “We went on with the [pregnancy] announcement before the mid-week celebration, then I went home and told my wife, ‘We don’t have a job.’ The elders knew our intent to do this when they scheduled this meeting and termination. In terms of best and worst practices, it speaks to that,” he says.
Then the next Sunday, the elders announced the minister was no longer going to be employed and was seeking other opportunities.
“They need to make sure they’re caring for the family.”
“I was never given a reason. I inquired specifically. Is it because of performance? No. Is it because of budget constraints? No. What is it? We just feel we need to do this; it’s right for the church.”
The church did pay three months severance and allow the couple to live in the parsonage longer than that, but it took more than nine months for the minister to find a new position.
Peters believes a probationary period makes much more sense.
“Why can’t you put them on probation? Then you’ve given [the relationship] every opportunity,” he says. “Set your own anxiety as an eldership aside, and spell out what needs to happen over a specified period of time.”
4. Too little money. Too little time.
Oglesby says severances given to ministers are often way too short. He recently heard of a minister who received two weeks of pay — after serving with the church for four years.
“They know in their heart of hearts no one is going to get a new job in two weeks. They need to make sure they’re caring for the family. You’ve created one crisis only to turn around and create a financial crisis.”
When trauma happens to the physical body, it affects the whole body. The body of the church is no different.
Oglesby says elders know that search committees work slowly, often at a glacial pace. “When you’re letting this person go, remember they are starting a very slow process.”
Reed says failing to understand how long it takes to find a new job — often three to six months or longer — can put a family at risk for the better part of a year. “It’s a big hardship,” he says.
“Ridiculous” is how Grady King describes it. King, co-leader of Hope Network and director of church resources at Oklahoma Christian University, has seen 30-day severances given to ministers. “Thirty and out is ridiculous. Corporations do better than that. You can’t find a job in six weeks. It’s unreasonable.”
5. Too little shepherding through the trauma.
Beyond the issue of severance and the challenges of searching for a new job, ministers and their spouses often are most grieved about losing their church family. Suddenly, the shepherds who were supposed to be caring for them are gone.
Dr. Eddie Sharp, senior consultant for the Siburt Institute, says ministers need time to grieve and recover. “You cannot relocate or just reset. When a preacher gets fired, he’s gunshot. He’s not ready for family to go to another church and just start again. Pick a Kubler-Ross stage. It’s exactly like grief and dying. There’s anger, denial, bargaining. You’ve got to give people some time.”
Sharp also says a preacher’s wife often is more aware of her husband’s precarious job status than he is.
“She sort of knew. He had been in denial. When it finally came down, he was in shock, and she’s got to be the wife to the guy who feels wronged and blind-sided. And she’s thinking, the blindness was on your side.”
King believes not including the spouse in the conversation is a mistake.
Shepherding the whole family through the grief process requires a courageous eldership.
“I can’t tell you how many spouses are bitter, angry, that no one had a conversation with them, zero. They’re not included. That pollutes the ministry, because if your wife is not happy and good in ministry, it’s hard to stay in ministry.”
Shepherding the whole family through the grief process requires a courageous eldership. King knows one elder who sat down with some young children and teenage kids and said, ‘I know it hurts. Would you talk to me?’ ” The kids lost their support network and their friends.
“Once you talk to the minister, you have to listen to the anger and frustrations without being defensive,” King says. “I hear so many say, ‘Once they let us go, nobody checked with us. Nobody said, ‘How are you doing? How can I be helpful?’ ”
King likens the dismissal of a minister to trauma. When trauma happens to the physical body, it affects the whole body. The body of the church is no different.
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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