Six Common Patterns in Toxic Churches That Fire Pastors

The title of this article might engender some visceral reactions. I get it. It is not a pleasant subject. For church members who have observed it taking place, it is a painful situation. For those pastors who have been fired, it is traumatic. It is traumatic for the pastor’s family as well.

Please read the title carefully. It is about toxic churches that fire pastors. Not all churches are toxic. There are occasions when the dismissal is warranted. This article is about dysfunctional churches firing pastors. 

I was prompted to write this article on such a sensitive subject after seeing an increase in the number of these dismissals. I wanted church members to understand what is taking place. And I am praying that some church members will speak up when these injustices take place. 

For certain, not all dismissals are alike. But when the toxic church dismisses a pastor, it is common for these six patterns to emerge.

1. There is a power and control issue behind the dismissal. Typically, the pastor has not bowed to the demands and preferences of a power group in the church. That power group is often serving on the specific boards or committees that can initiate a firing. At the very least, they have profound influences on those boards and committees.

2. Reasons for the firing are often not given to the congregation. While it might not be appropriate to give the details of the reasons behind the firing, there is rarely an occasion where silence is acceptable. For example, if the pastor has an affair with a church member, it is not always best to provide the sordid details since family members, including children, are innocent victims. But if the pastor had a moral failure, the church at least needs to know that general rationale for the dismissal.

3. The pastor is given a severance package in return for his silence. Don’t judge a pastor too harshly for this decision. It is not just about the money. Often, pastors don’t want their families exposed to a church fight that will not likely change the results. That issue leads to the next point. 

4. The pastor’s family is at least implicitly threatened if the pastor does not leave quietly. In several situations of which I have personal awareness, representatives of the power group let the pastor know that they “know things” about the pastor’s family, things that will be exposed if the pastor does not walk away quietly. Most pastors know that the “things” are lies, but they do not want to put their families through the false accusations. 

5. The power group demands that the pastor exit quickly. Many of the pastors do not get to say goodbye to the congregation. Those that do have that opportunity are warned sternly to say nothing negative. On some occasions, the pastors are escorted to their offices to get their belongings and leave. The emotional and psychological consequences on the pastors of such unjust actions can be massive. 

6. Most church members will not question or get involved in this injustice. They don’t want to rock the boat. They fear the power group. Their disposition is one of fear or avoidance. Often, the fired pastor is hurt more by the silence of the majority rather than the evil of the power group. But it is a sin to be silent when God has called us to speak. 

I pray that these travesties will diminish, but I see no sign that these injustices are declining. Pray for your pastor. Encourage your pastor. 

And have the courage to speak when injustices take place.

Posted on June 12, 2023

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Osvaldo Alvarado says on

    I’m an associate pastor at a church of about 400 people and experienced 5 of the 6 items on this list.
    I preached on a Sunday, asked to meet with the pastor on Thursday because things felt weird.
    The pastor clearly said I was not the problem and that he was busy with 2 things: 1. Issues at home and 2. Issues in the church. I pressed him a little on #2, wondering how I can help. He mentioned it was regarding the upcoming building campaign.
    Later Thursday, he asked me to come to the office Friday to meet with him and the lead elder.
    On Friday at 3 pm, I was told I was being let go and had until 6 pm to respond on what I wanted to do.
    As one commentator mentioned below, I saw this as a relief – but it still hurt. I also believe God uses situations like this to move us to the right positions – to his perfect will.

  • I wouldn’t look at this list to describe a church as toxic. Some of these items show a lack of transparency, but assuming that the BOD is elected on a somewhat regular schedule, that means that the congregation is in agreement with the Board’s decisions. In that case, this is really just a mismatch between pastor and church, in which case the pastor will always lose as the hired help.

    I think pastors get themselves into trouble when they think that they’re more than the job. Pastors are the mouthpiece telling the congregation what the congregation wants to hear. Period. The congregation is paying your salary, they aren’t going to pay you to do what they think is a bad job.

    A severance package is a standard part of being a contracted employee. It’s not “buying your silence” unless they’re specifically telling you that you’re not allowed to discuss the situation. In that case, you’d have to sign an NDA. If they don’t specifically say what you did wrong, it could be because you didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. It’s like dating, it’s all about the chemistry. There was a problem with the vibe. If there’s something you could fix, you’d have had that conversation a long time ago (were you listening?). It’d be weird for you to do a sermon after you’re fired. If you have something to say to anyone in particular, you should have already established those lines of communication outside of the church.

    Pastors tend to have a vision for how they think the church should operate. They come into the role with big plans and the assumption that they were hired to implement those plans. They forget that churches are big families and the new pastor is like the new Sister-in-law who wants to integrate her traditions into the established in-laws celebrations. There’s nothing wrong with her family opening presents on Christmas Eve, but that’s not what WE do.

    This whole article comes from an angle where the pastor has forgotten that he or she is an employee easily hired and easily fired. It’s your job to provide the service they want. If you don’t want to be beholden to a BOD, start your own church.

    If the church is as toxic as this article implies, why would getting fired upset you? It sounds like a very terrible place to work and has probably been hurting your mental health anyway. Getting fired should offer relief.

    • In all Christian love, if you see the pastor as the hired hand whose job it is to do the people’s whims and say what they want — you’re part of the problem.

  • Mark Santillanes says on

    It would be beneficial for pastors to know what they are getting into. Examining the church Constitution is essential for pastors to see what specific things are outlined that would justify dismissing a pastor. Otherwise, those power groups can find any number of ways to remove the pastor, and he has no recourse. i’ve seen this happened to a friend of mine. He was in his mid-50s and within two or three years had passed away because of the stress and heartbreak.

  • Yep. This happened to me as well. I was left out in the cold without even my last paycheck. This particular church burned through pastors every three years. I lasted 4.5 years and was the third longest pastor in their 50 year history. After me, they hired another guy. He lasted three years. Earlier this year, they closed their doors for good.

  • Johnathon Moore says on

    Thank you for this article. It’s about time it was addressed. I’ve personally experienced this myself a few years ago. I was addressing toxic sin in the camp and many didn’t like it. To save face they asked for my resignation so I could still be able to find other ministry opportunities. This horrific experience affected me and my family deeply because they accused my family of causing problems which was a total lie, but we actually rose above it and became stronger because of it. However, in some ways it still affects me. But I’ve moved on and by God’s grace I’ve overcome and many new doors have opened bringing me to where I am today. I now have deep empathy for pastors in these types of situations, but more so pray for God’s protection and boldness through it all. This experience has made me appreciate and respect the pastor’s role, but also pray that congregations can rally around their pastor, and find common ground when they disagree, pray for their pastor, and be a part of the solution instead of grumbling. Praise be to God for His love and grace.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Yes, a common impetus for the church’s toxic behavior is when the pastor addresses sin in the church. I worked with one pastor who was fired because he refused to hire a convicted sex abuser to the staff. The sex abuser was connected to some people in the power group.

  • Kirby Hill says on

    I can testify and even name the names. The SBC is concerned about pastors who are abusive, and rightly so — but who is gonna do something about abusive churches?

  • One of the reasons I agreed to be an elder at my current church is to stand as a firewall to keep this from happening. Any “power group” that wants to get at our pastor will have to come through me (at 300 lbs, it would be a “heavy lift,” pun intended).

  • Nick Stuart says on

    One of the reasons I agreed to be an elder at my current church is to stand as a firewall to keep this from happening. Any “power group” that wants to get at our pastor will have to come through me (at 300 lbs, it would be a “heavy lift,” pun intended).

  • I sent this article to my wife, and she said, “So basically everything that happened at [previous church].” We had two toddlers and a month to move out of the parsonage.

  • Sometimes, but not always, there is someone who a few powerful people in the congregation would like to have as their pastor. One must sadly be run off to Hire another.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That does indeed happen more than we often admit, Mark.

    • RevMikeyMac says on

      In my case (at my first church out of seminary) there was a “power member” who had felt a call to ministry at some point (and occasionally filled the pulpit), but he never followed it. I believe he was convinced that he would be a better pastor than me (or the 5-6 before me that also didn’t last long; this church had a history), and so, when the church started growing, he and the other power members reduced my salary (or two different occasions), and eventually I left both that church and the denomination (since my superintendent was not willing to confront or even meet with the members of my church after they did this!).

      And yes, that church is now closed as well.

  • Thom,

    That’s EXACTLY the things that happened in my termination in 2007. I grieve for the many Pastors and their families who walk through those traumatic times. I am so grateful for the healing of Christ in our lives and the healing we found in counsel and in a healthy church.

    Difficult article…but so needed.

    Thanks, Thom

  • Marcus Cochran says on

    This creeped me out a bit. The 6 patterns are exactly what I walked through be forced to resign in 2020. It’s as if I wrote the patterns of my experience. I would share this on social media but it would appear passive aggressive.