Thursday, June 23, 2016

The pain of pastoral termination

Last night I received an e-mail from a pastor telling me he had been asked to resign from the church. It was a fairly short message primarily asking for prayer, but the pain he was feeling was evident even in the few words he sent.

I was blessed to have not gone through that as a pastor. However, I worked with enough pastors who did experience that to give me a sense of what they and their families went through. Most will go through all the normal grief process plus have the added burden of wondering how they will provide for their families and struggle with questions of their call to the ministry. Some never recover and leave the ministry completely. Others remain in the ministry but remain wary lest it happen again. Most will work through their pain and remain in ministry, but it will still leave scars.

I do not know the circumstances of what prompted this most recent event, but somehow there was probably some unmet expectations the church had of the pastor. Sometimes these are unrealistic expectations, sometimes they are not conveyed well to the pastor, and in some cases the pastor understands the expectations but is unable to meet them.

One of the things I have noticed was that often there was a good pastor and a good church who were not a good match for one another. Every pastor cannot serve every church. Early in my pastoral ministry I received a call from a denominational leader asking if I would be interested in starting a new church in an urban area of a large city. I've spent my entire life on farms and in farm communities. I know nothing about urban ministry other than what little I've read. I thanked the caller but explained that I would likely not be a good fit for this church start. As Clint Eastwood said in one movie, "A man has to know his limitations."

What should a pastor do when asked to resign? A good ending will make it more likely that you will have a good start in your next place of ministry.

  • Leave graciously. There's no sense in burning bridges or to unleash a scathing attack on the church. Such behavior has a tendency to follow you later.
  • Seek support. I promised the person who contacted me that I would keep him and his family in prayer. Hopefully, he has also contacted denominational leaders where he serves to gain their support.
  • Allow yourself to go through the grief process. You've lost something important so it's normal to grieve. Work through each of the steps but refuse to get stuck on any one of them. If you find you are unable to move through the process find someone to help you do that.
  • Try to not become fearful. Many churches do not provide pastors with sufficient severance pay in these circumstances so you may need to get a temporary job while your work through your emotions and through the process of finding another place to serve.
  • Reflect. One of the worst things that happen in such circumstances is that you don't learn anything. Are there things you could have done differently to have prevented this? Did this catch you unawares? What are your primary ministry strengths, and was this the best place to use those strengths? You may want to take advantage of a ministry assessment center to help with this reflection.
  • Trust your calling. Scripture tells us that the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. Just because things did not work out well in this place does not mean God has withdrawn his call on your life.
  • Spend extra time with family. They are hurting and may even be more concerned about the future than you are. They need you to be strong even while you grieve. Remind one another that in ten years you'll look back on this as a difficult time but that God proved himself to be faithful. 
  • Pray. That should go without saying, but sometimes we forget to pray when we need it the most. Be very upfront with God about what you are feeling and what you need.
Pastoral terminations and forced resignations are always very painful times. Even doing everything I've suggested won't make them any easier to go through, but they will help you go through. As I shared in yesterday's post, God has promised to uphold you by his righteous hand. Rest in that promise.

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