When and How to Fire a Pastor

A followup to yesterday’s article on a church taking a vote on firing the pastor.

Among the responses that began to flow in from yesterday’s article “What the Pastor Said Before the Vote” was a private note from a woman I know from the internet. “All right then, Brother Joe, tell me: under what circumstances can a pastor be terminated?”

I was on my way out the door–friends were being appointed to the mission field in a service in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and I was headed that way–so my reply to her was: “Unethical, unbiblical, immoral, illegal.”

All of that is true.

But it’s not all that should be said on the subject. Those four areas are often complex, and deserve thoughtful consideration from mature and godly church leadership teams.

Anyone who regularly reads this website knows two things about me: 1) I am pro-pastor, 2) but not blind. I know there are people occupying the pastor’s office who need to be put out of the ministry, and I am in favor of that. We do the Lord no favor when we keep employing (or recommending) poor excuses for ministers of the gospel.

What I am not in favor of is impatient, worldly, or controlling church members making the decision whether a good and faithful brother continues at a church, regardless of what the Living God has to say about the matter.

Okay. With that having been said, let’s fire a pastor, shall we? Here is how it’s done.


First, let’s consider whether any of the four conditions have been met.

UNETHICAL.

The pastor was found to be mishandling church funds. Checks that came into the office meant for one purpose were deposited into an account which he and only he controlled. He spent the money on fancy clothes, vacations, and golf clubs.

Fire him. He’s a crook.

UNBIBLICAL.

All right, this is where it gets iffy. What’s “unbiblical” to one group may be orthodox to another.

However, as a conservative Bible-believing Southern Baptist, my frame of reference here is not complicated. The pastor who says abortion on demand is all right for Christians, who condones unmarried couples living together as husband and wife, and who approves the practice of homosexuality as the “new norm,” has just met the requirements for dismissal.

His views may be sincere and his convictions may be strong. As a human and as an American, he is certainly entitled to believe whatever he pleases. As a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ, however, he has not been left to his own devices, commissioned to preach his own convictions, or sent to proclaim the latest cultural trends. Whether we fully understand–or even live up to–the whole Word of God, we are sent to preach it.

IMMORAL.

This is another area not always cut and dried. Adultery is immoral, we agree. Pornography, bestiality, child molestation, rape, etc., are likewise immoral and thus wrong. But what about whipping a child or neglecting a dog? People differ on these matters.

People of godly character and mature understanding will make these assessments carefully and prayerfully.

ILLEGAL.

Murder is illegal, but so is running a traffic light. So, once again, there are no hard and fast rules in print that a church leadership team can consult to see whether to retain or dismiss their preacher.

Once when my dad and I were driving into town, he pointed out a church on the left side of the highway. “The pastor was arrested and fined for hunting without a license,” he said. “The congregation took up an offering to pay the costs.”

I was stunned. That was some years ago, and I have forgotten whatever followup discussion we had, but I feel confident there were extenuating circumstances. Perhaps the pastor was new in the state and unaware of certain matters. I do, however, appreciate the congregation showing grace to their preacher.

“My pastor has done nothing immoral, illegal, unethical, or unbiblical. But he’s lazy, he preaches the same shallow sermons over and over. He is letting the church die without giving any leadership. Shouldn’t we dismiss him?”

First, assuming your description of that preacher is authentic, a case can be made for his being both immoral (taking money from the church under false pretenses) and unbiblical (not taking care of the flock. Acts 20:28, among other places).

But, we do not call a church vote on whether to dismiss him, not without a lot of intermediate steps.

Second, there are processes for dealing with such a pastor.

a) Every church should have in place some kind of accountability group for the minister. Whether it’s the deacons or personnel committee or pastor-relations team or whatever they choose to call it, a church with no identifiable process to communicate concerns to the pastor is set up for trouble.

The pastor comes into the office irregularly. The pastor is rarely available to counsel troubled members. The pastor does not respond to requests to minister to crisis situations. His sermons are reruns and dull. He doesn’t return phone calls.There must be an accepted way for the congregation to register their concern with him. Without it, frustration builds and builds inside the membership until an eruption occurs which, like all volcanic explosions, does great damage.

b) The church leadership team steps in and becomes the pastor’s best friend. The steps they take will often determine whether the minister remains and his ministry thrives or his work there is aborted.

My young pastor friend David sent a note yesterday as a result of the previous article. He has a lot of wisdom on the subject, so I’m going to quote him almost verbatim.

1. Pray for your pastor multiple times daily. If you are praying for him, then you are asking for God’s best in and through him.

2. Attempt to meet with the pastor, one on one, to discuss the areas of concern. Explain your willingness to help in any way, and do not communicate any of your concerns as accusations, but as heart-felt concerns for him and the church.

3. If he refuses to meet, or if the meeting goes sour, re-examine the reasons you want to have this meeting, and pray through God’s desire for your part in this.

4. If God gives you the go-ahead, then attempt to speak to the next person in leadership, whether the associate pastor, chairman of the deacons, etc But make all attempts to involve as few people as possible. Accountability isn’t about advertisement, but about concerned hearts.

5. If the next leader in line does not agree with you or is unwilling to stand with you to speak to the pastor, re-examine again. This doesn’t necessarily mean you are wrong, but that you are willing to surrender to God’s will in this. Remember, all our actions are meant to honor God. Obedience to His will is foremost.

6. If still led by God to continue your pursuit, then continue down the leadership line until someone takes a stand. If no one does, then I believe you may have found the answer to the issue. It is either you and your sore feelings from being snubbed or God is telling you it is time to find a church that is alive and willing to hold each other and its leaders accountable.

Finally, all avenues to correct the situation have been exhausted and the situation is still not working. What should we do?

If I were a consultant in such a church crisis, I would want to know whether this is merely a difference in opinion among leaders or a genuine problem that demanded action.

I would want to know what our choices were. Here are some which few leadership teams ever consider once they make up their minds to terminate a pastor:

–What if an outside consultant were called in to work with the pastor, to help him improve? The congregation would pay the cost for this. It would require the church leadership to believe God can change people and to get serious about praying. Equally important, it would necessitate that the pastor was open to being helped by an outsider.

The way to “get” a pastor to accept outside help is by convincing him his job is in jeopardy. Usually, that works.

–Does the pastor need a vacation? Perhaps he is stressed. I have suggested that to more than one preacher. When a man is in seminary and pastoring a church on the side, when he has to work at another job and yet has a family that needs him, he lives with great stress and something is going to suffer.

When a pastor takes his vacation time to hold revival meetings in other churches and returns home fatigued, he does no one a favor. The congregation should write into the personnel policy that at least two weeks of pastoral vacation time each year must be used for that purpose.

–Does the pastor need help? He’s spread thin.

As the new pastor of one church, I entered to find half the staff positions vacant. Each ministry position had a separate search committee I had to work with, plus I had the usual demands on the pastor of a large church. At the same time, we were constructing a new sanctuary and the burden for raising the funds to pay for it were falling on me. Furthermore, my wife and teenage children were having trouble adjusting to the new city and needed my attention.

What do you suppose my sermons sounded like in those days? And do you think some church member complained that I did not return her phone calls in due time or neglected her in the hospital?

Termination is the last step. The very last step. Do this and you are forever wounding this minister. Fire him and you are effectively ending his ministry for a time, perhaps for several years.

Yesterday, a member of a search committee asked me about a candidate for pastor whom they are considering: “If he’s so good, why was he fired from his last church?” A variation of that which I’ve heard says, “If he’s such a great preacher, why isn’t he in the pulpit?”

Lay people do not understand. A deacon told me in one church, “If you were to resign here, you could get another church in a heartbeat.” When I did indeed leave that church–long story, told in other places–he never learned the reality, that congregations one-tenth of my last church were hesitant to talk to me, fearful that there must be something seriously wrong with me for me to be unemployed. That was over 20 years ago, and I recall it like it was last month.

If you can keep from it, do not fire him.

Work out a way for him to leave on his own. Let him resign without the stigma of being fired.

(This subject goes on and on. If you will allow me, we’ll stop right here. We have no exhausted the issue nor have we answered all questions. But it’s time to end this. Feel free to send followup questions or comments below.)

2 thoughts on “When and How to Fire a Pastor

  1. Dr. McKeever,

    Thanks for the very good article. It was broad enough to cover issue and concise enough that didn’t leave me with too much information to process. Just an opinion but I believe if congregations practice these points, forced terminations would drop somewhere in the 80% range. Thank you for your ministry.

  2. Both posts, yesterday’s and today’s are right on target. I deal with church conflict, no, check that, with congregational/pastor conflict more than anyone should have to. Your advice in today’s post should be required reading and application for every pastor and church leader. Thank you.