April 30, 2018—When we hear of a minister being terminated, we may think about a “gang of three” as the instigators and carriers of bad news that a minister must leave. Or we may think about the minister who was terminated and the family who had their world turned upside down by the very group that called the minister to be their leader and spiritual guide. I want to call your attention to a third party in this trying experience—the congregation.
It is often true that a significant number in the congregation may be kept in the dark through this experience. In fact, the perpetrators of this deed often press for secrecy and silence so that the congregation will never know the details. This is often done under the guise of not wanting the minister’s good name and reputation hurt within the congregation. This action is intended to force the resignation or termination and make the reasons look valid. Or there may be an appeal or veiled threat for the minister to talk to no one about what is occurring, and this is reported as a concern not to hurt the congregation. Often neither response is the right way for this information to be handled.
A congregation may be given very little consideration while the forces of termination are at work. The impact of forced termination cannot be underestimated. To say the congregation is not hurt is a lot like saying that in a divorce and custody trial no one is hurt. Among the areas of church life that may have long-term effects from a forced termination are the following:
- There is the initial hurt and disappointment experienced by many in the congregation over losing their minister. Many will feel betrayed if the minister leaves without being given the opportunity for appropriate closure. “I thought he really loved us, but he did not even say goodbye.” This contributes to a distrust of future ministers. Some congregants will choose never to get that close to a minister again. The minister’s participation in the lives of families through births, marriages, and deaths, endears the minister to the congregation. Often the bonding that occurs at those ministry touch points have not been sufficiently recognized or calculated by the opposition. The loss of these relationships tears at the heart of the church family.
- Surprising to many who lead in the termination effort of a minister, are those in the congregation who become angry that a small group took it upon themselves to terminate a minister without the input or authority of the congregation. Often the church approved process for such action was not followed. Members’ anger may later be evidenced in leaving the church to join other congregations because they don’t like “the way the church does its business.” Members usually want to have a say in the significant matters of the church and resent being left out of the process.
- When the settlement is made with the minister regarding severance and temporary use of the church-provided house or other considerations, supporters of the minister will be disturbed if the church fails to provide responsibly for the family while the minister seeks another church or other employment. They may, in fact, divert some of their giving directly to the minister who, they feel, has been mistreated. Hard feelings build against those who led in the forced termination followed by a close-fisted response to the need for financial support.
- With the passing of time, even those who agreed that it was best the minister leave may feel guilt over the way the process took place, the words and attitudes that were expressed, and the lack of support provided to the family forced out of their church. Such guilt festers until it erupts in other inappropriate behaviors by the congregation.
- The first forced termination often begins a history or pattern of dealing with differences in this same way. Once the congregation goes through such an experience, it is much more likely to happen again and again until it becomes routine, not unlike a dysfunctional family.
- The word gets around among churches and ministers that a particular church is hard on their pastors and how they fired the last one. Good names are damaged and seeking a new pastor becomes a difficult task. Search committees must concern themselves with how they will “spin the story” or explain the circumstances.
- When there is division in the congregation over termination, neighbors are at odds with each other, resentment builds, and friendships become strained.
With the mistaken notion that once the minister is gone the problem is solved, the conflict may continue and power struggles are never honestly faced. The unresolved issues are submerged, but in time will eventually show themselves in future discussions, decisions, and congregational processes.
- An “I’ll show you” attitude often develops between supporters of the pastor and those seeking his/her dismissal. This is a setup for failure because one group will not allow the other group to succeed, and even if the whole church is in agreement that a minister must leave, there is still grief, guilt, and other issues that must be dealt with. What went wrong? How did we call the wrong minister? What happened? This weakens a congregation’s spirit and confidence.
The forced termination of a minister not only impacts the minister, but also has long-term implications for the congregation if the issues are not dealt with in a healthy, redeeming way. The wounded minister moves on, but often the congregation is stuck in an unfinished and/or repetitive process, which hinders its healthy development through all areas of church life. Conflict happens. Solutions must be worked out. When termination is the result, the congregation suffers.
Dr. David Al Myers, DMin retired as the Director of Missions for the Hamilton County Baptist Association, Chattanooga, TN and has served as a member of the MTM Board of Trustees.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Center for Lifelong Learning has partnered with the Ministering to Ministers Foundation to help address the crises of clergy forced termination. 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. Watch for registration details on our Facebook page and on our webpage for course listings.
The Healthy Transitions Wellness Retreats for Ministers and Spouses 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. Registration for this event will open in March. Space is limited, please register early.
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
This program is underwritten by the Ministering to Ministers Foundation, Inc., and the Pastoral Excellence Program of the Center for Lifelong Learning under its Lilly Foundation funded Thriving in Ministry initiative.