A Dozen Rules for Firing a Minister, Part 2

fired1.jpgRule 7. Don’t split your church

I imagine that minister firings have split as many churches as any one doctrinal issue. It only happens when a large portion of the congregation considers the decision unfair. How does this happen?

* Well, it happens when it really is unfair.

* It happens when the elders don’t have the confidence of the church. Elderships without “political capital” can’t effectively oversee a church, because a controversial decision will split it. They should all resign and let the church ordain a new eldership rather than being unable to make the hard decisions.

* It happens when the elders fire a popular minister and the minister behaves resentfully. Often, elders decide not to disclose the reasons for the termination to the church — to let the minister resign and be able to get another job. That’s usually exactly right, but the elders must NEVER promise to keep it a secret. Tell him the secret only lasts as long as he behaves himself. Never, ever let the church suffer for a minister who won’t behave honorably, no matter how much you love him and his family. Love the church more.

Rule 8. Don’t lie

Elders nationwide are notorious for giving good recommendations for ministers they fired for having done horrible things. “Well, he repented and said he’s sorry. Don’t we have to forgive?” Yes. Forgive him. But forgiveness doesn’t excuse your being a liar.

Here’s the theology. We are not called to lie to protect men from the natural consequences of their sins on earth.

Here’s the law. If a preacher was fired for sexual harassment, you have to tell his next employer, if he asks. If he molested a child and you don’t tell, you’ll be liable to the next family he wounds. There are serious legal ramifications.

But the moral ramifications are much greater. Let’s put it this way: if you are compassionate and loving enough to forgive him and overlook his sin, then why won’t his next elders? Are you so much holier than all the other elderships in the Churches of Christ?

Now, sometimes the minister was fired but disputed the facts. He denies having committed adultery or stealing or whatever. And in some states, former employers can have serious liability for harming the employment prospects of a former employee. How do you avoid liability for slander?

Here are the ideas I know of —

* Don’t answer (but this is very unbrotherly and very unfair to the next church that hires him)

* Insist that he give you a written release before you answer. If he refuses, the new eldership has been warned!

But when the risk is serious, as always, get the advice of a good labor lawyer (not a general practitioner. And pay him what he’s worth.) And check your insurance coverage for defamation coverage.

Why on earth do elders want to help a former minister get hired on false pretenses? NO LYING!

Rule 9. Pay a generous severance

Yes, I know you’re stewards for the Lord, and yes I know some in church consider two weeks severance very generous. But some people just don’t understand.

Ministers rarely have any savings, because we just don’t pay them that well. And it’ll take time for him to find a new job.

As a rough rule of thumb, severance should be at least one month per year of service with your congregation, capped at something like 4 months — with your right to continue the payment if you’re persuaded he’s trying very hard to find a job and just can’t. And in most cases, you shouldn’t pay less than two months’ pay. I mean, there’s just no way a preacher is going to get a new job in less time.

Of course, if he stole from the church or otherwise acted in a way he knew to be immoral, you can cut him off entirely. But even then, take his family into account. It’s always a judgment call.

Never promise severance when you hire anyone. Never create a written severance plan (they’re potentially enforceable and require an expert attorney). Never announce a severance policy (same problem).

When he’s terminated, have a very clear conversation with him. You might put it in writing if you have a lawyer at your disposal. This what you should say —

* Severance is a gift, not an entitlement. It depends on good behavior.

* “Good behavior” means, at the least, not running down the church or the eldership to anyone (at home or elsewhere) and working hard to find a job.

(The minister may well continue to worship with you. He may be angry. If it’s hard to find a job, he’ll get frustrated and want to vent by mouthing off. If he just has to, he’s welcome to come in and scream at the elders. Or you’ll hire him a counselor. But he may not divide the Lord’s church or even create a disturbance.)

* “Good behavior” also includes taking no divisive steps at all. NONE. A few ministers have been known, after being fired, to grab up a bunch of members and start a competing church.

(If there’s a chance of this happening, make him sign a promise to repay all the severance should he work for a newly formed church in town. And enforce it. Dividing the Lord’s church is a wicked thing. Taking money and doing so is even worse.)

* Severance is capped at X months.

* The elders expect regular reports on the job search.

* It’s sin to delay the job search to take advantage of the severance pay.

* He may not share with others the terms of his severance or even that he’s receiving severance.

(You very much don’t want to create a precedent for other ministers, who may leave under much worse circumstances. It’s a legal thing. Plus you should tell him that you are being far more generous than most private employers (true), and some in the congregation may resent it (They shouldn’t but some will think it’s like getting any other job. It’s not.). Moreover, you should tell him that only employees who get fired get severance (true). If he talks about his severance, he’ll have told the entire denomination he was fired. (People do gossip, you know.))

* Remind him that there are no exceptions — other than his accountant and wife. He and she can’t share this with their prayer partners or small group or parents or friends they get counseling from.

(This is for his protection. If he blabs, everyone in the Churches of Christ will know he was fired in about 10 minutes.)

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to A Dozen Rules for Firing a Minister, Part 2

  1. Adam G. says:

    On # 9: I ended up declaring bankruptcy.

    No savings and no education outside of ministry that paid. I had been an ESL/EFL teacher in private language schools and returned to that, but it provided low pay and no benefits.

  2. jdb says:

    What an amazing article. I think it may be the only one I've ever read on the subject and it is very well thought out.

    I wish my former elders had read it about four years ago. I think there is another point that you could have made a little stronger. Elders and ministers need to have a spirit of teamwork and with that goes communication. In my former congregation, which I served for 12 years, I sensed something wrong but couldn't put my finger on it. I met with the elders on a weekly basis and it was "business as usual". However, I went to one of the shepherds who I considered a good friend and asked him if it was time for me to start looking for another place and was assured that everything was all right. Six weeks later this same man, a good man, was sitting in my office telling me the elders had decided it was time for me to leave. Seems a group of young marrieds had been having a class and had decided that they could do the work of the pulpit minister as well as the youth minister and save the congregation the money. They did a good job of approaching different elders so it seemed there was a large segment of the church that wanted the change.

    I was angry, hurt and felt betrayed. They wanted me to go find another job and come back and resign. I couldn't do that. The people I was working with were weaker in the faith and it had taken me a long time to build trust with them. I also believed that the elders had made the decision and they should own it.

    One point that you made very well that I am in total agreement with is that this is a crucial time and could result in a split. This is almost always within the realm of the preacher. Our feelings are hurt, our work seems to have been devalued, our families are being uprooted, sometimes for no good reason, and we strike back. However, we will stand before Jesus to answer to how we handled this difficult situation. The minister is not responsible for how the elders handle the situation, but he is responsible for how he handles it. After 12 years I was let go with no severence package, no "going away fellowship", and no good word from the elders. Only two sought me out to wish me well, the others I had to chase down to shake their hands. The last words I heard from the pulpit I had filled for over a decade was one of the elders reading a psalm and concluding with "and the rebellious shall be judged."

    Sorry for the lengthy diatribe…I guess it still bubbles up somewhere under the surface. One old preacher said that you never know how good a preacher you are until you've been fired. It's not pleasant, but preachers come and go. We have to always look out for the well being of souls and that means shepherding people who are hurt by our firing through the difficult times of transition. Again, I wished my elders had read your article. Thank you again for your ministry.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    jdb,

    Thanks for the encouraging post. I particularly appreciate your thoughts on the behavior of ministers who've been fired. I'm working on a post focusing on that subject and share your sentiments.

    Maybe I need to post something on how to not fire your preacher! Your thoughts on teamwork are important. It's amazing how many elderships treat the preacher as a hireling and have little relationship with him.

  4. Adam G. says:

    jdb,

    As bad as my end-of-ministry situation was, I hurt more reading what happened to you. I would rather believe that I was the only one this ever happened to, but I've heard too many stories to even think it's rare.

  5. jdb says:

    Thank you for the encouragement. It's been four years and I'm blessed to be a part of a very nurturing congregation that appreciates my services.

    In one of your points you hit the nail on the head. The temptation to "show them" was very strong. Two weeks after being fired, I was approached about taking over an empty church building 7 miles away, which was empty, and asked to start a new church. We would have also been free to do some of the things that I thought would work, but was unable to get started in the former congregation. I turned down the offer…but it was a temptation because we would have started with a large percentage of the former church's members.

    I was one of those guys who never believed this would happen to me, so I guess it's been a blessing in that I learned a lot of humility. The eldership I was with started out as one that really wanted to do what was right and learn how to be better at shepherding. In the beginning we traveled together to a Christian college on a yearly basis and learned together. That effort eventually waned. Other elders were appointed and they are good men, however they didn't continue with the yearly effort.

    I think some of the saddest parts of the process is that they totally misread the congregation. They must have been meeting in secret to discuss this matter because it never came up in our weekly meetings. From all outward perspectives the congregation was doing well. It had grown by about 125 in our morning assembly. We had built a new facility with expanded fellowship hall, offices, restrooms, kitchen and classrooms. We had recently expanded the auditorium to where it would seat double the previous one.

    However, the elders, again…all good men, were fooled into thinking that the majority of the congregation wanted a new preacher. When they found out the percentage was between 10-20% they were fooled but by then it was too late to do anything about it. Which might lead to a new rule for firing the preacher. (Make sure you know what you know.) Again, thank you for the encouragement.

    P.S. One of the worst things about it was that they decided to make the announcement on "Senior Day" before the assembly began. So, they fired me and then, almost immediately, asked my child to come to the front to receive the Bible they give to the graduates. Needless to say, my child was in tears which really made it tough for all concerned. Then, about 15 minutes later, with that image fresh on my heart I got to preach "business as usual". It was some day!

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