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Clergy terminations ‘a picture of catastrophe’

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) — Jim served as pastor in a growing suburb for 14 years. One day a committee of leaders came to him with a document of resignation and a promised severance if he complied and kept quiet.

“What’s your biblical grounds for this?” he asked.

The men looked a bit sheepish, admitting there was none.

“You’re a loving pastor, but the church isn’t growing,” they said. “We’re convinced we need a stronger leader.”

— Bill served as associate minister at a church in a large city and was de facto pastor for several years while the church searched for a new pastor. His work included overseeing the construction of a multimillion dollar facility. The new pastor arrived in the fall and told Bill in January he should look for a new position so the pastor could hire a friend in Bill’s place. The pastor told Bill in April that his time was up and he must resign immediately.

— Harry was accused of having an improper relationship with a woman in the neighborhood. His elders asked for an immediate resignation. Though the denomination he was part of conducted a thorough inquiry and gave him complete exoneration, Harry’s job was gone.

What happens to ministers when they’re terminated? Studies show it often takes six months or more to find a new ministry position. Ministers may find themselves without income while conducting their job search. Often the terminated minister is not at his best and doesn’t interview well. He may become despondent at having lost his job as well as losing his circle of Christian friends in the church.

Jim, Bill and Harry (not their real names) found hope when they attended a Wellness Retreat sponsored by the Ministering to Ministers (MTM) Foundation. The July 28–Aug. 1 retreat was brought to the Samford University campus in Birmingham, Ala., by the university’s Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence.

Ten participants representing five states and four denominations shared their crisis stories and engaged in intensive individual and group therapy. They also heard from numerous experts including an attorney, a job counselor, a physical fitness instructor and spiritual leaders. Clinical psychologist Beverly Buston of Richmond, Va., served as resident therapist for the week.

“We can’t do everything in one week, but we can do several things that help a minister reorient himself and begin to heal,” MTM founder and director Charles Chandler said.

Chandler, an Alabama native now living in Richmond, Va., formed MTM in 1994 after his own involuntary termination as senior pastor. He found few resources for help and determined to use the insight he gained to help others. As Chandler often says to retreat participants, “All our experiences, no matter how painful, when given to God can bring good. But this doesn’t mean that bad things are good. Shabby treatment of ministers is still a bad thing.”

Chandler cited research by Kevin Leicht of the University of Iowa who wrote in his book “Professional Work” that the rate of clergy terminations is higher than the rate of coach terminations in the NFL — what Leicht called “a notoriously unstable profession.” Leicht postulated that the annual termination rate in the general workforce is a little more than 1 percent while the clergy termination rate is closer to 5 percent.

Dale Huff, director of the office of LeaderCare and church administration at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, estimated that some 80 Alabama Baptist ministers are terminated annually but added there are probably more whose circumstances are unreported.

“The reality is that every one of the terminations is a picture of catastrophe,” said Huff, who taught a leadership session at the MTM retreat. “The terminated minister and family is affected in so many ways: loss of income, loss of friends and support, loss of a church, which especially affects children who don’t understand why they can’t go to church with their friends anymore. A termination fractures trust in church leadership. It is a grief experience with the losses being multiple.”

Huff said the Board of Missions offers several resources to ministers in crisis including emergency financial assistance, counseling and career guidance. It also sponsors an annual retreat for terminated ministers at Shocco Springs Baptist Conference Center in Talledega and lends support to MTM’s annual Alabama retreat at Beeson.

Retreat participants learn about transferrable skills enabling them to make a living for themselves and their families.

Several state Baptist conventions around the country host similar events annually for terminated or embattled pastors in their regions.

According to Chandler, healing comes when ministers begin to forgive themselves and others and see themselves as persons of worth with marketable skills.

Sometimes the terminated minister is victimized by forces outside his control, Chandler said. At other times ministers make bad choices leading to crisis, but either way, “Don’t waste your pain. Grow from it. Wounded ministers can have a new dimension of ministry since we can grow strong at the broken places.”

MTM finds that about two-thirds of retreat participants go back into full-time ministry. The rest enter another vocation, work for para-church organizations or retire.
Michael J. Brooks is a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist (thealabamabaptist.org), where this article first appeared. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Michael J. Brooks/The Alabama Baptist