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Study: 1,300-plus dismissed from Baptist church staffs in ‘05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The general inability to “get along” is again at the root of the top five reasons staff members in Southern Baptist churches are terminated from their positions, according to a study by LifeWay Christian Resources’ department of pastoral ministries.

Relational issues top the list for the 10th consecutive year, according to Bob Sheffield, a pastoral ministries specialist. The top five are: control issues (who’s going to run the church), poor people skills, churches’ resistance to change, pastor’s leadership style being too strong, and churches already in conflict when the pastor arrived.

“The interesting thing since we began doing this study in 1996 is that the top five have been the top five every year,” Sheffield said. “The only difference is in their order from year to year. We consistently see the inability to develop and maintain healthy relationships within the church as the reason for dismissals.”

The study is compiled in cooperation with Baptist state convention church ministry relations teams and directors of missions, and Sheffield tabulates the data. Twenty-nine conventions participated this year, marking the highest total in the study’s 10-year history.

At least 1,302 staff members were dismissed in 2005: 314 bivocational, 655 full-time pastors and 333 full-time staff, the study found. The totals for full-time pastors and staff represent the highest totals during the 10 years, but Sheffield said the numbers could be slightly skewed because the highest number of conventions reporting in any one year in the past was 26 (1998, 1999 and 2003).

“The other thing to consider is that this just represents the best data we can gather on forced terminations,” he said. “It doesn’t include those who were pressured out.”


Sheffield said that a pastor’s administrative incompetence (No. 8) and sexual misconduct (No. 9) cracked the top 10 for the first time and ethical misconduct (mismanaged monies, dishonesty, etc.) made it into the top 20 for the first time at No. 11.

“Most people would probably think that ethical issues or sexual misconduct would have been one of the leading reasons for dismissals,” Sheffield said. “Although I am glad they are not, I am disappointed to see sexual misconduct creeping higher on the list, and ethical issues making the top 20. Let’s face it, this is not an uplifting list to begin with, but I’d love to see those numbers decline.”

Another first in the top 20 is disagreement over doctrine (No. 12).

“It is difficult to know exactly what that means from the way the question is asked on the survey,” Sheffield said, “so I won’t begin to speculate about what that means, but it has never been this big of an issue before.”


Sheffield said much of the conflict that results in dismissals could be avoided if pulpit committees and pastors would interact better during the interview process, and he offered some tips.

“Pastors ought to ask hard questions,” he said. “They should ask to see the minutes from the last several business meetings. They ought to check the [church’s] constitution and bylaws and the annual reports to the association and state. They should talk to area pastors about the perception of the church. They should ask if there have been previous terminations, the tenure of the previous three or four pastors and why they left.

“Pastors should do their due diligence and as with the pulpit committee, both should be looking for the right match,” Sheffield added. “Bottom line, however, is that if God is calling a pastor to a particularly difficult situation and he knows that going in, he should go into it with his eyes open understanding it might be difficult. Obedience to God should always be the overriding factor.”

Pulpit committees ought to represent the full church, Sheffield said, but that’s not always the case.

“They often represent the more progressive segment of the church and what it wants to see happen, and not necessarily what the whole church wants to see happen,” Sheffield said. “Some people will say a pastor search committee was dishonest. That is sometimes the case, but I believe more often the people on the committee are communicating what they’d like to see happen and not necessarily what is happening in a church.”

Sheffield said pulpit committees should check a pastor’s references beyond what is given and can even ask other pastors in the community where the pastor is located for references. Sheffield also recommended two resources available through the pastoral ministries department to guide search committees: information at www.lifeway.com/pastors and the “Pastor Search Committee Handbook,” available at LifeWay Christian Stores.

The Oct. 2 edition of “Inside LifeWay,” a news and information podcast produced by LifeWay Christian Resources’ corporate communications department, features a conversation with Sheffield and Barney Self, a counselor who manages LifeWay’s LeaderCare Helpline. During the podcast, the two discuss a range of topics related to the study, including how churches and staff can avoid a forced termination. Inside LifeWay is available as a streaming audio file or mp3 download at www.lifeway.com/insidelifeway.