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Pastors falling pray to ‘leader-hostile environment’

by David Winfrey, News Director

RICHMOND, VA - Charles Chandler has more business than he wants. As founder of Ministering to Ministers, the 62-year old pastor offers counseling, conferences and other resources to other pastors who have been fired. "It's much more overwhelming than I had anticipated," said Chandler, who started this enterprise after his own forced termination in 1994. "Word is getting around, and I'm getting an awful lot of calls from hurting ministers." About 200 people contacted him last year, and he's already surpassed that this year. "I think the conflict within the church that sort of pits pastor and congregation at odds with one another is increasing," Chandler said.

Others agree. An increasing number of churches are falling into a "repeat offender" category for "churches that continue to chew up pastors," said Dave Goetz, senior associate editor for Leadership, a trade journal for pastors of evangelical churches. About two years ago a Leadership poll found almost one-quarter (22.8 percent) of its respondents had been forced out of their jobs as ministers. Of those forced out, 62 percent said the church had done the same to another pastor before; 41 percent more than twice.

"It needs to be said that churches simply don't know how to love pastors," Goetz declared. "They really don't trust them to make long-term decisions for the betterment of the church." Some of that is merely a reflection of society in general, according to both Goetz and Reggie McNeal, director of leadership development for the South Carolina Baptist Convention. "America is a leader-hostile environment," McNeal said. "We're a less tolerant people than we were even a decade ago." Added Goetz: "Americans want leaders, but as soon as they get them, they have a compulsion to bring them down. And I think that's true in the church."

The nature and speed of change in society also affects the church, Goetz said. Society is changing, and as people experience change at their jobs and in their home, they often see the church as a refuge from the uncertainty of change. "That's one area in life where they don't want any change," Goetz said. "This really makes being a pastor very difficult from a leadership capacity.

When conflict occurs in a church, it's rarely pretty, Chandler explained. He recalled a psychiatrist who assisted a Birmingham, Ala. conference and was visibly shaken by the stories of pastors who were forced from their jobs, often with little severance pay and having to immediately move out of the church's parsonage. "His comment was, 'I spend a lot of my time with corporations in downsizing. I haven't seen any of them treating their employees like I'm seeing churches treating you.'"

Many firings come not by a vote of the congregation , but at the initiative of a small but forceful group. Chandler said. One survey found 43 percent of forced exits were driven by a small faction, according to Your Church magazine.

The psychiatrist helped Chandler discover a trend of three events common during surprise firings: 1. Pastors are caught off guard by the confrontation from a small group.

2. While the pastor is in shock, the group often uses guilt to prevent the pastor from making a stand. "Keep it quiet," Chandler quoted them as frequently saying. "Otherwise you'll split the church, and you wouldn't want this on your conscience or on your record."

When a small group in the church is seeking a pastor's resignation, Chandler recommends those pastors who can should force the whole church to address the issue. "The pastor doesn't help the church by sneaking out," Chandler said. "It may be the worst thing he can do." Churches usually are polarized by a pastor's surprise departure anyway, he noted, and bringing the issue before the whole church will force members to deal with issues that could help the congregation, he said.

3. Pastors often are pressed for a decision agreeing to resign when they are still in shock and are not mentally prepared to negotiate. "Ministers oftentimes are very dependent on the salary. They're afraid not to take the severance package," he said. "As a result, they sort of crumble under the pressure, whereas many of them could have weathered the battle and made it a healthier church."

Many church conflicts result because the pastor and/or congregation fail to communicate what is expected from the other, said Guy Futral, head of the Kentucky Baptist Convention's minister/church support division. "Almost every congregation will say they want a strong leader or they want a good leader," said Futral, who counsels with churches in conflict. "The problems they run into have more to do with the style of leadership than the fact of leadership," he said.

Futral recommends both pastors and congregations say before hiring what is expected of each other. Goetz agreed. "Part of the problem is that pastors don't do their homework." In the Leadership poll, 52 percent of pastors forced to resign said they didn't ask adequate questions about the church before accepting the job.

Chandler offers model covenants for congregations and pastors to follow, with information about accountability and job review issues. "We're not trying to say no minister should ever be terminated," he said. "We are saying that every minister needs to be treated fairly." Chandler also recommends that covenants include provisions for the church to continue paying the pastor's salary for up to a year if the pastor is fired without just cause. "I think that would deter a lot of hasty action."

This article appeared in the Western Recorder on October 7, 1997. Permission was granted by the Western Recorder for reproduction of this article on Ministering to Ministers Web Site.