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Fewer pastor/staff terminations reported

ATLANTA (BP)–Forced terminations in the Southern Baptist Convention were down during 2006, but those who issued the latest report say work remains to be done to reconcile conflicts between pastors and congregations.

The Southern Baptist Church-Minister Relations Association found that 680 fulltime and bivocational pastors were forced out of their positions in 2006, plus 265 staff members.

While the total of 945 is 27 percent lower than the 1,302 reported for 2005, a former LifeWay Christian Resources staff member who conducted the survey pointed out that the report lacked input from four state conventions.

Barney Self, a former pastoral counselor with LifeWay, said the omissions mean the actual number of terminations may have been closer to 1,100.

The Southern Baptist Church-Minister Relations Association, encompassing state convention officials who work in the area of church-pastoral relations, compiles its annual survey with the help of nearly 1,100 SBC directors of missions from across the county.

Their findings from 2006 show that control issues were the top reason for staff dismissals, the same reason that has topped the surveys since they were initiated in 1996.

The second through fifth most common reasons were the church’s resistance to change; poor people skills of the pastor; a pastor’s leadership style being too strong; and the church being in conflict when the pastor arrived.

Reasons 6 through 10 were the same as the previous year: Decline in attendance; a pastor’s leadership style being too weak; a pastor’s administrative incompetence; sexual misconduct; and conflict with other staff.

Kenneth Keene, who will assume the presidency of the association in July, described terminations as “one of the most serious difficulties [in Southern Baptist life]. If a church is in conflict, it’s not going to grow.

“And it sends a negative message to the community. It’s hard for a church to be in conflict and for the community not to know about it,” said Keene, a consultant in church-minister relations for the Georgia Baptist Convention.

Self, now a marriage and family therapist in Nashville, Tenn., said the report doesn’t take into account pastors whose resignations don’t show up in the statistics.

“How many pastors left because the chairman of deacons sidled up and said, ‘If you resign, we’ll take care of you; if you don’t, we’ll fire you’?” Self asked. “How much of that goes on?”

During his eight years with LifeWay, Self said he handled 4,300 phone calls and heard so many horror stories that after awhile he could finish the typical details upon hearing a brief summary of an incident.

“I’ve known pastors to be fired for instituting an evangelism program because it’s going to bring people into the church and they won’t look like existing members,” Self said. “It’s a country club church where people are trying to surround themselves with people like themselves.

“We need to bring people into the church, whether they’re black, Hispanic, Asian or low-income,” Self added. “Jesus didn’t make those distinctions, but we do.”

While no numbers were available on dismissed pastors’ length of tenure, Self said previous research showed an average of about three years –- two years shy of retired LifeWay President James T. Draper Jr.’s estimate that it takes five years for a pastor to build enough relationships and trust to effectively lead a congregation.

“Sometimes pastors unknowingly trigger these storms by trying to do too much too soon,” Self said. “Part of the time it’s a grace issue and part of the time it’s a failure of pastors to understand how to lead.”

Keene is concerned over the continuing presence of sexual misconduct, which ranked in the top 10 for the first time in 2005 and maintained its ninth-place standing in 2006.

That takes in everything from inappropriate relationships with a member of the opposite sex to accessing pornography sites on the Internet, Keene said.

“That’s a growing concern,” Keene said of pastors visiting porn sites. “Those incidents would be at a higher rate than relationships with another person.”

In churches experiencing conflict, Keene noted, problems typically revolve around a discontented minority.

The majority of people in a church usually want problems resolved and are not drawing lines into a “winner versus loser” category, he said.

“Most people in a church are good, godly people who want Christ to be honored,” Keene said. “They’re not going to choose sides. Because of that, they are willing to adopt steps to work towards resolving conflict.”

Keene’s two-man department currently is working with four churches in conflict, a process that can take anywhere from six to 18 months to resolve.

Part of the formula for success is intervening before relationships are ruptured so badly that the pastor and congregation can’t rebuild trust, he said.

“Our success rate is pretty high,” Keene said. “It’s gratifying to see a church work it out. In the last few years, I don’t know of a situation where there has been an all-out split.”

Sylvan Knobloch, secretary-treasurer of the church-ministers relations association, described some of the conflict within churches as generational.

Knobloch, director of church staff development ministries for the Illinois Baptist State Association, said those who favor a program-driven mindset often clash with younger leaders who are more comfortable building relationships and favor flexibility.

Traditionalists, for example, think Sunday School should be at the church on Sunday morning, while younger pastors may schedule cell groups and home Bible studies in different locations on various days, Knobloch explained.

“I think we’re on the crest of a wave,” Knobloch said. “I think there’s a shift coming as a result of some of these changes, although I don’t think we’ll see many changes in the next few years.”

Knobloch said when the SBC gets on the other side of these generational conflicts, it will become more effective at taking the Gospel to the marketplace.

“A lot of churches aren’t going to be able to make those changes,” Knobloch said. “In Southern Baptist life, we can make Christianity attending church three times a week. I think it’s more than that. It’s a lifestyle. It’s life transformation.”
Ken Walker is a freelance writer based in Huntington, W.Va.

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