A Peaceful Parting

I suspect that if we conducted a careful study, we would find that dissolving a pastor's call when he isn't expecting it or disagrees with his session's (or elder board's) assessment is one of the most common experiences of both unrest in our churches and deep pain in the life of a pastor and his family. It occurred to me recently that I've never talked to my session about this and encouraged them in how to do it well if the time should ever come. Men often learn the hard way how to avoid the worst mistakes, but only after a minister has been hurt and a congregation disrupted. With that in mind, I wrote a letter to my session that we'll also use in officer training from now on. Here's the substance of that letter.

First, I think it is important to impress upon you what you are doing, whether it is the right decision or not. Ministers are no different than anyone else. We derive a great deal of our identity from our vocation. If we are different in any way, it may be that we derive considerably more identity from it than most. It is a high calling, and one which we are specifically told in Scripture we will answer to God for at the judgment. Being told we aren't good at it (you don't have to say it--inviting us to leave says it quite effectively) is typically an earth-shaking experience. No, we shouldn't put so much stock in it. But we usually do.

This local congregation, for us as pastors, is often our entire world. These are my friends. This is my support network. I work here. I worship here. These are the people I celebrate with and mourn with and am growing old with. If I am at play, it is usually with parishioners. If I am at work, it is with my congregation. If I am in worship, it is with this local body. When a minister's call is dissolved, he suffers doubly. He not only loses this community, but he loses it in the very moment he needs it most. Of course, a minister needs to steel himself for this. And for this and so many other reasons he needs community outside his own parish. But no amount of such community can offset or seriously blunt the pain of losing this particular community.

And the pain and suffering of the moment is exponentially increased by the unavoidable reality that the minister's family is suffering as well. Though they may experience the vocational aspect as shame that their husband or father was found lacking or failed in some way, the communal aspects are typically shared equally with the minister. This suffering of the family is a weight all on its own. This wife and these children are losing all their friends and often their entire world. On top of this, the minister also adds it to his other sufferings. He feels responsible for their suffering. If he is rightly being terminated, then his failure is the cause. If he is wrongly being terminated, then it is at the hands of these men he trained and was responsible to lead. So, he feels betrayed, but also responsible for his own betrayal and the pain his family now feels.

Many tears have been shed at the burden of this pain and the loneliness that comes with it. It is enough to drive most men - perhaps especially the good ones - out of the ministry altogether. This is not to mention the potentially lasting effects on the family members and their faith.

I begin with all of this not in order to scare or shame you away from doing what you think is right and necessary, but to frame the consequences of your actions under the best of circumstances. My hope is that knowing this you will 1) proceed with utmost care and concern for the pastor and his family, even if you are frustrated with him and 2) at least attempt in good faith to mitigate these painful elements by ensuring that the pastor and family are tangibly cared for in the process.

Second, I want to admit that pastors are often their own worst enemies. Our own sin is enough to cause us to be terminated. An unwillingness to repent of it is even more problematic. And when a minister fights the session over his termination, it's very difficult for anyone to do any of this well. There are always two parties (at least!) in this thing and both must act in good faith and with humility. You, the session, cannot be wholly responsible for how the minister responds. You can, however, by means of how you conduct yourselves and the love which permeates your actions, do all in your power to ensure the best outcome. I ask no more than that.

Third, here are a few insights I want to leave with you that might help you avoid the most common pitfalls in this process.

There should be, at a minimum, an annual review conducted with the pastor.

1. The review should be closely coupled with the pastor's job description. If the pastor is in need of correction or redirection, this process gives the easiest and most obvious opportunity to do so. If he is falling short of expectations, this is the time to tell him. Such shortcomings should be recorded in writing and with the pastor's acknowledgment that he has heard them (whether he agrees or not). There should also be clear communication about what the standard is that he is expected to achieve, how quickly he is expected to correct the problem, steps he is expected to take to correct it if such steps are being dictated, as well as the potential consequences if he does not. Much pain has been caused by blindsiding a pastor. Perhaps a pastor should be more self-aware, but it is all too common for a minister to believe things are fine, only to get called to a meeting where everyone has already decided that he's finished. A pastor that is reasonably surprised to find himself in trouble has a valid complaint. Don't surprise the pastor with news that he is being let go.

Too seldom is this entire difficulty seen in the proper spiritual context. Devote significant time to prayer individually as an elder and collectively as a session. Pray for wisdom, patience, unity, and love. You are preparing to dismiss a man that you once affirmed was called by God to minister to your congregation. Surely this is a time to pray!

2. Don't wait to address issues. Too often I've observed circumstances where leadership is dissatisfied but they don't say anything until they can't stand it anymore. This leads to explosive interactions, a shocked and disoriented pastor, and few options but a swift parting of ways. Address things early. This permits a more collegial approach in which members of a team identify a problem and once defined, work together to arrive at a solution. This approach creates more options, allows for more love and mutuality, and tends far more toward the peace of the church.

3. Initial concerns should be discussed individually with the pastor. The worst thing an elder can do is circulate his concerns among the other elders without the pastor being given the courtesy of knowing he has failed to meet expectations. "Circulating the court" is considered inappropriate under any circumstances. To then have this inappropriate action directed at yourself as the pastor is quite hurtful. It may seem right to ask around, but it's not. Go to the pastor. Tell him your concerns. If you believe the other elders need to be made aware of your concerns, tell the pastor that, and then make them aware in the context of a session meeting in which the pastor is present.

4. Make up your own mind. A session works best when each man is properly called and equipped, and then exercises his gift by coming to his own convictional position. Elders who spend more energy reading the "winds of opinion" on the session or relying on the wisdom of other elders to make the decision for them aren't fulfilling their office. You will act collectively, but each of you must come to his own conviction about what is best here. The pastor's livelihood and everything I mentioned above hangs in the balance. You owe him and the congregation the best of your gifts to discern what is wise. This isn't the time to be lazy.

5. Consider alternatives to termination. Obviously, there will be circumstances where termination is warranted. Sometimes, even immediate termination with no warning (e.g. egregious sin) is the best or only clear option. However, it may be possible to hire someone to fill in where a pastor's gift set is thin. Or perhaps an extended sabbatical will resolve issues like fatigue or lack of vision. Maybe the pastor needs continuing education in an area of weakness. Sometimes termination is indeed the best option. But in cases where the pastor "just isn't getting it done anymore" consider why that's so and how it might be corrected. The needs of the church may have indeed changed, and a minister who was a perfect fit before isn't capable of providing the leadership that is needed now. Is termination the best way forward? Maybe. Maybe not.

6. Get the Presbytery involved. Presbyteries usually have a committee whose job is, in part, to enter into these situations. Non-denominational or independent churches sometimes have a council of local pastors that exercise some sort of oversight at the request of the elders. It is especially appropriate to get them involved early in cases where the problem is primarily a relational one. Let them bring the wisdom of pastors and ruling elders who aren't emotionally invested into the discussion. They can't force you to do anything that isn't already required of you in the BCO (in the case of a PCA church). But they can provide a much-needed perspective. This will also bring them into the pastor's circle - they will give him an outside set of eyes that can help him see things he otherwise can't see or doesn't want to see. There is much help available here. Avail yourselves of it. And do so sooner than later.

7. Provide the most loving possible exit plan. In cases where it is necessary to dissolve the pastor's call, and particularly where it is not a matter of sin, but simply of unmet expectations, the entire process should be one in which the pastor is lovingly treated. Practical ways (partly captured by the above encouragements), are to communicate with him clearly, often, and in a loving fashion. Seeking alternatives to termination will show your desire to care for him. Consider his spouse: how can you love her well through this? Ask the pastor that question and take seriously his response. Structure the exit in a way that leverages all the patience you can possible afford - give him time to find new employment, and the means to provide for his family during that window of time. The bottom line is that you should both say and show that you love him and his family. You may be frustrated with him right now, but if he has faithfully ministered to you in the past, show him the respect that he is due and don't dishonor him by treating him as a mere "employee." He is a man, a father, a husband, a brother in Christ, and at least at one time your faithful shepherd called by God and given to you as a gift. Remember the vows you took to care for him and keep those vows up to the end.

I know these words won't always apply in every situation. This letter can't possibly serve as a step-by-step guide in every case. Where it fails to give guidance, the watchword is love. Ministers are fallible, and in their own ways weak, men. The more faithfully they minister, the more exposed they are. Failure should not come as a surprise, then. Where their failures are moral, and particularly where there is repentance, treat them as brothers-in-arms who have been wounded in battle. It may mean the end of their service as your pastor, but not as your brother in Christ.

Rev. Matthew Bradley is the pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church in Brentwood, TN. Matt also teaches at New College Franklin in Franklin, TN (Systematic and Biblical Theology, New Testament Greek).