March 19, 2018—Not too many years ago a popular song reminded us that some of the things we least expect can happen to us. Forced terminations of pastors certainly fit within this expectation. Most pastors have never faced a forced termination. Most have heard of an incident here and there but believe somehow it could never happen to them. The statistics should make us look again. It is estimated that across America more than 200 pastors are forced out weekly. For a few, the process involves a formal proceeding. For most the process involves a “gang” of three who appear without warning and suggest the pastor should leave immediately for the “good” of the church. Don’t think. Don’t ask why. Don’t resist. Just go.
By the time the gang of three arrives there is little chance of reversing the process. In most a common thread has emerged. That thread is how unaware most of the pastors were that a precipitous action was coming. MTM has developed a three-sided approach to this problem. First, we encourage Prevention both before and after the call. Second, we provide Protection through legal help and counseling. And, third, we help them experience Peace instead of chaos. This article, however, focuses on Prevention.
Prevention includes taking action before you accept the call and put the safeguards in place after you are in the field. We hope a review of some of these Preventions we recommend will help avoid a visit from the gang of three.
Actions Before the Call
1. Be honest with yourself in what you see and hear. Don’t be so committed to accepting a particular call that you miss or ignore the clear warnings that this call is a potential time bomb. Often we, as pastors, say, “I know what has gone on before but it will be different this time. I can change them.” Wrong! All you are hearing is an ego that has lost its gyroscope.
2. Every church has a history. Look into it. Ask who was there before? For how long? Why did they leave? Ask if there are dominant factions or political bases within the church. The Search Committee is going to tell you their church is perfect and has no problems. In their eyes that may be true. Don’t stop there. Ask the former pastors. Ask pastors who serve in the same area. Ask people in the community about the reputation and character of the church. Don’t be afraid to ask. Do your due diligence. If you find a church has had three or more pastors in the last ten years, run the other way. To everyone else that will be a message that something isn’t right. God may be calling you to a new ministry, but not everyone is right. Don’t be afraid to say “NO.”
3. Ask the Search Committee to give you copies of the Constitution and By-Laws, plus any handbooks or policy statements the church might have adopted. Read them. Look for termination provisions (They usually don’t exist). Ask for clarification if you are not sure what something means. Don’t be afraid you will scare the Committee away. If your questioning does, you are probably better off. Ask for copies of the minutes of the meetings of the congregation, the deacons and the trustees for the last five years. Look for signs and problems in the past and how they were handled. Face it, there are dysfunctional and sick churches that not even Wayne Oates on a good day could cure. If he couldn’t, do you really think you can? Be honest.
4. Listen through what the Search Committee is telling you. See the underlying truths. Remember, they have a product to sell – themselves and the church. Put their flattery aside. It will only cloud your ability to make good decisions. Peel the onion until you get to the truth of what is being said. Don’t be afraid to ask. If they won’t tell you, ask people outside the Committee or end your quest.
5. Don’t be rushed into a decision. Don’t let the press of a super salesperson push you to a decision before you are ready.
6. Ask for the offer in writing. A letter will do, provided it sets forth what is expected of both sides. It would be better to have a formal contract, but most Search Committees react negatively if you tell them you want your lawyer to prepare an instrument to document the call. (MTM has developed a call document that is thorough, available, and protective of both sides. Feel free to use it.)
7. If you have survived all of the steps to here and if there is still a nagging doubt, say “No.” It is a lot easier to start a new search than to undo a mess that’s out of hand.
In the Field
1. Develop in the parish an outside support group of other ministers – 3-5 people. Meet regularly. Be open and honest with each other. Share and listen. Seek their counsel. You are not Superman/Superwoman. You were not given a cape at graduation. Even pastors need to breathe in and be supported.
2. Develop a relationship outside the church with some attorney who can advise you if things get difficult.
3. Remember that whatever hierarchy body exists within your church will help, but only to a point. Pastors come and go. Be aware of the potential for a bias.
4. Encourage your church once you are established and the relationship is good (it always is in the first six-twelve months) to review its Constitution and By-laws to assure they take into account as much due process as possible.
5. Insist on annual reviews and evaluations, both of you and of the church.
6. Listen to what others are reporting they are hearing. Don’t ignore the criticism. If a problem appears to be brewing, go to the persons involve alone or with a trusted other. Try to resolve the problem. Ignoring problems does not make them go away. They only fester into something worse. If the problem persists, or you keep hearing it, suggest mediation. (If you mediate, always use an outsider, preferably a trained mediator. Never accept as a mediator someone whose bias is apparent – an Association head, a former pastor of the church, a church member.)
7. Educate your leadership in problem solving. Teach them how to recognize problems within the church, how to face them, and how to resolve them. If you are not equipped to do this, ask others who have the expertise to help. While these are some of the things you can do to protect yourself from an unwanted visitation, the most important thing is to remain vigilant, to expect the best but to be prepared for the worst. After all, it could happen to you.
By Archibald Wallace, III, JD, MDiv
The Center for Lifelong Learning has partnered with the Ministering to Ministers Foundation to help address the crises of clergy forced termination under its Lilly Foundation funded Thriving in Ministry initiative. If you have experienced a forced termination from your ministry consider attending the Healthy Transitions Wellness Retreats for Ministers and Spouses retreat during October 8-11, 2018 for clergy and their spouses at the Center for Lifelong Learning.
This retreat is part of the Pastoral Excellence Program of the Center for Lifelong Learning. If you have experienced a forced termination, or are in the midst of conflict that may lead to a decision to leave your church, this event is for you and your spouse. If you know of a ministry colleague who may benefit from this experience, please recommend the retreat. Space is limited, please register early. This feature is used with permission.
For more information, and to register for the wellness retreat, contact:
Catherine M. Ralcewicz, Executive Director
Ministering to Ministers Foundation, Inc.
Phone: (804) 594-2556