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What Do Ministers Facing Forced Termination Want and Need?

Ministers and their families who experience forced termination exhibit feelings such as isolation, betrayal, rejection, anger, failure, and guilt.  Though some of these feelings may be more perceived than real, the feelings are nevertheless present.

For many ministers, the church they serve becomes their whole life.  They move their family to a new community and plant most of their social, emotional, physical and spiritual roots in the same pot-the church.  The minister works there, the family worships there, and they develop friends there.  They begin to think and relate to the church as their extended family.  Some ministers and their spouses may feel guilty over developing friends outside the church.  Their whole lives and identities are bound up in the church.  The congregation becomes their support group.  This may be especially true if the spouse does not work outside the home.  They live and breathe the church.

Conflict in the church becomes more traumatic for the minister and their family because of the emotional ties.  The church has become more than a job.  The church often takes on "family proportions" as the minister absorbs the expectations and pain of the congregation.  Though this is not emotionally healthy, in too many cases, it is a reality.
Noble as it may seem, when the minister and family make the church the focus of their life, they set themselves up for disappointment.  Ideal as it may seem, the congregation cannot become an extended family for the minister and family.

Conflict in the church will come.  That is a reality.  When the minister is forced out they may soon discover they have little in the way of support.  Often, when people lose their job in the public sector due to downsizing or stated poor performance, they have a minister and congregation to walk with them and provide emotional support.  The minister who has been forced terminated may have little or no support.  The support system has all but collapsed.  It is then easy to understand how the feeling of isolation may overwhelm the minister and their family.  Forced termination means the minister and the family is uprooted and little is left but the feelings of isolation, fear, pain and anger.  The isolation is heightened by the fact that a small group within the congregation blindsided the minister and told him/her "everyone feels you should leave for the good of the church."

I have heard many stories of lament from forced terminated ministers who lost the support of their congregation.  I remember feeling that myself as a minister who experienced a similar loss.  But in order to determine how real this problem is, I conducted a survey to test the validity of the despair expressed by so many ministers.  Though the sampling was much too small to qualify as a scientific study, I feel the results did reveal a trend.  I mailed a short questionnaire to thirty-two ministers who had experienced forced termination.  Eighteen responded.  Some of these had participated in a Healthy Transitions Wellness Retreat for Ministers and Spouses sponsored by MTM. 

The survey had only three questions.  The first was "What would have helped you most through the conflict and through being forced out that you did not have or did not have enough of?"  The overwhelming response focused upon the lack of support from either congregational or denominational leaders.  Others pointed to such things as a lack of support from colleagues, silence from parishioners who later said they loved them but did nothing because they could not deal with conflict, the absence of someone to talk with they could trust, someone who would encourage them, an advocate, ideas for supporting the family when the paychecks stopped, and someone to affirm them when all they heard was criticism.  One respondent said it would have made a tremendous difference if the bishop had come to his aid by speaking with congregational leaders.

The second question was "What one thing helped you most that you did have?"  By far the most frequent response was the loving support of family who had faith in them.  In a couple of cases it was noted that the marriage did not survive the stress of forced termination.  The next most frequent response was the minister's personal faith in God.  A few mentioned a few friends who come to the rescue.  Two respondents mentioned ministerial support groups as sources of strength.  Another respondent mentioned the support of a staff member who resigned his position in protest of what was happening to the pastor.  Some respondents mentioned the support of close friends from former pastorates and college or seminary classmates.

The third question was "Would it have been helpful if you had had a person to walk with you as a friend/mentor during the forced termination period?"  The overwhelming response was "Yes!"  They agreed this would have provided some of the missing ingredients referred to in question one.

After working with hundreds of ministers and their spouses who have experienced forced termination. I am convinced that one of the greatest assets they can have is the presence of someone to walk alongside of them during the trauma, thus partially eliminating the isolation. 

Currently, MTM is developing a Friend/Mentor program to ensure that no minister or minister's spouse will have to walk the painful path of forced termination alone.  Prayer support and financial support are needed to transform this dream into reality.