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.)