written by: Keith Drury
Ministers get fired. We don’t like to tell this to young people preparing for the ministry, but it happens. It may not ever happen to you—but it does happen. If you do get fired, this essay is to help you through that difficult time.
How it happens
Actually ministers seldom get a pink slip. The church is not like a large company that lays off or fires 10% of its people one Friday to balance their budget. Working for the church is more like being in a family or being elected to a political career. In these cases “getting fired” is a far more personal thing. So how do ministers get fired?
Churches with congregational forms of government “vote” on their ministers. Sometimes it is the entire congregation, or sometimes the local church board votes. Ministers in churches with voting systems like this have a lot in common with politicians—the constituents they lead can fire them with a “bad vote.”
While a 51% vote may be all it takes to survive in many church votes, for all practical purposes a minister can be pressured out in some churches by getting anything less than a 75% majority vote. People say, “Woah! that many people want to get rid of the minister?” A minister can be (for all practical purposes) fired even on winning the vote. In this the minister differs from politicians—most politicians are quite happy for a 51% majority. But a minister seldom can lead a church where 30% or more of the people voted to fire him or her. Old-timers used to say, “It only take a committed 20% to get rid of you.” While this is not always true, most ministers who have logged a few decades of experience will agree that if 20% of the people are highly committed to dump the pastor, that small group can eventually prevail. A minister who leaves a church under these conditions may not be “fired” technically speaking—they are “pressured out.” But for all practical purposes the effect is the same on the minister—they feel fired.
Seldom does a church board have to actually fire a staff minister. Staff is fired far more quietly—by a pressured resignation letter. Most staff pastors I’ve watched lose their job in a predictable sequence:
They alienate several parishioners (especially parents if they are youth pastors)
Soon several people believe “he/she has to go.”
The senior pastor “hears rumblings” of discontent.
A good senior pastor “works with the staff person” to warn & improve them.
The number of dissatisfied grows to more than ten ordinary people or more than 5 heavyweights.
The senior pastor wags head & gives up on the staff person—says, “I don’t know if they’ll survive.”
The church board discusses “the problem.”
The church board discusses “the problem” again.
The staff person is asked to resign by the senior pastor or representatives of the board
Staff people often claim “I was blind-sided completely” when asked to resign. They just can’t believe it! They often say something like, “Things were going great and I was doing great—sure there were a few little things, but over all I was doing a great job.” However, the church leaders and senior pastor will claim in those same situations, “I tried to signal them but they just wouldn’t listen.” Veteran ministers know how this happens, of course—communication in the church is so obtuse and oblique that seldom is correction given to staff people in the blunt or direct formats a younger staff person “counts” as a warning. Most staff ministers don’t get fired outright—they are asked to resign.
Of course there are other ways to be fired of course. In denominations with episcopal forms of government the bishop my fire you. And ministers can “fire themselves” I suppose, but that doesn’t apply here perhaps. This essay is about how to leave a church after you’ve been fired—and it assumes there is some hurt and disappointment, probably injustice—in the mix.
So, have you been fired? If so, now you must choose how to go out the door.
How to leave when they fire you.
You’ll be immediately tempted to lob some grenades in your resignation letter. It is an attractive time to get even with whoever hurt you. You’ll be tempted to “explain your side of it” or lace the letter with a few hints so people “really find out what happened.” Try to resist this temptation. Years ago an old preacher wisely suggest to me, ‘Don’t explain yourself—your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe it.” Just write a short resignation letter with as few details as possible. The shorter and cleaner the better.
You’ll be tempted to switch your focus from your firing (probably finally accepting their right to do that) to focusing on how they fired—how badly they did it. Churches and senior pastors seldom fire people nicely or even right. I’ve only met two ministers in my entire life who claim they were fired well. The rest—a hundred or more—all claim they got a raw deal. Most of these ministers are right—they did get a bad deal. The governance structure of a local church “organism” doesn’t lend itself to firing people nicely. It is usually messy—more like expelling people from a family, or getting a divorce, than the simple pink-slipping of an employee. Avoid dwelling on the sloppy way they fired you. Spending too much time brooding on this will only make you bitter. It won’t hurt the people who flubbed your firing—it will hurt you most of all. Instead bite your lip, force a smile, and leave the vengeance business to God.
If you feel your senior pastor did you dirty you’ll really be tempted to chop him or her down as you leave. People will ask, “What happened—I’m shocked.” All you have to do is get a tear in your eye, get that hurt look on your face, and softly say, “I was shocked too—he never said a thing until Tuesday.” ZAP! You get to chop out a bit of support for the senior pastor. You can wound the senior pastor as you leave; planting time bombs that might explode later—taking them down with you. Wouldn’t that be nice? No. Resist this temptation. When people ask questions be diplomatic. Respond with, “No sense talking about that—let’s talk about what I might do next.” Or, turn their attention to celebrating the good years of ministry there. Remember people will use whatever you say against others long after you leave—often stretched from what you actually said. Don’t supply these weapons for warfare. Giving mortar shells to the enemies of the Senior Pastor or board might give you a personal (twisted) satisfaction but it will not satisfy your heart. Let God do the getting even—that’s His job, not yours.
After you’re gone
So now you’ve moved out of town. What next? You have been hurt, maybe even deeply hurt. Healing will take time and it could take a few years to recover and learn from being fired. Consider this advice for the coming few years:
Wounds don’t heal in a few weeks—even if you land the perfect ministry slot right away. Healing usually takes time. Give yourself time to heal.
Ventilate to a friend. Find a person who will let you honestly tell and retell the story to “get it off your chest.” Find someone who won’t try to teach you, advise you, “help you recover” or do anything more than commiserate with you. You need to “cry in your beer” a while before trying to analyze the fiasco or start any self-improvement regime. Probably this person won’t lead you out of the forest—they will merely get you started… you’ll have to find another guide for the rest of the journey.
God can use any experience—especially a bad one—to teach us and to get us to improve. After a year or so you’ll be ready to more objectively review the firing and learn from it. You’ll quit placing blame and ask how you might avoid this sort of thing in the future. You might even admit to 1% blame yourself and make some rules for the future, or self-improvement plans on that 1% fault. Perhaps you’ll even go so far as to recruit a respected mentor who will contact people in that church to discover how you might grow and improve in the future. If you do this, within a year or two more you’ll begin to say, “I really learned a lot through that experience.” You may never be thankful you were fired, but you could come to admit that over the future decades the painful experience taught you some vital lessons and made you a better minister.
So why do all this? Because, you really have no choice. What is the alternative? Simply go into denial and say “we never talk about that?” That will blow up in your face years later. Or will you nurse your resentment until it blossoms into a grudge and finally turns your entire personality bitter? Such bitterness (even when it is underground) is contagious—especially to those in your family. Your spouse, and especially your children, will pick up the contagion even if you never talk about the pain. Is this what you want? See? You really have no choice. Leaving on a positive note and integrating the pain is the only way to make lemonade out of lemons. So eventually you’ve got to do the hard work of “owning your own firing.” The alternatives are just too costly to yourself and your family.
This is not a pretty essay. We hate to talk about how ministers get fired. But sometimes they do—and often they are fired badly. Thus ministers get hurt—especially in the church where we ministers feel we are ‘working for Jesus.” However, the good news is a minister can respond with greater grace then they were dealt from their church or senior pastor. And then we can become better people for it.
© Keith Drury. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission. Please include: “Other “Thinking Drafts” and writing by Keith Drury — http://www.TuesdayColumn.com”
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.