In Today’s Conversation, Leith Anderson and Marshall Shelley talk about hiring and firing pastors, and the relationships between pastors and their congregations and church board.

In this podcast, you’ll hear thoughts and advice on:

  • How to handle pastoral transitions well;
  • What the Bible says about letting pastors go;
  • The legitimate reasons for pastoral terminations; and
  • How and what to communicate publicly regarding personnel decisions.

Read a Portion of the Transcript

Leith: So Marshall, delighted that you are on Today’s Conversation. And let me just start out by asking, why are we talking about this subject? Why is this important?

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Marshall: Well as you alluded in your introduction, Leith, I think we’re talking about this, because it’s sometimes an inevitability that leaders are going to separate and that a church does need to make a change. But it’s so often done so poorly that it damages the church. It damages the church’s reputation and ministry in the community, and it can certainly damage the pastor and the pastor’s family. And if there’s a pastor who’s there one Sunday and gone the next with little or no explanation, it can also lead to civil war within the church. So it’s just a very delicate time. It’s a vulnerable time — both for the pastor as well as the congregation. And done well it can lead to renewed strength in the church, but done poorly it can do undue damage.

Leith: So there’s really two issues here. One is whether or not to terminate a pastor, and then how it’s done. And I think we’re focusing primarily on how it’s done. How widespread is this? Are there a lot of pastoral terminations?

Marshall: Well there are. The most recent research that I was able to come across is 20 years old now, but when Christianity Today did some polling of the pastors in our sphere, it indicated that 23 percent of them said that they’d been let go at a previous position. So that’s almost a quarter of the pastors had been either fired or pressured to resign in a previous position. So that’s a significant number. It’s not a majority by any means, but it’s certainly a significant minority of churches that have actively had to ask a pastor to leave.

Leith: Each month the NAE has what we call the Evangelical Leaders Survey and in July of 2015 we asked our survey recipients — and these are top leaders, heads of denominations and organizations — if they had ever been terminated from a paid ministry position, and it was 18 percent. So that’s almost 1 in 5, and these are people who went on to significant leadership. I just got to tuck in here a bit of my own experience. After graduating from seminary, I was a youth pastor at a church in the Rocky Mountain West, and the church voted me out. It was really — at the time — an awfully painful experience. It wasn’t because I’d done anything bad, but it was because they didn’t have money to pay me. And of all the ironies, the senior pastor the church had to go away shortly after that, and they didn’t have anybody to preach the next Sunday. And the chairman of the board called me up and said would I preach because they couldn’t find anybody else, and then he said “and we knew you’d be free.” Of course they knew I would be free, because they had just fired me a few days earlier.

Marshall: They had made sure you were free.

Leith: And the irony of it was, a couple of months later the senior pastor resigned, they called me as a senior pastor and I ended up being there 10 years. So it doesn’t always mean that the person has done some awful thing, and it doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a bad outcome, but it means it’s just got to be done right.

Marshall: I think that’s a great story, because it also illustrates that firings can be painful. They are humiliating, and you can feel used even if there’s good reason for the firing. But it also shows on the redemptive side that just because there’s been a firing doesn’t mean that your ministry’s over or that the relationship with that particular church is over. Firings can lead to a renewed relationship down the road.

Leith: And that’s the best of the outcomes. And that’s certainly what we want. You know, does the Bible say something about this? Or was this not an issue in biblical days?

Marshall: Well both of those questions are true. The word “pastor” — when we talk about firing a pastor, the word “pastor” in the New Testament is actually the Greek word poimén, which means shepherd. And that’s a metaphor that doesn’t necessarily suggest that the sheep are going to rise up and fire the shepherd. But the word in the New Testament more describes a role — someone who is a protector, a nourisher, one who sees that the sheep have good feeding grounds. But the Bible also describes what could be called shepherd malpractice, or pastoral malpractice, which would presumably indicate that it’s time for a shepherd or pastor to be removed for not doing the job.

You know, in some of Paul’s letters — 1 Timothy 5, for instance — he acknowledges that leaders must be held accountable. He said do not entertain an accusation on the gifts of an elder — presumably if there’s an accusation of pastoral misconduct or some breach of duty — but don’t entertain an accusation unless it’s brought by two or more witnesses. Paul certainly recognizes that it’s possible for one person to go on the warpath to try to take it out on a pastor-shepherd. And he says it’s got to be a due process there. He says, “But those elders who are sinning, you are to reprove before everyone so that others may take warning.” So yes, pastors are to be held accountable for their behavior, for their doctrine, for their example, for their leadership. But they’re not to be treated without respect or without due process.

And then one other passage I think is appropriate here — 1 Peter chapter 5. It says, “To the elders among you I appeal as a fellow elder, be shepherds of God’s flock that’s under your care, watching over them not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be. But don’t pursue dishonest gain, but be eager to serve, not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” And there again, Paul suggests that there are some things that would be pastoral malpractice, which need to be confronted and they are not to tolerated, but again a pastor is to be dealt with respect.

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