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Dr. G. & Friends  |  

Columbia Seminary Addresses an Epidemic of Clergy in Crisis

The Center for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Seminary offers the Ministering to Ministers program in support of clergy in crisis, specifically, those who have experienced a forced termination.


The silent epidemic of clergy forced terminations continues. According to a 2008 study by the Ministering to Ministers Foundation,

Tim Sledge, in Goodbye Jesus: An Evangelical Preacher’s Journey Beyond Faith, wrote about the silent epidemic of clergy forced termination. Citing a survey reviewed by Leadership magazine, he wrote:

“Squabbles that end in the ouster of ministers are a recurrent and very painful part of church life; congregations are often bitterly divided, with a loss of membership. The survey reported that such dismissals leave pastors and their families wounded spiritually and psychologically, as well as financially, because they frequently must move to find a new position, with children switching schools and spouses changing jobs. Perhaps one of 10 drop out of the ministry entirely after such an episode, the study indicated.”

The Reasons for Clergy Forced Terminations

When asked what the number one issue is for clergy-congregation conflict (often leading to a forced termination) one can guess several: money, theology, or leadership style for example. Those are good guesses, but they are not the most common.

Despite rhetoric and confessed beliefs about Gospel mission and mandate, it remains true that congregations are a type of religious community. As such, they operate more like family or tribe despite being missional. Simply put, congregations, as communities have a tendency to be bounded, focused inward, generative, and focused on self-preservation. None of those are bad in and of themselves, but that reality can hint at why it is so difficult for clergy to move a congregation toward an outward-looking, missional ministry orientation.

 A conflicting vision for the church tops the number one cause for forced terminations. Outreach versus taking care of the church members is a major conflict of vision for the church. Ironically, a pastor’s a five-year vision plan for outreach will conflict with the members’ demands about their own needs and interests. Often, the conflict is fed by anxieties about scarcity of resources— whether actual or imagined. There is perhaps no bigger frustration, and heartache, I see among clergy than how difficult they find it to lead their congregations to be a realized Church as per God’s intent.

A Forced Termination Hurts Clergy

Trauma has no shelf life, and unresolved issues hamper growth and ministry effectiveness long after a forced termination. And, the experience itself can be shamefully cruel. We asked clergy What is the one thing you’ll never forget “they” said when you were terminated? Here are some of their answers.

“I’ll get rid of him if it’s the last thing I do.”

“We wish you luck doing anything but this.”

“We are not comfortable with the kind of people you are attracting.”

“You don’t fit in here and you are just going through the motions of ministry.”

 “Let me just rip the bandaid, and tell you why you are here!”

“It’s our church and we’ll run it the way we want to.”

“If you leave without telling anyone, we will give you more money.”

“I don’t care if they end up flipping burgers.”

One aftermath of the forced termination trauma is that clergy often become further isolated by choice, because of a sense of shame and failure. Others feel isolated due to the distancing they experience from peers and even denominational staff who ostensibly should be a support system. The feeling of isolation exacerbates the trauma of the forced termination experience.

Consequences To the Congregation

We can understand the effects of the trauma of a forced termination on a pastor and their family. But we often neglect to appreciate the impact it has on a congregation.

David A. Myers offers a list of the effects of a pastoral forced termination on a congregation:

Those who supported the pastor want more; those opposed want less. This anger shows up in reduced giving by one side or the other. Once a forced termination occurs, it becomes easier to do it again. Churches become marked as “tough” churches, and prospective ministers will shy away from considering accepting a call.

Unresolved issues remain and power struggles are not dealt with. These issues show up later in other discussions and decisions. Supporters of the pastor and those seeking dismissal become pitted against one another, setting the church on a course of failure. Even if the whole church was in agreement, there are issues of grief, guilt, and anger to deal with. [David A. Myers, “Forced Terminations Affect Churches Too!” The Servant 7 (January 2006).]

The Expanding Mission of the Seminary

Some will wonder why Columbia, as a seminary, would take on addressing forced clergy terminations. One answer is that our mission and commitment to our students goes beyond the academic preparation for ministry.

Ministry is hard and getting harder. We know some of our graduates (perhaps up to a fourth if statistics hold) will experience a forced termination at some point during their ministry vocation. We want to be here for them, as much as we were during their preparation for ministry. The Ministering to Ministers program provides multiple resources for clergy in crisis. The Wounded Clergy Retreat for clergy and their spouses offers a week-long experience for support and healing. We offer the services of an attorney to address severance and employment issues if needed. In addition, we provide up to three paid sessions with therapist for those who desire it. The Friends for the Journey are conversation companions who themselves understand the experience of a forced termination. In addition, we offer programs for developing pastoral emotional intelligence and competencies in ministry leadership.

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