How to Fire a Minister – and Have Him Like It!

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As the incoming pastor, I asked the church committee not to terminate Manley, a staff member whose chief failing was that he was ineffective. The committee was willing to cut him loose before I arrived to save me the trouble.

“Give me a chance to work with him,” I said quickly and perhaps a little naively.

A year later, after finding him lazy and incapable of doing the work his position required and with no other spot on the church staff suitable for him, I released him.

He was so angry at me.

That evening, I was complaining to my wife about the unfairness of his criticism. Hadn’t I saved his job for a full year? Hadn’t we given him ample warning and opportunities to improve? Weren’t we providing generous severance?

Margaret said, “Joe, be realistic.  You want to fire a man and have him like it.”

I guess I did. (His anger made me feel that I had failed him in some way, even though the personnel committee met with Manley that very evening to assure him the decision was unanimous. That helped me a little, but not much. Manley moved away and soon got on with a smaller church across the state line.)

Is there a way to terminate a minister (senior pastor, associate, staffer, etc) and have him like it? Maybe there is.

Only yesterday, a friend called to say their bishop had just terminated their pastor. The firing was abrupt and effective immediately, with the congregation receiving no explanation or advance warning. The minister is gone and Sunday they will have a substitute in the pulpit. Everyone is left to wonder what went on, what the pastor did or did not do, and what they are not being told.

My friend said, “The way it was handled makes it look like the pastor is a criminal.” I agree that it does.

Now, if he was indeed guilty of something immoral or illegal, unscriptural or unethical, he should leave the pulpit immediately. Otherwise, his dismissal could have been handled more gracefully so as to bless the congregation and to leave intact his future ministry in another church.

As it stands now, the congregation is stunned and angry, the pastor is left with no income to provide for his family, and the future of his service in the denomination is in doubt.

We cannot stress too strongly that if the pastor has done something illegal (e.g., embezzle funds) or immoral (e.g., commit adultery), unscriptural (e.g., violate essential doctrines) or unethical (e.g., lying, cheating), he needs to go and quickly.

In cases where the minister’s transgressions are of a major magnitude–such as child molestation, rape, etc.–then, not only does he need to be terminated immediately but the legal authorities must be called in.

Otherwise, the church and/or denominational leadership needs to cool it and act slowly and responsibly.  Everyone has a lot at stake in this matter.

The church must not be seen as running off a minister who was doing a good job. Even if there are reasons justifying his dismissal, the Lord’s people must act by the highest standards. Later, when they go seeking the next pastor, he will be impressed by the maturity with which they dealt with this difficult matter and not fearful concerning his own future with the people.

The denomination has a lot at stake. Its leaders will want to do nothing to jeopardize the minister’s future service or the church’s well-being. When these things are poorly handled, churches have been known to withhold contributions to the national body and even to leave the denomination.

The minister wants to bless the church he’s leaving and if possible to keep the relationship with his denominational leaders intact.  If he walks away with grace and the blessing of everyone involved, other churches looking for pastors will be encouraged to approach him as a candidate for their opening.

Here, then, are our suggestions for “firing a minister and having him like it.”

1) Don’t surprise him.  If his work is unsatisfactory, the appropriate person or committee should work with him to make improvements. If it becomes obvious that things are “not working out,” he should know this well in advance and be encouraged to look for other places of ministry.

2) Bring other church leaders into the discussion. If one or two leaders in the church force the pastor out–even with justification–their action will appear high-handed and many in the congregation will turn against them. The well-being and harmony of the membership should be uppermost in the minds of everyone.

3) Give him time. From the moment it becomes apparent the minister needs to leave, he should be encouraged to “get your resume out there,” and be given time away to make whatever contacts and arrangements he must. This must be done quietly since other churches will shy away from a minister being terminated by his present church.

4) Give him counsel.  Bring in someone (from outside the church) in the denomination with excellent counseling skills to meet with the minister. Anything this consultant can do to prepare him for the transition will be beneficial.

5) Work out details of the termination with him. If he lives in church-owned housing, how long will he be allowed to stay? (Be as generous as possible.) He will need money to tide his family over until he finds another place of service. He will need health care, and possibly office help.

6) Recognize that if he is not working out at your church, the minister is usually as unhappy as the congregation is, and therefore, his moving away could be a win-win thing. I know several ministers who give thanks for the day they were terminated. The daily pressure was instantly gone, and with continued support from their previous church, they had time to rest and put their efforts into finding another position.

7) Make the church’s ongoing support conditional upon his conduct. That is to say, if he goes down the street and starts a competing church, the support from his former church ends immediately.  If he is badmouthing the leadership of the former church and creating unrest in the membership, the support is terminated.  Someone may criticize this agreement as buying his silence, and on the surface it may appear to be so, but no church should go on funding the activities of one who is stirring up dissension. This should be a no-brainer.

After doing these things, will the terminated minister “like” it?

Probably not at first. Only after he finds the next assignment to be a better match than the former will he begin to see the hand of the Lord in this and give thanks.

And even if it isn’t everything he could have preferred–even if, as in my case over two decades ago, he goes to a church offering less pay and greater problems–a mature servant of the Lord will still look to the Heavenly Father for it to all make sense some day.

In our case, leaving the large sophisticated church with the new facilities and the prestige accompanying such a place and moving to a congregation one half the size but with twice the debt turned out to be such a God-thing I’m surprised we didn’t see it from the first. After helping lead that church through a healing time (18 months before I arrived, the church had split over the antics of a pastor), we ended up with a healthy and loving congregation where I remained for nearly 14 years. When I left, it was to become the leader of the 130 churches of our denomination in metro New Orleans. A little over a year after we took the position, Hurricane Katrina blew through and flooded most of the city and destroyed many of our churches. The rest of my five-years in that position were devoted to helping our churches rebuild and our pastors resume their ministries.

To this day, I thank the Father for trusting me with that assignment. I suspect–knowing a little of how He operates–had we not been faithful when the previous church cut us loose, He would not have entrusted us with the privilege of serving Him in such a crucial, meaningful way as this.

Sometimes, being terminated is the best thing that ever happened to you.

Postscript: 

Some years ago, our former staffer Manley saw an article I had written about my difficult experience in the church he and I had served, and he contacted me. We re-established a relationship of brothers, and within a couple of years, he had passed away. His attitude of kindness was a gift from the Lord to me, and I will always be grateful. 

 

 

 


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About Joe McKeever

Dr. Joe McKeever is a Preacher, Cartoonist, and retired Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans.

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