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“Do you think you can find a new job in six months?” asked the committee chairperson.
I had just sat down on the parlor sofa for the annual personnel review, the one the senior pastor had always dismissed.
But there he was too, at the other end of the sofa. Awkward silence.
This encounter was almost twenty years ago.
Yet it has shaped my ministry more than any single incident, either before or since.
I was reeling.
I slammed a few doors.
When I got home, I began taking off wallpaper with a vengeance in a bathroom that had needed attention since we moved into the house.
My arrangement was not a public termination.
But it was a forced one.
Several months later I announced to the Session that I was resigning without a call.
This is Presbyterian code language for forced terminations.
There are a lot of costs to a forced termination.
Pastoral departures even under the best of circumstances are difficult. What does your family do after the church “fires” you?
What sort of cover story do you create to explain why you have left?
What do you do or say with peers who may not know anything about this?
And how do you relate with those who do?
I was fortunate to work out a generous severance.
I left with many relationships seemingly in a good place.
But over the years I realized there was damage that I did not know about.
However, no one at the time sat down to talk through where things had gone wrong.
No one from the church ever offered any reconciliation.
There was a nice reception and some lovely gifts for my wife and children, and I received a check.
Lovely parting gifts.
Beyond that I was fortunate to have good relationships with the local presbytery.
I found a new way of doing ministry.
I did not find a “new job” in six months.
But I did find a new way of serving that has lasted ever since.
There have been two organizations that helped me navigate these waters.
Prior to this, I had been involved in Leadership In Ministry (LIM) for a few years as a continuing education event.
Everything I had learned in LIM was a resource to navigate the waters of involuntary separation.
About ten years later, I experienced a Ministering to Ministers (MTM) “Wellness Retreat for Clergy and Spouses.”
While LIM focused on the practice of ministry across contexts, MTM was laser focused to the situation of pastors and their spouses dealing with involuntary termination of any kind.
The MTM retreat provided a place to share with those who had walked this path.
The Family System Theory of LIM received flesh through MTM. My physician father told me that one healing modality was the “tincture of time.”
Time can help.
But even after a bone breaks and “heals,” the fissure can be detected in an x-ray.
So, it is with forced pastoral terminations.
MTM is a resource not just for the moment, but to build a path to the future.
Joel Alvis is the Mission Coordinator and Stated Clerk for Cherokee Presbytery of the PCUSA. From 2004 to 2019 he served eleven congregations in ministry transition settings, aka as “interim pastor.” He is on the faculty of Leadership in Ministry.