I’m not sure when you’ll get to read this. You see, I can only discuss such a topic at a time when none of our ministers has recently resigned or is about to resign or is subject to the kind of criticism that might get him fired. No one would believe that I’m writing this in the abstract. That’s just not how people are. As I’ll explain.
This is targeted to elders. However, I know in some churches a minister might be fired by the senior minister, an executive minister, or a committee. The principles remain the same.
All these rules are outworkings of the Golden Rule. Just remember, “do unto others” applies to the minister, his family, your church, his next employer, and each of your fellow elders. That complicates things.
(For members of my congregation: yes, some of this is based on local experience. But, no, not all of it is. I represent dozens of churches of all denominations across the state of Alabama and even in some other states. Do not speculate. You violate the Golden Rule when you try to guess at what you don’t know about a brother in Christ.)
Rule 1. Never fire a minister
Well, not really. It’s okay to fire a minister, but you have to let him resign — unless he’s done something so bad that he should be out of the ministry for a long time. Because that’s what’ll happen if you fire him. He won’t be employable in the ministry.
Merely being angry is not good enough. If the preacher brings a guitar into the assembly without your permission, he may well deserve to be fired, but let him resign anyway. Firing is never, ever about vengeance.
Most ministers only have a degree in Bible or ministry, and they aren’t trained for anything else. Many have unpaid school debt. (Worse yet, people outside the Church likely wouldn’t understand why he got fired for bringing a guitar into the assembly, and so they’d assume that he really did something much worse.)
Ministers who get fired, even if they are allowed to resign, often struggle to find a job. I mean, if an accountant loses his job, there are likely scores of accountants in that town and maybe a job is turning over. But there may only be one or two Churches of Christ in town that would even consider this man, one of which is yours. And it’s not likely the other job is open.
He’s going to have to move, and it’s going to take months to find a new position. It’ll be hard and miserable at best. Don’t make is worse. Trust me, he’ll feel very punished no matter how kindly you handle it.
Rule 2. Never fire in haste
Occasionally some hotheaded elder just ups and fires minister on his own authority. Well, he has no such authority. Only the eldership may fire a minister. Pray. Do a proper investigation of the facts. Take enough time to be sure and to do it right.
Of course, if he’s alleged to have molested someone or otherwise to pose a threat to others, don’t leave him in a position where he can do more harm! He is not presumed innocent. This is not a criminal trial. This is a church, and a man accused of molesting children should be kept away from children. A man accused sexual harassment should be kept away from the accuser. (These kinds of cases require the services of an experienced labor attorney, even if you have to pay.)
Unanimity shouldn’t be required, but you really want to take the time to be unanimous if you can get there. If an elder has a conflict (it’s his son-in-law, for example), he should be excluded from all deliberations — and not allowed to lobby the elders on his son-in-law’s behalf. He has to sit on his hands. (It’s really hard.)
Rule 3. The preacher can be a good man, even a good minister, and still deserve to be fired
The naïve view is that men are only fired for doing bad things. Not so. Elders should terminate any minister who doesn’t perform up to the standards required to do the Lord’s work at that place — and do it well.
Sometimes, a congregation or youth ministry just outgrows the talents of the man who led the growth. It’s no sin. It’s really an admirable accomplishment when that happens. But if growth is plateaued because the minister can’t grow as fast as his ministry, he should be encouraged to search for a new job.
Or the minister might just be the wrong fit. You may have a great youth minister trying to be a preacher. In such a case, tell him the truth and urge him to find a more suitable position.
In such a case, there may be little urgency. It’s very fact dependent. However, it’s my experience that men who know they’re no longer wanted usually come to hate their job and their employer. It’s the sour grapes effect. And it gets worse the longer it takes him to find a new job.
If it takes more than a month or 6 weeks (tops!), ask him to resign and pay severance. Don’t make him work at a job where he knows he’s not wanted.
Rule 4. Don’t search for a replacement until the minister has resigned and his resignation has been announced
It’s a small denomination, and lots of us are bad to gossip (and, yes, it’s sin, but preachers are some of the worst when it comes to other preachers). If you call someone and ask him to interview or for a recommendation, you can just assume that it’ll get back to your church in about 10 minutes.
If you aren’t sure enough of the need to fire the man without the next man located, you aren’t sure enough to fire him.
(Around here, we call this the “Bobby Lowder Rule.” Auburn, Alabama, and Louisville fans will understand.)
Rule 5. It’s good to have a gap between the two ministers
In the case of a retirement, and even where the minister did something truly bad, there will be members — many members — who adored him. They’ll have to go through a period of “mourning” while they adjust to the idea of his being replaced or the fact that he did something so awful.
Don’t let the beloved retired preacher stay in the pulpit while the next guys try out. It’ll be a bad situation. Fill in the gap with members, visiting preachers, or even a professional fill in. There are retired ministers who will, for a modest cost, fill in while you search. (Just don’t hire a fill in so good he makes the new guy look bad!)
Rule 6. Carefully consider your timing
Be considerate by firing the minister at the right time, if you can. Sometimes, an eldership delays the decisions, out of a misguided compassion, putting an entirely unnecessary and unfair burden on the minister.
A minister with children in school is better fired at a time when he can move between school years or semesters. If his kids attend a private school, don’t delay until they’ve paid the next semester’s tuition.
And remember that it’s easiest to sell houses in the spring and early summer. Don’t wait until August or September when you knew you were going to fire him in May!