When Ministers Are Forced Out, Ministry Group Ready to Step In
by Robert O'Brien
Adapted from stories by Alberta Lindsey in the Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch
and David Winfrey in the Western Recorder
Wade Dickson thought everything was fine at the suburban church he served as pastor. Church leaders said "my preaching was good," he lamented at a "wellness" retreat sponsored by the Ministering to Ministers Foundation. "They said I'd helped a lot of people, and that I was bringing in new members."
But he was forced out anyway.
What happened to Dickson isn't unusual; it's a growing trend, says Charles Chandler, Ministering To Ministers' executive director. The Virginia-based organization serves as an advocate for clergy and their families who have been, or are about to be, involuntarily separated from churches.
MTM has set up a network to offer counseling, conflict resolution, wellness retreats and other resources to forced-out pastors and staff members. Funded by donations, MTM has received $24,000 from CBF's ministry budget over the past three years.
"Response is much more overwhelming than I'd anticipated," says Chandler, who founded MTM after his own forced termination from a Baptist church in 1994. "Word is getting around, and I'm getting a lot of calls from hurting ministers."
More than 600 have contacted him over the past three years - half of those within the last year, he says. "I think conflict within the church that pits pastor and congregation against each other is increasing."
Such crises take a toll on both churches and ministers, Chandler says. "As tensions increase, ministers experience increasing isolation from church members, denominational officials and often even their colleagues in ministry. Churches are internally damaged by mistrust, membership loss and continuing animosity."
In an article in Leadership, a trade journal for pastors of evangelical churches, editor Dave Goetz claims many churches "simply don't know how to love pastors . . . They really don't trust them to make long-term decisions for the betterment of the church."
"Americans want leaders," Goetz adds, "but . . . they have a compulsion to bring them down." He believes that same social trend is evident in many congregations, noting more and more churches are "repeat offenders" who continue "to chew up pastors."
Chandler recalls a psychiatrist's shock when told of pastors forced from their jobs, often with little severance pay and a demand to more immediately from the church's parsonage.
"I spend a lot of my time with corporations in downsizing," the psychiatrist told ministers at an MTM wellness retreat. "I haven't seen any of them treating employees like I'm seeing churches treating you."
Many firings or forced resignations come not by a vote of the congregation, but at the initiative of a small but forceful group - and often by "surprise attack," Chandler says.
While the pastor is in shock, the group may use guilt to prevent the pastor from making a stand, he says: "They'll often say, 'Keep quiet or you'll split the church. You wouldn't want that on your conscience or your record."
Pastors who are caught off guard are usually unprepared to negotiate, he adds. "Ministers often are dependent on salary. They're afraid not to take the severance package . . . so, they sort of crumble under pressure."
In contrast, Chandler argues that forcing the church to address the situation can often be the healthiest course for both pastor and congregation: "A pastor doesn't help the church by sneaking away; it may be the worst thing he can do."
A surprise departure, he adds, often polarizes a church anyway, while bringing the matter into the open can force people to deal with issues that could help the congregation.
MTM offers "models covenants" for churches and pastors to follow, with information about accountability and job review issues - and model separation agreements. "We're not trying to say no minister should ever be terminated," Chandler says. "We're saying that every minister needs to be treated fairly."
"Termination can happen to any minister no matter how good he is," adds Ross Campbell, a retired psychiatrist in Chattanooga, Tenn., who has worked with many terminated ministers. "The more ministers are compassionate or are servant pastors, the more vulnerable they are. If you get a mean, sociopathic board member, it's easy to manipulate a pastor. This is happening to our best, most wonderful pastors."
Campbell blames some of the problem on adults who never really grew up. "Over the last 25 years, our society has become more immature in the way it handles anger," he says, noting that many adults are reflecting an anti-authority attitude normally found in 14- and 15-year-olds.
"When you bring this anti-authority attitude into the church, how can you have harmony? Most Christians aren't sociopaths, but they're helpless (to oppose them) because they 'don't want to cause trouble.'
"Bad things happen when good people do nothing."
A pastor's wife tells of a recurring dream.
It was a stormy night. The rain was coming down hard. She was in the front seat of their car. Her husband was driving. Their two children were in the back seat asleep.
Suddenly the car spins out of control, turning around and around in the road. She wakes up screaming.
Night after night she dreams the same dream.
In real life, the family is caught up in a church fight. The officials of the church have met with the pastor and suggested he resign. Slowly, nightmare and life merge.
The pastor's wife says that their life is like a runaway automobile. She nor her husband have much control of their lives. She feels in danger for the man she loves, for her children, even for her marriage.
-- Excerpted from "Forced Termination Affects Everybody," by Roger Lovette in the February 1997 issue of The Servant, published by Ministering to Ministers Foundation. Lovette, pastor of Baptist Church of The Covenant in Birmingham, Ala., is an MTM trustee.
On Call -
Ministering to Ministers Foundation helps clergy and their families who are experiencing personal or professional crisis due to deteriorating employment or congregation-clergy relationships.
For more information contact:
Ministering to Ministers Foundation
2641 Cromwell Rd.
Richmond VA 23235
Phone: (804) 320-6463
Fax: (804) 320-9178
Survey Sheds Light on Terminations
According to a national survey, more than one in five ministers has been fired or forced to resign.
Nearly 600 ministers responded to a survey by Leadership magazine, a journal for church leaders published by Christianity Today, Inc. Among the findings:
Among those who said they had been forced out:
Source: Leadership, Winter 1996
Ministering to Ministers Foundation reports that:
- Most of the time, pastors aren't fired but forced to resign, often by a small but vocal faction in the church.
- Ministers are often "blindsided" and terminated without a fair hearing. They're told to keep quiet or any severance pay will be cut off.
- Ironically, many churches that force out pastors without adequate severance pay end up losing more money through loss of members than a fair severance package would have cost.
- Most ministers who have participated in an MTM wellness retreat while in the midst of conflict with their church report that they are still in their church ministry positions and that their churches are healthier.
Charles Chandler, Jr., son of Charles and Betty Lou Chandler, drowned in a kayaking accident in June. Known as "Corky" to family and friends, Chandler was a dentist living in Anniston, Ala. Contributions to a memorial fund will support the work of the Ministering to Ministers Foundation.
This article appeared in the Fellowship - Newsletter of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in the July-August 1998 edition. Permission was granted by the Fellowship - Newsletter of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for reproduction of this article on
Ministering to Ministers Website.