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Pastoral termination common but oftern avoidable, experts say

NASHVILLE (BP) — As many as four in ten pastors will be forced to leave a church — either by firing or pressured resignation — at least once during their ministry careers, according to researchers.

But experts in pastoral ministry say many forced terminations can be prevented by wise leadership, and very few terminations disqualify a pastor from future ministry.

“Sometimes the best pastors are still going to be in bad situations, and they have to know how to handle it when it comes and still walk with the Lord,” Hershael York, a preaching professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky., told Baptist Press. “The main thing a guy has to realize is that even when we go through this, it just cannot affect our faith and trust in Christ.”

Preventing terminations

Between 23 and 41 percent of pastors experience “forced termination” at least once, according to an article published last year in the Journal of Religion and Health. Some 452 Southern Baptist pastors and staff members were forcibly terminated in 2012, according to a forced terminations report compiled by state Baptist convention workers who deal with church in conflict.

The most common causes of forced termination among Southern Baptists are “control issues,” “pastor’s leadership style” and “poor people skills on the part of the pastor,” according to the forced terminations report. Among the top 15 causes of forced terminations, only two are related to sin by the pastor — “ethical misconduct” at no. 8 and “sexual misconduct” at no. 10.

The “main cause” of terminations “is almost always personality conflict,” York said. Church members “buy on emotion and justify with facts. If a pastor does something that emotionally ticks someone off, what they’ll often do is start looking for a justification of why they don’t like that guy. It may be something fairly trivial and they know that, and so they can’t say the trivial thing that upsets them. Then they’ll look for the thing they can use” to force the pastor out.

Developing good people skills is a key facet of establishing a pastor’s ministry and guarding against forced termination, York said, noting that ministers must “think on the perceptual level” and determine how they can speak the truth without being “unnecessarily offensive.”

Among the most self-defeating statements a pastor can make are possessive references like “my church” and “my pulpit,” York said. He also cautioned against appearing arrogant and advised pastors to express their love for the church frequently.

“A pastor really needs to tell his church he’s grateful to be there, he’s thankful to be their pastor, he loves them,” York said. “It’s just hard for people to dislike somebody who’s always being grateful and expressing his affection for them.”

Social media and text messages make it easier than ever to stay in touch with church members and express affection, York said, though he cautioned pastors to use social media appropriately.

When conflict comes

Even when a pastor has good people skills, occasions may arise when a faction in the church pressures him to resign. In such instances, Jeff Iorg urged the pastor to seek outside help and pursue dialogue rather than conflict.

Baptist associations, state conventions and independent mediation ministries all offer assistance to pastors and congregations experiencing conflict, Iorg, president of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP. He added that directors of missions and neighboring pastors can be valuable in helping to resolve conflict.

“Sometimes it’s hard for pastors to admit that they’re wrong,” that “they need to adjust” or that “church members are perhaps right” in their perception of problems, Iorg said. “An outsider can help” pastors see their mistakes and adjust.

Iorg acknowledged “there are people who are so entrenched in their opposition or so angry or so bitter or so difficult that [outside help] won’t solve the problem.”

Confrontational meetings and votes are almost never the best forum in which to settle disputes between a congregation and pastor, Iorg said.

“Pastors — unless there’s a clear doctrinal or moral issue in play — don’t need to force division into a church, if at all possible,” he said. “So they need to be as patient as possible to bring about a solution that doesn’t involve that kind of public confrontation.”

Roger S. Oldham, vice president for convention communications and relations with the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, said a 1986 article in The Quarterly Review, a publication formerly produced by the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) proved helpful to him many times in counseling pastors facing pressure to resign. The article advised pastors not to be intimidated into a resignation at the first signs of conflict with individual church members.

“Differences of opinion about vision and leadership within a local church are inevitable,” Oldham, a longtime pastor before assuming his current role at the EC, told BP in written comments. “Though powerful personalities can make it seem the easier way out, uprooting one’s family, with all the upheaval that entails, is seldom the best way to deal with those differences.”

The article, titled “Forced Termination?” and written by Howard V. Pendley III, summarized common arguments made by church members seeking a pastor’s resignation — including the “it’s better for your family” argument — and showed how those arguments are often inaccurate.

“It is seldom ‘better’ for one’s family to abruptly sever their friendship networks, move to a new location and face economic uncertainty merely because a few members may be dissatisfied with the pastor’s vision for the church,” Oldham said. Church members who use this line of reasoning “often show their own lack of support within the congregation and hope the pastor will meekly acquiesce to their wishes,” he said.

Other arguments discussed in the article include:

— “A large number of the members have expressed dissatisfaction with your ministry.”

Is the supposedly dissatisfied group “composed essentially of a fringe group of perennial malcontents; or does it represent the most highly respected, mainstream leadership of the church?” Pendley wrote. “If it is the former, the pastor may be intimidated into resigning; but so long as he maintains the support of the latter group, it’s not going to be easy to terminate him forcibly.”

— “Please don’t force us to take this to the church. If you do, there will be a terrible church fight, and the congregation will probably split.”

Pendley noted in response, “Churches do split; sometimes it’s better for everyone concerned if they do. But a church rarely splits over a dispute concerning its pastor. Unless the minister leaves, taking with him a substantial number of the church members, it’s not likely that the church will split. When the smoke clears, however the vote comes out, the composition of the church will usually be almost exactly what it was before the vote was taken.”

— “Pastor, everyone knows that it’s easier to find a job when you’ve got a job. We won’t be unreasonable. We’ll give you up to thirty days (or ninety days, or six months) to relocate. Your next church doesn’t even have to know about all this trouble.”

While it is true that finding a job is easier when a person has a job, “it’s unrealistic to believe that the pastor’s prospective new church won’t have investigated extensively enough to know at least something about the circumstances under which he left his former church,” Pendley wrote.

Pendley also presented do’s and don’ts for pastors under fire, including:

— Don’t panic. “You almost never have to make an instantaneous decision. Don’t let your critics force you to do so.”

— Don’t be intimidated.

— Don’t let the matter come to the church for a vote unless you’re reasonably sure you will be sustained.

— Do conduct a discreet poll of as many of the significant congregational leaders as you can identify.

When a ministry ends

If a pastor is forced to resign or is voted out, he is not necessarily disqualified from future ministry unless he leaves because of personal immorality, Iorg said. After a period of emotional and spiritual healing, a terminated minister may serve fruitfully once again.

“There are two classes of mistakes that leaders make,” Iorg said. “One is the mistakes that disqualify us from future service. But the other one is the mistakes that only disqualify us from our current position, and those happen to many people in life, where you simply for whatever reason are no longer suited for a position and it’s time to move on to another one and to learn from the past and be better in the future.”

Sylvan Knobloch, director of church health and staff development at the Illinois Baptist State Association, said pastors who have experienced forced termination should tend quickly to their families’ emotional health.

“Recognize the emotional trauma and its effects on the family,” Knobloch told BP in written comments. “Inquire of your insurance carrier if your health insurance policy includes mental health services. Ask your state convention what services are available to help the family through this time.

“Often we assume termination only affects the pastor. However, in reality the wife loses her friends both inside and outside the church. She may be forced to leave a job or career she finds fulfilling. The children leave their friends through no fault of their own. The children may be bullied in school by former friends from the church…. It is imperative that churches, pastors and denominational leaders understand this emotional stress and provide counseling services to the pastor and his family,” Knobloch said.

Terminated pastors should also participate in retreats hosted by independent ministries and state conventions, Knobloch said, noting that the Illinois state association hosts such a retreat twice a year.

Knobloch cautioned against hurrying into the next ministry assignment too quickly — a sentiment echoed by Iorg, who said pastors in transition should consider getting another job for at least a short time to heal and adjust.

“Do not be in a hurry to find another church,” Knobloch said. He advised terminated pastors to ask questions such as: “What are my gifts, talents, experiences and abilities? In what ministry or church has God used my gifts and abilities, allowing me to flourish? Where have I been most successful in ministry? Why?”

Knobloch concluded, “Based on this knowledge you will be able to determine the kind of church environment where you will be able to flourish in the ministry.”
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).