“It’s on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation – and generation after generation you treat them like dirt, greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse” (Matt. 23:34, The Message).
The Barna Institute estimates that a pastor in the United States is forced out of his or her ministry every six minutes; another study estimates that 1,600 ministers leave the ministry every month. An article on the American Association of Christian Counselors website estimates that, on the day you read this, 43 pastors and their families will leave the ministry here in America. Whichever of these statistical estimates hits closest to the reality, we are seeing, as Ron and Rodetta Cook note, “a wave of pastors being washed out of their God-called positions in the church.”
Christianity Today has reported that nearly one-third of all churches in America have experienced a conflict within the last two years that resulted in the pastor leaving, by choice or by force. Nearly half of these men and women will never return to pastoral ministry. This is a tragic and heartbreaking reality that should alarm all of us who identify ourselves as Christians.
In an online article, Charles H. Chandler notes that, after facilitating a session of participants’ stories at a Healthy Transitions Wellness Retreat where the same pattern emerged again and again, he was asked, “Is there a rulebook on forced termination?”
His conclusion? “I have worked with hundreds of ministers who have experienced forced termination. At this point, I have decided a rulebook is floating around out there somewhere and it does suggest that a few disgruntled church members can follow the above listed rules and ‘kick the preacher out”; I’ve never seen it in writing, but its effectiveness can be seen in case after case.”
The pattern he observed being repeated in church after church looked like this:
“First, each minister had been ‘blind-sided.’ A group of two or three persons, usually self-appointed, approached the minister without warning and said he/she should resign because of loss of effectiveness. They convinced the minister that the whole church shared their feeling. The ‘group’ presented themselves as merely ‘messengers’ and insisted there was nothing personal about the request. The messengers told the minister they loved him/her and really hated to deliver the resignation request.
“Second, while the minister was in a state of shock after being ‘blindsided,’ the ‘group’ dumped guilt on the minister. They said the pastor should resign and the related conversation must be kept very quiet. If word got out, it could split the church. And, the minister would not want to be known as one who caused a split church! Any negative effect from the minister’s leaving was dumped directly on him/her as though a minister could just slip away and never be missed.
“Third, while the minister was still in no condition to make a decision of any kind, the group pressed for a decision. In most cases, a few weeks or a few months of severance was offered – provided the resignation was given immediately and the entire conversation kept quiet. The ‘messengers’ added, ‘We have to know what you plan to do, because if you refuse to resign or if you talk to other church members, we will take away the severance and call a church business meeting to fire you. Then you will get nothing.’”
Though the messengers may tell the pastor they represent the vast majority of the membership, quite often they are a self-appointed faction who acts behind closed doors. And, according to a survey conducted by Leadership magazine, 80 percent of forced out ministers report that the real reason for their leaving was not made known to their congregations.
Ken Sande, who has developed “The Peacemaker” church resource set, has summarized the cost of conflict between pastors and churches:
“Pastors are not being adequately trained in conflict resolution; conflict brings down thousands of them every year; churches engage in spiritual battle without proper leadership, and then churches wonder why they have so little fruit and suffer so much. No secular business would accept such high leadership losses. Executive turnover in businesses typically cost employers from 12-18 months of the executive’s annual salary. If this figure were applied to the pastoral turnovers, we would see that they are costing the church over $684 million a year! If you measured the cost in terms of seminary or Bible experiences that go down the drain whenever a pastor leaves the ministry, you would come up with a similar appalling number. But the cost to the kingdom cannot be measured in terms of money. How precious is the gift of preaching the gospel, and what is the cost when a pastor loses his pulpit and his gift is silenced? Whatever the measure, the cost of losing thousands of pastors each year is astronomical. The church cannot afford to let these losses continue.”