[Consider this a draft. I wrestle with the right and wrong of these issues, especially having had first hand experience with this circumstance — and having many friends caught up such situations as well. And so, maybe I’m missing something. It’s hard to be objective.]
In an earlier post, Kent Gatewood pointed out that firing a minister often results in the minister starting a new church and taking many of the old church’s members with him. This is, of course, devastating to the old church, regardless of why it happens.
And it’s a difficult ethical conundrum. I feel quite strongly that a preacher may not, while on the payroll, do anything detrimental to his church. He has to be loyal to those who are paying him. It’s pretty fundamental. It’s implicit in the relationship.
He can search for another job, but not a job that would hurt his present church. He has to search for a new job out of town (unless he lives in a town so big that he can stay in town and not hurt his former church).
But what if he’s been fired? Well, if he’s on severance, the first rule still applies. He cannot take money from someone whom he is undermining. It’s just not right.
But what if he’s fired and not on severance? May he —
* Start a new church built on membership in his former church?
* Go to work in a congregation in the same town, knowing that doing so will draw many members from his old church?
I think the answer to the first question remains “no,” and obviously so. Consider these reasons —
* If a preacher might take a large number of the church’s members and start a new church were he to be fired, then the eldership can’t fire him without dividing their church. This gives the preacher economic bargaining power that overturns the scriptural rule that the elders oversee the church, including the church’s employees. The preacher becomes the bishop of the church.
* The elders never would have hired the man had he said, “If you fire me, I’ll steal your members.”
* It violates the Golden Rule. After all, how would he feel if, in his new church, the youth minister he hires were to treat him as he is treating his former elders?
And so, it seems essential that the preacher, as a matter of principle, refuse to start that church.
Now to the second question: what if an existing church in town offers him a job? If he’s in Dallas and moving 50 miles away, he likely won’t draw enough old members away to matter. He can take the job. But most of these issues come up in smaller towns, where inevitably his taking another job in the same town will steal members.
May he do it? Again, I think the answer is “no.” It’s a closer case, because he’s not quite so directly undercutting his former church, but I think it’s still wrong. Here’s why I think so —
* Again, had the original elders known he might bolt for a job in the same city, they’d have never hired him. No eldership would.
* I’ve known lots of preachers in my day. The best of them would not do this. They think it’s wrong. And I respect their consciences.
* The Golden Rule again applies — as is always the case, of course. Would he want a minister in his church to leave, move to a nearby church, and steal his members?
* If he’s smart, he’d realize that the new church might be hiring him more for his ability to steal members than for his own skills. The new church might not be very loyal to him, especially given that they’re asking him to be disloyal.
Now, I say all this realizing that there are hard fact patterns. If the old church fires him unfairly with no severance, he may well have trouble finding a job out of town. The old church may be horribly led and steeped in legalism. The town may have a desperate need for people to leave and start a new church.
But folks can leave, if they must, without hiring away staff members from the old church. And preachers can find work in other cities. And churches that wish to be compassionate to an unfairly fired minister can support him without hiring him and using him to steal members.
Now, the other side of this problem is, as Kent also pointed out, what do you do when the elders are the ones who ought to be fired? That’ll be the topic for a future post.