By Everett Goodwin
Ethics are often a victim of forced pastoral terminations and for that matter, the continuing conflicts in church life which lead to such traumatic moments. Nearly every minister who has suffered an involuntary termination or a ‘near miss’ can testify to universal theme of compromise in congregational ethics. Likewise, under the pressure of the dynamics leading toward termination, ministers are sometimes tempted to compromise professional ethics in their responses to adversaries within the congregation and, at times, in a failure to review and correct their own actions or statements which may have led to perceptions or misunderstandings.
The most frequent violation by churches is in the failure to observe established procedures and processes for evaluation, conflict resolution or review in pastoral relationships. Terminations commonly are accomplished without a meeting of a pastoral relations committee, Diaconate or church board taking place. Instead, small groups or powerful individuals often accomplish their purpose by private meetings or conversations followed by the use of threats, intimidation’s or enticements designed to encourage a pastor to resign. These practices not only compromise any possibility of a pastor being treated fairly, but also compromise the integrity of congregational practice and the level of trust within the congregation.
Following a successful forced termination, ethics are sometimes also compromised when reports regarding the cause of termination are distorted or misrepresented by church members or boards and when a church refuses to fulfill the terms of a negotiated separation such as payment of sabbatical or termination compensation. Such ethical violations can seriously damage a minister’s future career and also continue to poison future relationships among church members.
Churches should observe strict adherence to established procedures when the termination of pastoral services is contemplated. Such church meetings and votes are often painful. But they serve to hold everyone accountable and to maintain fairness. In normal times it is the pastor who is most likely to hold a church to the high road of ethical accountability. When a pastor’s role is compromised, a congregation should seek the ethical guidance of a responsible denominational representative or a mutually respected pastor or other church leader from outside the congregation. Likewise, in the midst of conflict, a pastor should rely on the support of colleagues in ministry to provide guidance and encouragement in maintaining a high ethical road. In extreme situations, outside legal counsel or arbiter should be consulted.
Business, professional and political leaders are often amazed by the low level of ethical integrity demonstrated in the midst of church conflict and pastoral terminations. Churches and pastors should instead set a high example in such ‘worst of times’ in order that the fundamental witness of the church and its ministry be preserved.
Everett Goodwin was a charter member of MTM’s Board of Trustees. He experienced a difficult church conflict situation.