What the pastor is to do when ousted from a church

The headline from an online preacher magazines says a pastor fired because of his alcoholism is bitter at his mistreatment by that congregation’s leaders.  Not good.

I’ll not be reading that article, thank you.  But a lot of people will.  Looks to me like he deserved what he got.  But then, I’m neither his judge nor their advisor.  But when a fired preacher walks away bitter, that does concern me.

No one deserves to pastor the Lord’s church.  No degrees on the wall, no glowing resume, no recommendations from the denomination entitle you to a church to pastor.

It’s a privilege.  A call from Heaven.

The bitterness feels like this guy no longer trusts the Lord.  I suggest he read Acts 16 again, and remind himself how God can use setbacks and what appears to be defeats for His purposes.  But to do that, he will be needing trusting servants who are willing to take their lumps without complaining, to quieten their spirits, and to sing at midnight (Acts 16:25).

That God would allow any of us to preach to His people year after year, declaring Heaven’s message to the redeemed, without giving us what we truly deserve–the fires of hell come to mind, frankly–shows Him to be a God of grace.  Why don’t we see that?

Whenever I hear a Christian talking about not getting what he deserved, I run in the opposite direction, lest the Father suddenly decide to give the fellow what he’s asking for!

So, you were fired.  Okay.  Can we talk?

Call it whatever you will.  Perhaps they dressed up the terminology and told the congregation you were taking an extended leave, with pay for three months.  But you weren’t coming back.  Or, you were taking a well-needed sabbatical for rest and study. But you weren’t coming back.  Or you were going to the “wilderness” for some retraining and redirection for your ministry. But you weren’t coming back.

You will hold your head up and go forward and look to the Lord who called you into this work in the first place, asking Him to do with it whatever He has chosen.

Let’s repeat that–

Hold your head up!  Look to the Lord.  Give this whole business to Him.  And keep on doing that until no trace of resentment can be found on your person.  Even if it takes years!

Of course it’s hard.  It’s very hard.

The simple fact is, it’s so hard most people won’t be able to pull it off.  They will grasp their hurt to themselves like a prized possession and refuse to give it up.  Only those who truly trust the Savior can keep their eyes on Him, keep abiding in Him, and keep on trusting and loving and giving.

The arm of flesh will fail you; you dare not trust your own. Put on the gospel armor….

What other things can the ousted pastor do, now that his status with the church is no longer in doubt?

I. While you are still on the scene….

–First, try not to let it catch you unprepared.  You should have seen this separation coming.  And if you did, even if you fought it and prayed against it happening, you surely must have given some thought on what you would do if the church (or an official body representing the church) asked you to leave.

Among other things, this means you will have prepared your family for this eventuality.  You and your spouse will have given thought to where you would live and what you would do for a job until something opened up in ministry.

–Second, try to work out as much severance as you can.  I talked with a pastor who said the following Sunday would be his last at that church, the work of a little group of leaders.  Would there be severance? He had no idea.  I suggested he get his local denominational leader involved, asking him to intercede.  He needs a friend.

As a rule, the longer you stay at a church, the more the severance when you leave.  However, for anything less than five years, be thankful if you get as much as three months.

A veteran pastor in the area or a denominational leader might be willing to call the chair of the official group and discreetly inquire about the severance, even to the point of making suggestions. Most lay leaders will have no experience in this and will appreciate the assistance.

–Third, as soon as you know this is going to happen and nothing can stop it, check with one of your mentors (or a denominational friend) and see what advice/counsel they have as you negotiate your departure.  Will the church move you?  Will they take care of your health insurance for the period of the severance?  That sort of thing.  And, what kind of reference will they give you when the next church comes calling?

–Fourth, start a journal.  Get a wordless book and sit on the back porch with a cup of coffee and start writing. Put the date at the top of page 1, and say what has happened, what you are doing today, and what you hope to do.  Write out a brief prayer.  And tomorrow, do the same.  Keep it up as long as you wish. Even if it means repeating some events, certain conversations.  It’s good therapy and may end up being a needed record.  Doing this will help you think matters through, too.  I know this from experience.

–Fifth, be kind to everyone.  If you have been mistreated and the ousting is unfair, your flesh will want to strike out and make sure the congregation knows who did this to you.  And, if the Holy Spirit leads you to share that information with the church, or a portion of the congregation, you will do that.  But you will want to be kind and Christlike in everything you do and say.

I know of a young pastor who left a church of his own volition, but who used his last sermon to vent his frustrations and anger.  Twenty years later, that final tirade is the only thing those people remember about this good man’s ministry there.

–Sixth, tell a few ministry friends.  As soon as you knew you were leaving, you should have set up a network of colleagues in the ministry and informed them. You needed their prayers, but you also wanted them to a) know what was happening and b) be prepared to recommend you to another church.

II. Then, after you have left that church…

–One.  Do something about your plans. Do not assume you will be back in the pulpit of another church by the time your severance ends.  Most unemployed pastors find it takes six months or more to do this.  In my case, it was a full year. So, be planning what you will do to put groceries on the table and to pay the mortgage.

Nothing frightens the wife of an unemployed pastor more than his sitting around the house moping, sending out resumes, waiting by the phone, and nothing happening. Likewise, nothing fuels the anger and frustration in the unemployed minister more than the phone never ringing.  So, do something. Your wounded self esteem will jump a mile when you discover you can earn a living doing something other than preaching.

–Two.  Find a good counselor and make periodic visits.  No holds barred, tell what happened and let it all hang out.  Then, leave the anger there.

–Three.  Keep up with your journal.  Watch out for the anger, for depression, for the tendency to blame others for what happened to you.  Write down your prayer for the day, as well as insights from Scripture that blessed you this morning.

–Four.  Maintain a good fitness program.  And if you don’t have one, get one.  At the very least, find a good walking track in a park somewhere and visit it daily.  A couple of miles should take 30 minutes.  The health benefit will be enormous and you’ll find this an excellent time to think about matters and talk to the Father.

–Five. Do not write anything publicly about your experience in that church for a number of years.  For the moment, your journal should be all the writing you do about that sad experience. The day may come–as it did for me a full eleven years later–when you can write about it dispassionately in a way to help others going through the same trial.

If you were indeed treated unfairly, remember the old dictum that “the best revenge is living well.”  Show that church and the world–and most importantly, yourself and your spouse–that you are whole and healthy and a survivor.  No venom, no anger, no revenge.  Determine to love and bless and help.  Let the Lord deal with the previous church.  From all I know, He will.  Keep in mind that you were not guiltless in that situation.  No problems are all completely one-sided.

–Six. Accept every preaching/teaching opportunity that comes along, whether it’s teaching a Sunday School class, speaking in the nursing home, or filling in for a friend at the jail service.  Resist the temptation to turn down small invitations in order to be available when a more attractive one arrives.  The best indication that you are ready to return to the pastorate is that you are actively serving the Lord now in every way you can.

Don’t miss that last statement.  When you are dismissed from a church, if you are normal you will announce that “I’m just fine and I’m ready for the Lord to send me to my next assignment.”  Chances are, that’s wrong.  There is a good chance you are hurting inside and need some healing before you can be trusted to handle with care the next family of believers the Lord has for you.

You need healing.  And for that, you need to do number seven perhaps most of all.

Seven.  Join a church and get active. Tithe your income and sit in the pew and pray for your new pastor.  Guard against the tendency to judge his sermons and leadership.  Never ever let anyone, even your spouse, hear you say, “If I were pastor of this church….”

Someone reading this may fault it for my failure to mention “prayer.”  Actually, I’m assuming you are praying constantly, in everything, throughout the day.

The day will come when you will be in another church, more than likely smaller than your previous pastorate.  That’s just how these things work, and to expect to land in a larger situation than the one from which you were terminated is unrealistic. (I actually know a couple of instances where that did happen.  But those are the exceptions.)  And when you get there…

III. Then, in your new church…

–Stay close to the Lord and your spouse.  That will require some quality time every day for both.

–Remember how it felt when you were suddenly unemployed.  So when you hear of a pastor who has been dismissed, even with just cause, reach out to him.  You have “been there and have the t-shirt to prove it.”

God said to Israel, “When you get into the Promised Land and things are going well for you, be kind to the foreigner in your midst.  You were once foreigners in Egypt, so you know how it feels.” (The gist of several statements in Leviticus 19.)

–Do not rejoice when you hear your old church is having problems.  Pray for them.  Pray for the new pastor.  Leave them with the Lord.

–From time to time, reflect on your time in that previous church and ask yourself two questions:  a) What did I do wrong?  and b) What do I wish now I had done?  Write about those in your journal.  And of course, keep the journal to yourself.  This is not for publication.  Not yet, at any rate.  The day may come.

–Look for signs in how you relate to your new church that you are not fully healed.  This could show up as impatience or temper or depression. (In my case, it was a dread of every deacons’ meeting.)  Watch for the temptation to preach to your people what you wish you had said to the last congregation.

–Listen to your wife, both to her words and to her heart.  She sees the signs indicating whether you are healthy in mind and body and soul, and will be the first to inform you.  At the first sign of trouble, return to the counselor and talk it out.  Do not argue or justify yourself.

You will get past this.  You will be healthy and whole and have a great ministry.  And, if experience can be trusted, I’d say your next ministry will be different from what you have done before.  And better even.

A pastor friend who was ousted from his church is now working as a chaplain with a ministry reaching troubled young people.  Another friend who  had to leave his church abruptly ended up pastoring in another state a congregation that had just come through a bad split.

God will not waste suffering.  He will use this in your life.  But to get the full benefits, you must stay close to Him, remain in place where He puts you, and obey all the things you know He wants faithful disciples to do.

Toward the end of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas told the new converts, “Through much tribulation we enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).  Or, more bluntly, between here and heaven, expect trouble.  Hardship is not par for the course; it is the course.

Stay buckled up.  Turbulence ahead.


1 thought on “What the pastor is to do when ousted from a church

  1. This is the very reason I strongly believe every ministerial student should be counseled concerning bi-vocational ministries. Every young person who surrenders to the ministry should, in my opinion, be counseled to have a skill, trade, or marketable degree (business or otherwise) to fall back on in case this happens to him. I would go so far as to say this should be a required 101 course in seminary during the first semester. Too many of God’s servants have gone without a “plan B” in case of termination. As we learned in scouts: “be prepared”.

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