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Survey shows declining numbers in forced terminations of pastors

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Fewer Southern Baptist pastors are being involuntarily terminated by their churches, but the reasons for firings have not changed in recent years, according to results of a survey mailed to all Southern Baptist associations in early 1998.
Responses from associations to state convention offices represent 35,812 of the denomination’s 40,877 churches and indicate forced terminations declined in 1997 by 29 percent compared to 1996 totals. The decline in reported firings takes on additional significance since 1996 responses came from only 14 states predominantly from the Bible belt, compared to 1997 responses from 24 states across the SBC.
The survey, sponsored by church-minister relations directors for the state Baptist conventions, was coordinated by LeaderCare, a ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. LeaderCare offers a personal development network of resources, including crisis help.
According to Norris Smith, a LeaderCare consultant whose specialty area includes forced terminations, 892 pastors were removed from their leadership roles between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 1997. The total compares to 1,259 forced terminations for the same period in 1996.
Smith said some totals referenced in the past by a variety of denominational sources have included staff positions other than pastor, with estimates of those who might not have been reported or interpreted as terminations. The 1997 data also included reports of an additional 300 full-time church staff members who were forced to leave their positions during the year. With the recent back-to-back surveys using identical questions related to pastors only, he said, “we feel our new statistics on pastoral terminations are current and reliable.”
Participants were provided a definition of a forced termination as “the severance of a formal relationship between a church and pastor either by coercion or vote.”
The number of full-time pastors who were fired dropped from 818 in 1996 to 607 in 1997. Instances of bivocational pastors forced to leave their pulpits declined from 441 to 285.
Smith said the most common issues that led churches to vote their pastors out of their jobs in 1997 have not changed from those cited in 1996.
“The top reason for firing pastors is still one of control — who is going to run the church,” Smith said. “Following that, in order of frequency, are poor people skills on the part of the pastor, the church’s resistance to change, a pastoral leadership style that is too strong and a church already in conflict when the pastor arrived.”
Other reasons cited by churches include a weak pastoral leadership style, the pastor’s administrative incompetence, declines in attendance, pastoral conflict with other staff, sexual misconduct, a tenure perceived as too long, ethical misconduct related to finances or other dishonesty, disagreement over doctrine and rapid growth.
Smith said while no dominant factor emerges in analyzing reasons for the decline, state church-minister relations directors and LifeWay’s LeaderCare consultants have isolated several contributing factors, listed in no particular order of importance:
— Church minister-relations directors, as well as associational directors of missions, have taken a more assertive role in training church pastor search committees.
— The use of intentional interims helps conflicted congregations to heal.
— The number of seminars on the subject of church conflict has increased.
— Churches are using more mediators than ever before to guide them in solving problems.
— Feedback from ministers who have participated in a personal and professional growth seminar and career assessment indicates healthier ministers making healthier responses to conflict.
— High visibility and awareness of the problem provided by leaders, including LifeWay President James T. Draper Jr., and Annuity Board President O.S. Hawkins, causes ministers and churches to seek help before resolution becomes impossible. The additional awareness provided by groups such as “Wounded Heroes Ministries,” led by Southern Baptist evangelist Freddie Gage, also has heightened interest among churches.
— The strengthened role of church-minister relations directors creates a safety net for ministers to seek help before problems become unmanageable.
— The availability of the LeaderCare Crisis Hotline (1-888-789-1911) gives ministers and laymen a sounding board for help in processing a healthier response to problems.
— Deacon training in recent years has included an increased focus on responding effectively to conflict.
— Directors of missions continue to ask for training in conflict management skills.
The 1997 figures also compare favorably to results of similar surveys in the 1980s, Smith observed.
“In 1984, a study on forced termination in the SBC indicated 1,056 pastors were terminated annually. Among causes cited were lack of unity and the presence of factions in the church, conflict over leadership styles, relational incompetency and tenure.
“Four years later, we repeated the survey to find forced termination totals had increased to 1,392 annually. Primary reasons given included lack of communication, problems related to immorality and unethical conduct, performance dissatisfaction, authoritarian leadership style, power struggles and personality conflicts.”
On a related topic, results of a 1990 survey to gain information on conflict resolution indicated when churches are in serious conflict, 90 percent of those congregations lose their pastor voluntarily or through forced termination. Reasons for pastor-church difficulties most often cited in that study included personality conflicts, control of the church, pastoral failure to meet congregational expectations, authoritarian leadership style, declining attendance and weak pastoral leadership style.
“Conflict resolution and responding to crisis calls from ministers and churches continue to be among the priorities of LeaderCare,” Smith said. “While we are encouraged by improved figures, we know that new conflicts arise daily. Our goal is to continue working to decrease the numbers of forced terminations by dealing with the underlying issues.
“The partnership between state church-minister relations directors and LeaderCare represents Southern Baptists’ commitment to improved relationships and effective ministry for pastors and congregations.”
People interested in resources for conflict resolution may contact the church-minister relations director of their state Baptist convention or LeaderCare at LifeWay Christian Resources, 127 Ninth Ave., N., Nashville, TN 37234-0166.

    About the Author

  • Charles Willis