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Advocate for Ministers

by Mike Clingenpeel

It's a nightmare for many ministers - the realization that their church is about to fire them. Former Virginia pastor Charles Chandler knows what they're going through and has created an organization to help them through the pain.

The couples sit, talking quietly, in a circle of marshmallow-soft sofas in the living room of a pod at the Missionary Learning Center near Rockville, Virginia. But these are not idealistic young missionaries poised to join the front lines of gospel advance. They are veterans who, against their will, have been discharged.

Bill (not his real name), a 55-year-old pastor in a Midwestern state, has ridden a bus all night to be here. With a night's sleep, a good meal and a few hours to get to know the other three couples in the room, Bill is ready to talk. He feels he's about to be fired by his church.

The signs are familiar. The congregation talks endlessly about the glory years when the church averaged 400 in attendance each Sunday. One family, Bill says, has 45 percent of the church's leadership. A group of opponents sit on the back rows each Sunday and glare at him. Members are dropping out and going to other churches.

The tension is palpable; visitors notice it. Business meetings are mini wars. The purchase of a copier or a ream of paper produces a battle. Bill's wife, hurt by accusations made about her husband, no longer attends church. "I'm pretty well dead meat," admits Bill. Around the room everyone knows what Bill is saying. Some nod their heads in silent agreement; others wipe away tears. In their minds, in their gut, they understand. Like Bill they have been told by fellow Christians to leave their job. No, their calling.

For more than an hour Bill tells his story, pausing only when his voice catches in emotion. When he finishes, the group, still ministers and ministers' wives, stand in a circle around Bill, place hands on his shoulders, and pray for him. "This is not a therapy session," says Charles Chandler, founder and director of Ministering to Ministers Foundation, Inc., a non-profit ecumenical organization that has brought the group together. "It is a sharing experience to get the story out and to bond the group."

It may no be therapy, but on one present questions that it is therapeutic. The term for what Bill is e experiencing is forced termination. It comes in many forms. Some ministers are pressured to leave their posts by a small group in the church, official or otherwise. They quietly resign their position amid rumors that they were asked to leave.

Others are openly fired by congregational action, often in a contentious business meeting. Few occur without a residue of ill will within the congregation. All have a debilitating affect on the minister.

Studies indicate the problem of forced termination is on the rise. A study conducted by the Baptist Sunday School Board in 1989 revealed that an average of 116 Southern Baptist ministers per month were forced out of their churches. That represented a 31 percent increase over 1984. Last year the Sunday School Board reported that each month an average of 135 pastors are fired.

Leadership magazine conducted a survey of its clergy readers in 1996 that showed about 23 percent had either been terminated or forced to resign at least once. One-forth of those had the experience more than once.

Chandler started MTM in 1994, shortly after he was asked to leave a Virginia Baptist church were he had been pastor for five years. In the aftermath he felt that Baptist did not provide adequate services to help him grapple with that crisis, and he vowed to do something for ministers in similar circumstances.

"I'm convinced God uses every experience to prepare us for the next. God can bring from every experience some good," he says in a devotional prior to the session during which Bill shared. One of the good things derived from his experience, says Chandler, is MTM.

Fresh from his experience, Chandler gathered a group of ministers who had experienced involuntary separation from their congregations, along with interested laity, to discuss the needs of ministers. From this came MTM, an ecumenical foundation that serves as an advocate for ministers and their families in crisis due to deteriorating minister-congregation employment situations.

Ministers who have suffered a forced exit or who anticipate they will be fired find support from MTM in several ways. Many Baptist churches have personnel policies or church by-laws that spell out how a minister is to be called, but nothing that clearly states a procedure for terminating a staff member. MTM has developed models of church-minister covenants that outline procedures to follow in the event a separation occurs. Negotiated and signed when the minister cannot be terminated without due process.

MTM also administers emergency funds for ministers who are terminated without compensation, an all too common occurrence. Chandler recommends that churches provide six months to a year of benefits and pay, because it takes at least that long to relocate in a new position.

In order to avoid confrontation, most ministers resign before working out a financial settlement, according to Chandler. "Churches do not want it on their record that they terminated a pastor. They always would prefer to have the pastor resign quietly."

He says the worst thing a minister can do is quietly slip out. "Most pastors are leaving too fast. If they stayed longer they could negotiate a better severance package. If they move out too fast the ministers become angry when the money runs out."

Findings from the Leadership survey bear out Chandler's assessment. Over half of forced-out pastors said they did not ask adequate questions of the church, and only 41 percent said they received a severance package, the average of which was equal to three months' salary.

Perhaps the most visible ministry of MTM is its wellness retreats, week-long events where ministers and their spouses going through a church-minister crisis can begin the emotional and spiritual healing process. During 1997 MTM will hold six retreats in locations throughout the United States, up from only two in 1995.

Each retreat begins with couples telling the story of their crisis. Through the week they learn how to cope with anger toward their congregation for its role in the crisis, techniques in conflict resolution and ways to improve physical well-being. They also are encouraged to participate in an ongoing support group and receive practical tips in understanding and marketing their skills.

One important part of most retreats is a discussion of legal issues related to forced termination. Archibald Wallis III, a Richmond attorney, serves on MTM's board of trustees and often advises ministers about their legal rights.

"It is not the role of MTM to encourage lawsuits," says Wallis, who also is a Presbyterian pastor. "MTM is designed to help with dispute resolution." With Wallis' assistance, MTM designed the documents churches can use for calling ministers. This is "proactive documentation," says Wallis, to prevent lawsuits in the event of a forced termination.

MTM has set up a scholarship fund to assist ministers to attend these retreats. Since many of them have been ousted from their churches they have no full-time salary, and could not afford to attend without financial support. According to MTM's newsletter, the cost to fund a scholarship is $500. Unless they had already resigned before attending the retreat, Chandler says ministers who go through the seminar almost always return to their position and remain for at least one year.

Chandler is MTM's executive director, but at present is only part time. His salary, along with the other programs of MTM's is funded by gifts from individuals, churches, denominations and foundations.

The issue of forced termination is never one-sided. While there are so-called "repeat offenders," churches that have terminated several ministers in succession, there are also ministers who should assume responsibility for their termination.

Chandler says he acknowledges this, even though MTM's principal mission is to serve as an advocate of the minister in an employment crisis. "Our role is not to indicate that a minister should never be terminated. There are some that ought to be. But there should be a fairness, a redemptive love. Some ministers and churches are just a bad fit. What takes over, though, is a mob mentality and the minister becomes a victim. That's when MTM steps in."

In Bill's case, MTM stepped in at a crucial moment. But even MTM cannot erase all the self-doubt that seizes a minister caught in the throes of a forced termination. "I don't know why I keep choosing these churches that do this," says Bill, who twice before has been asked to resign his church. "Maybe I'm not really called to preach. But right now I'm just trying to decide what to do. I really don't want to go to another traditional church, but I'm not a youngster anymore."

This article appeared in the Religious Herald on August 28, 1997. Mike Clingenpeel is editor and business manager of the Religious Herald. Permission has been granted by the Religious Herald for reproduction of this article for the Ministering to Ministers web site.