Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Secret Lives of Pastors' Wives-Firing

Since I covered the hiring process yesterday, I thought it only natural to talk about firing today. For one, they are at opposite ends of the employment spectrum, the one that begins with optimism and hope, but ends in devastation. Also, hiring and firing rhyme. As a loyal Dr. Seuss groupie I appreciate rhyme, especially of made-up words like nookgase/bookcase. But I digress...

So, being fired in ministry is not such a cheery topic, but an all too familiar occurrence for many pastors. Imagine having a job in which you have 60 or 250 or 700 or 1500 bosses, depending on the size of the church. Consider that there is no way to make that many people happy and content all of the time. And ponder that there are some people who prefer to find fault with others as if it is a recreational hobby. That's a taste of the looming cloud of being ousted. Here are some stats from a study by the Schaeffer Institute

Out of the 1050 pastors we surveyed during two pastors conferences held in Pasadena, California, 825, or 78% (326 in 2005 and 499 in 2006) said they were forced to resign from a church at least once. Sixty-three percent (63%) said they had been fired from their pastoral position at least twice. In the survey, we asked why they were fired—from the reasons given by the church board versus what they felt the reason was. We laid out 15 categories with a blank space to fill out what we may have missed: poor leadership, conflict with key staff or lay leadership, gossip, lack of funding, doctrinal divide, hardship on family, not connecting with membership, power plays, church council refusing to resolve conflict, resistance to their teaching, resistance to their leadership style or vision, failure to teach biblically, poor people skills, failure to follow job description, inappropriate relationship, or other sin. They gave us a top five main explanations on a scale of one to five, with few (8%) reporting on any of the other categories. These stats are based on number one response; at the same time, over 70% of pastors stated three of these five reasons. Here is the order (these findings have been retested and back up in internet polls done since 1998, and church survey studies done since 1980:

1. Four hundred twelve (412 or 52%) stated that the number one reason was organizational and control issues. A conflict arose that forced them out based on who was going to lead and manage the church—pastor, elder, key lay person, faction, ...
2. One hundred ninety (190 or 24%) stated that the number one reason was their church was already in such a significant degree of conflict, the pastor’s approach could not resolve it (over 80% of pastors stated this as number 2 if not already stated as number one, and for the rest, it was number 3!).
3. One hundred nineteen (119 or 14%) stated the number one reason to be that the church was resistance to their leadership, vision, teaching, or to change, or that their leadership was too strong or too fast.
4. Sixty four (64 or 8%) stated the number one reason to be that the church was not connecting with them on a personal level or they could not connect with them, or the church over-admired the previous pastor and would not accept them.
5. Forty (40 or 5%) stated that the number one reason was not having the appropriate relational or connecting skills as a pastor. (It is interesting that no one mentioned lack of teaching ability—only that their teaching was not accepted. Could this be pride?)

Some personal background here first. Robert has never been fired or asked to resign. We have been fortunate with being able to leave every church on good terms and have been sent on our way with the church's blessing. So, even though we haven't experienced this firsthand, I want to write about living under the crippling fear that it CAN happen at anytime.

Robert's first position after we were married was a part-time seminary job and there was no intense pressure there. However, when he assumed his first full-time ministry position I was totally unprepared. I have always thought that my husband hung the moon.(Okay almost always...except when he leaves only 4 squares of toilet paper on the roll or forgets to take out the trash). It came as a total shock that not everyone else felt that way. He's a really likable and congenial guy. Most people do like him. However, there are always those few, who no matter what, are going to be contentious or find fault. Someone once told me that those people were "heavenly sandpaper"--very irritating and rub you the wrong, but sharpen your edges and make you into the person you are supposed to be. I had to embrace that attitude to avoid being driven crazy by some people who lived to find fault.

We had the woman who would bring a tape measure every Sunday to measure the placement of the Bible and floral arrangement on the communion table in front of the church. If they had been moved even 1/2 inch from where she had determined they should be, then it was a national crisis. One church almost resorted to fisticuffs regarding whether the wood in the sanctuary should be painted or left stained. (I know you are dying to know the results. The au naturel camp won.) On a more personal level, we had a family pull out of hosting teens at their house for DiscipleNOW because they didn't like the name of the event, Jesus is for Losers. People complained that Robert was too casual or too serious or that the word "fart" was used at a youth function or that he was too Catholic (How dare he talk about the origins of Ash Wednesday!). Robert's personal favorite was the underhanded "prayer request" that was submitted complaining about Crud Wars, the huge youth food fight, and how it wasted food that could go to starving people. What they failed to realize is that most of the food was one step from the garbage and the result of people cleaning out their frig and/or it was produce thrown out by grocery stores.

Every time he would come home and report a complaint my heart would plummet and I would think, "Here we go. Now the church is going to run us off and force him to resign." It became a vicious cycle because he wanted to share his frustrations with me as his wife, I would freak out and panic, which then made him not want to tell me so he wouldn't worry me, so then that would create distance between us, and the cycle would perpetuate. It took me about 2-3 years (actually a fast learning curve, all things considered) to realize that:
*He wasn't going to be fired over a few little things.
*Some people live to complain. They will always be that way and there's nothing you can do about it.
*Worry and fear are wasted energy. God actually totally freed me from worry about 7 or 8 years ago, but that's a different post for a different day.
*God placed us at the church, He loves us, He'll take care of us
*Don't sweat the small stuff.

Now, referring back to the quotes from the article above, I want to make some comments. 78% of pastors polled had been fired once and 63% twice. The top 5 reasons given were: organizational and control issues, church in conflict before the pastor came and the pastor couldn't resolve it, church resistance to leadership/vision/teaching/change or leadership was too strong/fast, difficulty with pastor and church connecting, and poor relational/connecting skills. I hold these truths to be self-evident: that there are some people who live life with a bee in their bonnet and like it, that pride is one of the greatest threats to most pastors, and everyone wants to win and/or be in charge. When you mix those 3 ingredients together, or even two of them, the result is the perfect storm. Furthermore, if one looks at the 5 reasons given above then it is easy to see that they really all influence each other. For example, a pastor sees a church in conflict (2) and guided by either idealism or a messiah-complex, thinks he is just the one to fix the situation. During the interview process he honestly shares his vision for addressing the conflict and everyone loves his ideas. He is called to the church and begins to implement that vision--maybe a little too fast (3) or maybe without greasing the proper wheels (4, 5). People start complaining ("but we've never done it that way before"), the deacons/elders are getting pressured so they start pressuring the pastor and BOOM! Organization/control conflict and chaos (1) ensue.

I don't want to be insensitive at all to some of the wonderful pastors who have been strong-armed out of churches for wrong reasons and ridiculous power plays. There are some real tragedies out there and some churches that will have to answer for their behavior. There have been malicious, slanderous, and just plain mean church bodies, or at least factions within, that have devastated innocent men and their families. On the other hand, there are some pastors who go in with an agenda and ready to swoop in and change the church and save the day. In our experience, change needs to happen very slowly, if at all. It take years just to develop that initial trust with the church members. No significant change should be introduced without that bedrock of mutual trust. If the situation is too bad to be tolerated without change, then perhaps that wasn't the right church position for the pastor. Just like you wouldn't marry someone thinking, "This guy will be alright once I change x, y, and z," a pastor shouldn't go into church with a huge agenda of change.

Also, I think that some of the firing can be negated if the hiring process is more contemplative. One thing that I have always appreciated about Robert is that he goes into investigative journalist mode when interviewing. Not only does he ask the current staff, lay leadership, and search committee hard questions (e.g., What are the 5 biggest problems in the church?), but he always called former pastors and staff and got the real dirt on past and current church dealings. His mindset was that he was interviewing them every bit as much as they were interviewing us. I think that foresight has significantly helped us avoid some potential minefields. We generally had a good picture of the good, bad, and ugly of every church and it was pretty accurate.

Bottom line is that the church body and the pastor are people, people are sinful and do stupid things, but God is ultimately a God of reconciliation.

If churches would truly seek God during the hiring process, trust the leader that God gives them, pray, support and encourage him and his family, and ascribe to the principles of Matthew 18: 15-17 if they have a grievance...
If pastors would humble themselves, serve, invest in relationships, use authority wisely, grace scandalously, and listen carefully to the Holy Spirit...
Then hopefully some of this firing and forcing to resign could be reduced. It's a continual learning and growth process for all of us.


  1. You talked about pastors being prideful and going in and thinking they can fix the people/church. That was US in our first church right out of the seminary gates. At the time, we of course did not think we were prideful! We were on fire for Jesus, and wanted to see the church healed and restored (This church had a painful past). The fact is...the church is still very sick, and they needed a team much older, wiser, and stronger than we were/are. The lessons we learned were painful, but we are thankful for how God has used them to help us become the people He desires us to be.

    We learned to be more humble and loving. To build relationships and serve ALONGSIDE the body of believers instead of thinking WE can do it all and WE have all the answers. We learned that ministry is simple - love God and love people. When you commit to do those two things - He will bless you!

    Pride is such an ugly, ugly thing.

  2. Nikki,
    Thanks so much for your honest and vulnerable comment. Certainly there are situations in which firing is out of nowhere, no red flags, and just seems plain mean. However, I think that usually it's not the church's fault, not the pastor's fault, but the truth is somewhere in the middle. I just don't want to be insensitive to those who were ousted for no apparent reason. Self-evaluation is certainly important though. I know that Robert has said that pride is thing he struggles with the most. I think that is the case for many pastors. Again, thanks for sharing!