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Reaching Out to Displaced Shepherds:
Ministering to Ministers

On the first day they begin to tell stories of disillusionment and shame, failure and isolation, anger and hurt.  Many sound like this:  After 14  years of ministry to the same congregation, the former pastor of a small, rural church says a few powerful individuals decided it was time for him to leave. He, his wife, and their two children were forced out of the parsonage, and -- with neither an income nor a place to live -- have tried to understand how this could be God's will.

The scenario is more common than advocates of brotherly love would like to think.   Almost 30 percent of Baptist ministers have faced forced termination.  In any given association, at least one minister per year is dismissed by those who had earlier welcomed him into their church family.  "These situations are usually caused by unclear expectations on the front end," says Charles Chandler, founder of the Ministering to Ministers Foundation, an organization formed to provide a support mechanism for church leaders terminated from their positions.  "The church says the minister violated a verbal contract and, of course, because there is no written document, the minister has no recourse.

Chandlers feels qualified to speak on the subject because he's experienced it himself.   When he was terminated from a pastorate, Chandler discovered there were no resources within his state convention to help him deal with the spiritual and psychological trauma of being ousted from a family of God.  Ministering to Ministers offers the much-needed professional advice that was heretofore lacking.

During the week-long retreat aimed at "family healing," ministers and their spouses learn the skills necessary to cope with their crisis and prevent it from happening again.  Psychologist show them techniques to overcome their anger and teach parents how to help children through the transition.  Family and pastoral counselors reiterate the importance of seeking spiritual enrichment, even in times when they seem far away from God, and teach participants how to lead by empowering others.  Management professionals bring them to a greater self-awareness and guide them through the basics of preparing for the job market.  Attorneys instruct them on resolving disputes and teach them how to negotiate an employment contract that makes expectations clear initially while affording the minister his legal rights.

The professionals throughout the 12 states in which Ministering to Ministers retreats are currently held donate their time.  There's no charge to participants either.   At this point in their lives, they typically can't afford it.

Carson-Newman and the Tennessee Baptist Convention team up to offer two retreats annually on C-N's Jefferson City campus.  Carson-Newman serves as the host site, providing meeting facilities, residence hall and hotel accommodations, and meals -- all free of charge.  The TBC offers scholarship support.  In addition, two Tennessee churches have committed to pay the week's salary of a Tennessee minister and/or spouse who has found work but needs the learning opportunities provided at the retreats.

"It's a program we're glad to offer but hate that we have to offer," says David Buchanan, acting director of church relations at Carson-Newman.  Himself a former pastor, Buchanan helps ministers who want to leave the ministry become professionally marketable for private industry.  Through his office at C-N, he also provides networking opportunities for those in search of church positions.

"One of the problems in church work is that so much is dependent upon references," explains Chandler.  "If you're terminated from GM or any other business, you can begin applying for another job the next day.  It takes a minister 18 months to move even in a normal context, and a tarnished reputation can extend that time frame considerably."

According to Kentucky attorney Norvie Lay, much of the heartache experienced by ministers and congregations can be avoided.  "We don't view ministry as a business, and, therefore, the idea of a written contract is often foreign to ministers," he says.  "Churches and other denominational organizations still fall under the mandates of federal labor laws and a good written contract that outlines expectations as well as the procedures to be followed if the relationship needs to be terminated should be standard practice."

Chandler is quick to say that it cannot be automatically assumed that forced terminations are the fault of the church; ministers bear culpability as well.

"That's why we start by telling our stories - so that we can recognize the part our choices played," says Chandler.  "Churches are like families:   relationships can be healthy or unhealthy."

After a week at a Ministering to Ministers retreat, participants tend to agree that their stories will have happier endings from now on.  In the words of one pastor, "If I'd know 15 years ago what I've learned through Ministering to Ministers, I wouldn't be sitting here today."

Carson-Newman's next Ministering to Ministers conference will be held during the week of January 11-16, 1999.  To register, or for more information, contact David Buchanan, Church Relations Office, Carson-Newman Box 72033, Jefferson City, TN   37760.

This article appeared in the Carson-Newman Publication for Alumni and Friends in the Fall 1998 issue. Permission was granted by Carson-Newman College for reproduction of this article on Ministering to Ministers Web Site.