Ten Common Responses from Fired Pastors

June 5, 2019

In over 30 years of vocational ministry, I have had conversations with hundreds of fired pastors. I have listened to them. I have prayed with them. On occasion, I have wept with them.

While every situation has its unique elements, I see many commonalities in pastoral terminations. Without getting into the specifics of the dismissal and the reasons these pastors were fired, look at these common responses we hear from them. Indeed, these comments and patterns are sadly predictable.

  1. “I didn’t see it coming.” Not only do many of the pastors comment they received no reviews or anything in writing, many of them tell us they never heard any hint their job was in jeopardy.
  2. “No one gave me a reason for my firing.” Though this comment may seem unfathomable, it is commonly true. Pastors are often dismissed without any reasons. They are then told not to say a word if they want a severance.
  3. “No one asked for my perspective.” Countless personnel committees and similar groups fire someone because of comments they hear from others. They have no desire to hear the other side of the story.
  4. “A power group pushed me out.” This reason often explains the third response. The perspective of the power group or the bully is the only one they hear.
  5. “A staff member (or members) pushed me out.” In one case, the executive pastor was actually on the personnel committee and conspired to force the pastor out. Of course, the personnel committee did not hear the other side of the story, or they would have likely fired the executive pastor.
  6. “My family is devastated.” Many spouses and children are scarred for life from these experiences. And many never return to church.
  7. “The severance was small.” Unfortunately, these types of churches are not typically known for their grace or generosity.
  8. “I can never return to pastoral ministry.” Some pastors do change their minds years later and return. Many never do. Many will not return because their families are unable to move back into the fish bowl.
  9. “I should have never followed a long-term pastor.” The unfortunate label of “unintentional interim” falls on a number of pastors who follow a long-term pastor. The successor just can’t measure up.
  10. “Secular employers are kinder and show more grace.” In too many cases, this reality is sadly true.

I recently spoke with a pastor who said six of these comments within ten minutes of our conversation. Pastoral termination is far too common today. Pastoral termination without cause, explanation, and grace is simply not acceptable and not the path Christ would have us walk.

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149 Comments

  • Prefer to be Anonymous says on

    Sometimes I feel the opposite where a pastor is unrepentant but lords it over people when he should probably be fired. |
    I was a 5 year member of an AofG church, one I loved and whom people loved me, I thought (and most of them did). When I first arrived, the youth pastor asked me to be a sidekick of sorts, which I was hesitant but he convinced me to step in. Within a few months he quit and was asked to lead the Youth. I was unqualified, unordained, and lacked knowledge, in no way was I qualified or an expert on God’s Word. But I felt bad for the youth and agreed, more out of pity than serving the Lord. I led for 5 years unpaid, and eventually a new youth and worship pastor arrived on the scene. His wife essentially became the new youth leader, essentially putting me back in sidekick zone. Within a couple months, the pastor’s children, whom I had ministered to during that time, had all turned college age; and had approached me, and told me I was barely tolerable, which triggered some pretty bad mental illness in me, the very first time I experienced such a thing (hallucinations and depression, i.e. schizo bipolar). Upon talking to the pastor, he said there are consequences for my actions, and I asked him if I had hurt anybody, he said he didn’t feel slighted, and could not tell me what I did wrong. He said it’s hard to love your neighbor when you don’t love yourself, and said I would only be allowed to attend larger worship services, but I would be excluded from small groups and the youth leadership. I also talked to the assistant pastor, he said he doesn’t think I did anything to offend the main pastor’s family; yet the main pastor’s family has proceeded to block me from social media and refuses to speak with me.
    When bringing it to the elders, they simply said they agree with me but want what’s best for everybody and don’t feel comfortable addressing the pastor.

  • DELVIN R SWEENEY says on

    Thom, on severance. I see some comments about little severance pay when a pastor is dismissed. One stated some mentioned three months severance as if that was not enough. I have never received even that much. One elder mentioned that from any job he ever had there was no severance at all. I explained that when a minister changes jobs it sometimes takes a long time and he and his family usually have to relocate as well.
    Could you sometime give a purpose for severance for a minister and maybe give us on an average what is usually paid out, ie what is fair. Thanks love you books and observations. Thanks for all you do!

  • What did you mean on number 8 when you said “fish bowl” ???

  • Jennifer says on

    We had a pastor who bullied people right and left-he created an elder board for himself who believed it was their duty to ‘watch his back’ 1/3 of the church ended up leaving-some don’t attend church any more because they were treated so poorly at our former church. Finally the pastor left on his own. There are sick pastors, sick boards and sick congregations. I recommend Remy Diedrich’s book Broken Trust.

  • Grady Jones says on

    With all due respect, has the author had hundreds of conversations with staff members inappropriately fired by pastors or their church? To me this seems to happen with greater frequency than the firing pastors.

  • Duane Duham says on

    There are times to leave and times to stay and fight. I was saved in 1950, taught Greek in seminary for 30 years, so I have some perspective that may help. “For the good of the church” would not be to yield to unspiritual church ‘bosses.’ Better to stand up to them, reveal their ungodly, unbiblical tactics and refuse to go without a public fight. One young man was told to leave and he came before the congregation, told what his ‘orders’ were and announced: “Sure, I will leave, but in two weeks I will start a new church just down the street.” The trouble makers left, and the congregation bloomed. Another young pastor was told by the church ‘boss’ within two weeks of his pastoral call: “We have fired three pastors here, so you’d better watch your step.” My friend took another bite of his salad and prayed for wisdom. His response: “You’re correct, it you called me here. But if God called me, you’d better watch your step!”

    • I’ve seen pastors have mixed results with this approach. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. Often a fired pastor will plant a new church down the road, and a third of the congregation will join him for a while, but their children miss the old youth center and their wives miss the old home group, so people drift back to the old church. Meanwhile in the pastor’s head, the whole thing parallels to “moving on after a divorce” and suddenly marital divorce feels like it wouldn’t be so bad. There’s a strong correlation between fired pastors and marital divorce, especially when the church split is played out in public.

      People talk a big game about supporting a gifted pastor in his new church, but habits are hard to break. New pastors tend to get better results by leaving those people in the past and attracting new people for his new church. If he wants to stay in good standing with his DM, then for sure that pastor is better off to leave that old church in its money-making position and see if he can mine for fresh sources of revenue. There’s a mission at stake here. Thousands of potential souls on the line. His personal injustice isn’t worth it to rock the boat. Besides, he can always fill a glass with water and walk through the church without spilling it, right?

      Our modern church system leaves a fired pastor with two options. Move on with his life and make the best of it, or drop out of ministry.

  • John Murray says on

    Severance package? Umm, not quite. Here is you last paycheck and there is the road! Thankfully, God worked it in an amazingly wonderful way.

  • Daniel Johnson says on

    Last October I was forced out of the church that I had been a pastor. We had soon growth and people were growing spiritually also. We had gained a great name within the community and respect was being seen by the community. Yet, we had two deacons that listened to long term families member that ran the church. I was told I needed to leave, I preached too many evangelistic messages and that I was the only one that wanted to see the church grow. I was told that I could stay IF I would stop preaching “those” evangelistic messages and only preach about love. My wife and I chose to resign after being presured to do so. We did not receive a serverance package at all. I left with my vacation money and I had to close out my retirement to live on. We was hurt and struggled with this for a few months. My pastor friends many of them, suggested that I should have stayed and done as they had asked. We felt we could not compromise and to stop doing what God told us to do. We have not taken a church and are a little reluctant to do so. We have done a lot of healing from these wounds but unsure about many of the churches around me presently that are looking for pastors.

  • Oh, and by the way, Kylin, if what you say is true (and I believe it is!) then we have some major “idol worship” issues in evangelicalism.

    Jimmy Needham has a song that goes something like this:

    “Clear the stage and set the sound and lights ablaze
    If that’s the measure you must take to crush the idols, Jerk the pews & all the decorations, too, until the congregations few, then have revival. Tell your friends that this is where the party ends until you’re broken for your sins and can’t be social!”

    The non-essentials we refuse to give up (buildings, Sunday morning traditions, leadership controlled worship) and the essentials that we tolerate the absence of (abounding in love, one-anothering, biblical fellowship) PROVE what our idols really are! It’s the things that MUST get done, that MUST happen on a given Sunday, that prove who, or what we really worship!

  • Tom Rainer, and those who have responded, Thank You! This is a difficult topic because the pain, deserved or not, is real. We love John 3:16, but John 13:35 is too often forgotten. In the HCSB, it is translated, “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Would that we would also remember and live by these words from our Lord.

    I’ll summarize my experience at the hands of two senior pastors in two “fine” churches: me, too. I’ve experienced each of the original responses in this blog, and more.

    Rather than picking at the scabs of deep wounds of the past, may I make a request? Tom, would you, if you have not yet, also blog about God-pleasing ways to terminate a minister? Ways to demonstrate Christlike love and grace even someone has to be fired? Perhaps even ways to avoid forced termination, from both a church’s perspective and from a pastor’s?

    I recently heard a new level of vindictiveness by a senior pastor who fired an associate in order to substitute a long time friend. (The fired associate had done nothing wrong, and had done a fine job for several years; the church was growing.) The Personnel Committee gave the fired associate 3 months of severance, but the senior pastor insisted that if the associate earned any money during that time, he must give it back to the church that fired him. They even went so far as to put it into a legally binding “severance contract,” with a nondisclosure “you better not mention this to anyone” requirement.

    I can find nothing grace-full or loving in such a severance requirement. I believe that if the firing church knew the pastor had added this, they would be livid.

    I believe that most churches do not know how to be Christlike and loving in a forced termination situation. Would you please consider helping them in one of your blogs or other means?

  • This is such a difficult topic and difficult situations to clearly understand and even more difficult to deal with.

    Someone in all these responses suggested many of these terminations are like a “divorce” and in many ways, perhaps this is true. A bitter divorce usually has two sides and they neither listen to one another nor do they want the other side to have their way. They end in lasting bitterness and serious emotional distress. (PTSD comes to mind).

    As many pastors “leave a church” as “get fired or pushed out” and they say something like “God is calling me to this or that”.

    But, in truth, neither side has the experience in hiring or firing, so it’s all done in an unintentionally unprofessional and often a self-centered way. But, you start wrong (the hiring) you end wrong (the firing). Hurt feelings and worse are bound to happen.

    Within all this is a hidden problem and I believe it is found in these 2 words: Hiring and firing. Sad state of affairs in our Bible colleges, seminaries and churches that have accustomed us (and we have accustomed ourselves) to think this way.

    Hiring a pastor? Firing a pastor? The underlying mindset would seem to be un-Biblical and mostly wrong.

    Going to Bible college or seminary to prepare of a “ministry job”? That could be a mistake as the Bible seems to say differently and even warns about the matter of being a pastor, or as the post-modern church calls it “church leader” (totally un-biblical)

    Jesus was not even polite on this matter. John 10:12“He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13“He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. ”

    The Church, our teaching and training institutions and most all Christians have woven this thinking and these worldly methods so deeply into our fabric of thought that going back to fundamental biblical methods of Church and the idea of actually using our Spiritual Gifts, Callings and Offices, will certainly cause a great tearing and ripping apart.

    But here we are. Hey, pastors, search your soul and be as honest as you are able: Did God call you, send you and equip you as a pastor, teacher or evangelist?

    If you say, unequivocally, “YES”, then love His Sheep. Tend His Sheep.

    But, do not think you will escape unscathed. Jesus, Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

    And, this is following Him.

    With most sincere regards and admiration for those called as Pastor, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might!

    • First of all, to all of you here who have been hurt by church (D. Davis, Tim, T, Keith, Bruce, Jason Koon- kudos, brother, for your honest words, Todd, Viking 48, Anon, Richard, Matt Coiner, Bobby, Philip, “Jonno,” Brian, Mike, Christopher, Larry, Roy, Bennett, Tim Hancock, Samuel, Kelly, Darrell, Greg, David, Kevin, KD, Derick, Becky, Joseph, Ron, Neil, Heartbroken, Paul, John, Leah, Christoph, Bob Myers, and Rod), I weep with you ALL. Believe me, I am a fellow traveller in your pain. Very brief history: 23 years missionary work, 3 years conventional stateside church, then 3 years home church. Resigned from conventional church after secret group of core families conspired with opposing deacon. Home church died with a sad sigh. Even in our smallness very few wanted to be the Body of Jesus. Yeah, bad stuff! Please, please, please allow yourself time to heal. Don’t rush back into “ministry” or “church.” Don’t run back into the grinder that chewed you up and spit you out. To quote the Foo Fighters: “It’s real, the pain you feel! The life, the love you die to heal.” Don’t be too quick to jump back in the saddle. Maybe it’s time to find a different horse! And believe me, you WILL find healing in some of the strangest places. I so resonate with the commenter who talked about the PTS of even just walking into a church service. I lasted all of ten minutes before I walked out. There are other paths!

      Kylin, you are right. Lots of talk about praying, trusting, keeping on, finding a different “church,“ but we are not addressing the elephant in the room. Yet, I would take it a step further, the elephant in the room is not just unregenerate church membership or leaders (a major issue in itself). I contend that it IS church itself, or the way we DO church.

      Here’s something to consider: take away the way we do “church” and most people would not know how to be the Church. In other words, remove the vocational pastor, the Sunday morning services (3 songs and a sermon), the building, and all the programs, and people would not know how to connect, disciple, and grow as Jesus followers! That, in itself, should prove how broken church is. Think about it! We constantly bemoan the fact that discipleship is a lost art. Could it be that the very way we do church strangles discipleship? A paid professional spends 20-30 hours a week preparing a spiritual lecture. The primary focus of a Sunday gathering is the ministry of a few. And let’s not try to defend this practice by trundling out the nursery workers, ushers, parking crew, and greeters. Most of these are volunteer positions necessitated by the wrong way we do church. Let’s be honest. The consumerism of our modern church is not just the contemporary music or the entertainment style. We go to church each Sunday purposefully passive! We expect an inspiring worship experience. We expect the pastor to do his job! However, we have lost how to be the Church because every Sunday “church” is done for us. Let’s be honest, we don’t need revival; we need transformation. Just as Jesus upended Judaism, we too need to allow Jesus to upend our smothering and deadening practice of church.

      For most of my Christian life I have been taught that the Bible purposefully doesn’t tell us a lot about the Sunday worship service. The reason? So that we can have cultural and generational flexibility. Could it be that the NT does so because it doesn’t want Body life to be freighted toward one day of the week? Could it be that the NT wants to emphasize the holistic 24/7 nature of Body Life? Take several examples. Acts 2, Whoa! Where did that awesome Body Life come from? “Well,” we’ve been taught, “That’s not the standard for the Church. We aren’t commanded to worship that way. It’s just an account. And, after all, the book of Acts is transitional.” Yeah, but shouldn’t that be the aspiration of every body of believers? Shouldn’t we grieve that the average present day church doesn’t come anywhere close to Acts 2? I mean, HOW can we look at Acts 2 and then demand our vocational pastors, our buildings, our choirs, our “Three to thrive” services, and our programs! Why are these non-negotiable, but the Body life in Acts 2 is not? Then, 1 Corinthians 14:26. Again, this is just brushed off as a sidebar to the much bigger issue of sign gifts. Some say that it is not imperative. Paul just acknowledged that it happened. He didn’t command that we do it that way. He’s not giving a once-for-all standard for church worship. Again, how many of us here would desire this type of worship (1 Cor. 14:26) over what we experience today? What church wouldn’t love the problem of too many exercising spiritual gifts as opposed to crickets? And what makes me sad is that very few commentaries spend all that much time on this verse! They just “comment” on its presence in the text and move on. “Nothing to see here!” One commentary did see that this verse is the clearest account in the NT of how the early church worshipped. Yet, how many churches are even remotely influenced or guided by this verse? Let’s be honest. If Sunday morning weren’t tightly regulated (bulletin, announcement, sermon, etc.), there would be pitchforks and torches. Yet, there is no alarm that we are not a loving, “one-anothering”, organically interconnected Body! Our broken church practices have trained us to be passive. And that makes us ripe for the wars and strife that James talked about.

      Guys! The carnage that we are seeing in this comment section should cause us to wake up to the fact that something is seriously wrong with how we do church. Why is it that we can so easily identify the symptoms, yet blindly refuse to deal with the root sickness that perpetuates these symptoms? I believe that dysfunctional church polity -the unbiblical way we interact as church- IS the problem! It inhibits us from being the Church. And, it sets up both pastors and parishioners for the kind of conflict and fallout we are discussing in this post.

      • Eric there’s a lot of truth in what you said, but denominations have bills to pay, and truth won’t pay the bills. Capiche?

      • Capiche in spades! 🙂 And I’m sure you would agree that the same problem exists in many non-affiliated churches. I dreaded deacons meetings after someone left the church because the focus was almost always on one less giver. And I was implicitly -sometimes explicitly- made to feel as though I was responsible. Just once I would have loved to hear someone say: “Brother, we’re sad to see them go. But, they left for the wrong reasons. God will provide. We’re with you.” In fact, one night after about 20 minutes of financial hand-wringing, I said, “Guys! I realize finances are important and I really do appreciate how you as a deacon board do such a good job with finances, but even though we might have to tighten our belt in some areas, God will provide for us.” A deacon snapped, “Oh, so are you saying we are unspiritual for talking about money?”

        Again, the way we do “church” shackles us. How did the Church overtake the Roman Empire in the first 3 centuries without the financial resources and organizational structures that we have today? This is not some great mystery. Just consider the churches @ Philippi and Thessalonica.

      • Oh, and by the way, Kylin, if what you say is true (and I believe it is!) then we have some major “idol worship” issues in evangelicalism.

        Jimmy Needham has a song that goes something like this:

        “Clear the stage and set the sound and lights ablaze
        If that’s the measure you must take to crush the idols, Jerk the pews & all the decorations, too, until the congregations few, then have revival. Tell your friends that this is where the party ends until you’re broken for your sins and can’t be social!”

        The non-essentials we refuse to give up (buildings, Sunday morning traditions) and the essentials that we tolerate the absence of (abounding in love, one-anothering, biblical fellowship, body engagement in Sunday worship) PROVE what our idols really are! It’s the things that MUST get done, that MUST happen on a given Sunday, that prove who, or what we really worship!

      • Amen, brother. I hear you. This problem infects about 90% of American churches.

  • WOW! By the time I read through most of these comments I almost forgot what the initial post was about. Seems there are a lot of bitter peeps on both sides. Being in the church for 60 plus years I have witnessed all of these situations at one time or another. I have also seen both side of the coin.

    I have seen pastors leave with no severance and we also gave 6 months severance to 2 different pastors who had committed adultery.

    I have seen pastors leave and steal computers and even the church leased car, and yet there are those who have been extremely gracious when leaving who could have been extremely ugly.

    I’ve seen pastors lie on their resumes’ and those who were very humble in writing theirs.

    I could go on and on giving examples and I know Dr. Rainer knows there are always two sides (maybe more) to every situation and could give just as many examples of justifiable termination as unjust.

    But in all this I believe as many have stated probably most mainstream evangelical church members in America don’t have a clue what church membership is about. And whose fault is that? OURS! and those who came before us.

    We have completely ruined church in America as I believe God intended it to be. It has become more about entertaining rather than ministering. And when the entertainment or charismatic pastors leave, so does the membership. Sad. Most members that show up on Sundays are no where to be found the rest of the week. Many members consider themselves to be “involved” if they attend services once a month. We are a very self-centered, what can church do for me bunch of sinners. It is a very good thing we are saved by grace cause heaven would be empty if we had to get there on our merit.

    So, what is the solution?

    We need to repent and come back to God. “I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it, when it’s all about YOU.”

    Yes, we need to come back to the heart of worship on both the pastoral and lay sides of the fence. It’s hard to be worried about all of this worldly stuff when we are wrapped up in Jesus.

    Maybe a good study of Job would help. “Where were you when I created all of this?”

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