The headline from an online preacher magazine says a pastor fired because of his alcoholism is bitter at his mistreatment by that congregation’s leaders. Not good.
I’ll not be reading that article, thank you. But a lot of people will. Looks to me like he deserved what he got. Then again, I’m neither his judge nor their advisor. But when a fired preacher walks away bitter, that does concern me.
No one deserves to pastor the Lord’s church.
Your bitterness feels like you no longer trust the Lord. Read Acts 16 again, preacher, and remind yourself how God loves to use setbacks and what appear to be defeats for His purposes. But the one thing He requires to pull that off is trusting servants who know how to sing at midnight (Acts 16:25).
That God would allow any of us to preach to His people year after year, declaring Heaven’s message to the redeemed, without giving us what we truly deserve–the fires of hell come to mind, frankly–shows Him to be a God of grace. Why don’t we see that?
Whenever I hear a Christian talking about not getting what he deserved, I run in the opposite direction, lest the Father suddenly decide to give the fellow what he’s asking for!
So, you were fired. Okay. Can we talk?
Call it whatever you will. Perhaps they dressed up the terminology and told the congregation you were taking an extended leave, with pay, for three months. But you weren’t coming back. Or, you were taking a well-needed sabbatical for rest and study. But you weren’t coming back. Or you were going to the “wilderness” for some retraining and redirection for your ministry. But you weren’t coming back.
You will hold your head up and go forward and look to the Lord who called you into this work in the first place, asking Him to do with it whatever He has chosen.
I repeat: Hold your head up! Look to the Lord. Give this whole business to Him. And keep on doing that until no trace of resentment can be found on your person. Even if it takes five years!
Sure it’s hard. It’s very hard.
In fact, most people won’t be able to pull it off. They will grasp their hurt to themselves like a prized possession and refuse to give it up. Only those who truly trust the Savior can keep their eyes on Him, keep abiding in Him, and keep on trusting and loving and giving.
“The arm of flesh will fail you; you dare not trust your own. Put on the gospel armor…”
What other things can the ousted pastor do, now that his status with the church is no longer in doubt?
I. While you are still on the scene…
First, try not to let it catch you unprepared. You should have seen this coming. And if you did, even if you fought it and prayed against it happening, you surely must have given some thought on what you would do if the church (or an official body representing the church) asked you to leave.
Among other things, this means you will have prepared your family for this eventuality. You and your spouse will have given thought to where you would live and what you would do for a job until something opened up in ministry.
Second, try to work out as much severance as you can. Recently, I talked with a pastor who said the following Sunday would be his last at that church, the work of a little group of leaders. Would there be severance? He had no idea. I suggested he get his local denominational leader involved, asking him to intercede.
As a rule, the longer you stay at a church, the more the severance when you leave. However, for anything less than five years, be thankful if you get as much as three months.
A veteran pastor in the area or a denominational leader might be willing to call the chair of the official group and discreetly inquire about the severance, even to the point of making suggestions.
Third, as soon as you know this is going to happen and nothing can stop it, check with one of your mentors (or a denominational friend) and see what advice/counsel they have as you negotiate your departure. Will the church move you? Will they take care of your health insurance for the period of the severance? That sort of thing. Oh, and will they give you a good reference when the next church comes calling?
Fourth, start a journal. Get a wordless book and sit on the back porch with a cup of coffee and start writing. Put the date at the top of page 1, and say what has happened, what you are doing today, and what you hope to do. Write out a brief prayer. And tomorrow, do the same. Keep it up as long as you wish. This will be a great way of thinking matters through, of praying, and of recording for the future this unusual time in your life.
Fifth, be kind to everyone. If you have been mistreated and the ousting is unfair, your flesh will want to strike out and make sure the congregation knows who did this to you. And, if the Holy Spirit leads you to share that information with the church, or a portion of the congregation, you will do that. But you will want to be kind and Christlike in everything you do and say.
I know of a young pastor who left a church of his own volition, but who used his last sermon to vent his frustrations and anger. Twenty years later, that final tirade is the only thing those people remember about this good man’s ministry there.
Sixth, tell your friends. As soon as you knew you were leaving, you should have set up a network of colleagues in the ministry and informed them. You needed their prayers, but you also wanted them to a) know what was happening and b) be prepared to recommend you to another church.
II. Then, when you have left that church…
1. Do something about your plans. Do not assume you will be back in the pulpit of another church by the time your severance ends. Most unemployed pastors find it takes six months or more to do this. And in my case, it was a full year. So, be planning what you will do to put groceries on the table and pay the mortgage.
Nothing frightens the wife of an unemployed pastor more than seeing him sit around the house moping, sending out his resumes, waiting by the phone, with nothing happening. Likewise, nothing fuels the anger and frustration in the unemployed minister more than this. So, do something.
2. Find a good counselor and make periodic visits. No holds barred, tell what happened and let it all hang out. Then, leave the anger there.
3. Keep writing in your journal. Watch out for the anger, for depression, for the tendency to blame others for what happened to you. Write down your prayer for the day, as well as insights from Scripture that blessed you this morning.
4. Keep up your exercise program. And if you don’t have one, start one. At the very least, find a good walking track in a park somewhere and visit it daily. A couple of miles should take 30 minutes, and the health benefit will be enormous.
5. Do not write anything publicly about your experience in that church for a number of years. The journal should be all the writing about that sad time for the moment. The day may come–as it did for me a full 11 years later–when you can write about it dispassionately in a way to help others going through the same trial.
If you were indeed treated unfairly, remember the old dictum that “the best revenge is living well.” Show that church and the world–and most importantly, yourself and your spouse–that you are whole and healthy and a survivor. No venom, no anger, no revenge. Love and bless and help. Let the Lord handle the previous church. From all I know, He will. He will indeed.
6. Accept every preaching/teaching opportunity that comes along, whether it’s teaching a Sunday School class, speaking in the nursing home, or filling in for a friend at the jail service. Resist the temptation to turn down small invitations in order to be available when a more attractive one arrives. The best indication that you are ready to return to the pastorate is that you are actively serving the Lord now in every way you can.
Don’t miss that last statement. When you are dismissed from a church, if you are normal you will proclaim that “I’m just fine and I’m ready for the Lord to send me to my next assignment.” Chances are, that’s wrong. There is a good chance you are hurting inside and need some healing before you can be trusted to handle with care the next family of believers the Lord has for you.
You need healing. And for that, you need to do number seven perhaps most of all…
7. Join a church and get active. Tithe your income and sit in the pew and pray for your new pastor. Guard against the tendency to judge his sermons and leadership. Never ever let anyone, even your spouse, hear you say, “If I were pastor of this church…”
Someone reading this may fault it for my failure to mention “prayer.” Actually, I’m assuming you are praying constantly, in everything, throughout the day.
The day will come when you will be in another church, more than likely a smaller one. That’s just how these things work, and to expect to land in a larger situation than the one from which you were terminated is unrealistic. (Actually, I know a couple of instances where that did happen. But those are the exceptions.) And when you get there…
III. Then, eventually, when you get in your new church…
–Stay close to the Lord and your spouse. That will require some quality time every day for both.
–Remember how it felt when you were suddenly unemployed. So when you hear of a pastor who has been dismissed, even with cause, reach out to him. You have “been there and have the t-shirt to prove it.”
God said to Israel, “When you get into the Promised Land and things are going well for you, be kind to the foreigner in your midst. Because you were once foreigners in Egypt, and you know how it feels.” (The gist of several statements in Leviticus 19.)
–Do not rejoice when you hear your old church is having problems. Pray for them. Pray for the new pastor. Leave them with the Lord.
–From time to time, reflect on your years in that previous church and ask yourself two questions: a) What did I do wrong? and b) What do I wish now I had done? Write about those in your journal. And of course, keep the journal to yourself. This is not for publication. Not yet, at any rate. The day may come.
–Look for signs in how you relate to your new church that you are not fully healed yet. This could show up as impatience or temper or depression. Watch for the temptation to preach to your people what you wish you had said to the last congregation.
–Listen to your wife, both to her words and to her heart. She sees the signs indicating whether you are healthy in mind and body and soul, and will be the first to inform you. At the first sign of trouble, return to the counselor and talk it out. Do not argue or justify yourself.
You will get past this. You will be healthy and whole and have a great ministry. And, if experience can be trusted, I’d say your next ministry will be different from what you have done before. And better even.
A pastor friend who was ousted from his church is now working as a chaplain with a ministry reaching troubled young people. Another friend who had to leave his church abruptly ended up pastoring in another state, a congregation that had just come through a bad split.
God will not waste suffering. He will use this in your life. But to get the full benefits, you must stay close to Him, remain in place where He puts you, and obey all the things you know He wants faithful disciples to do.
Toward the end of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas told the new converts, “Through much tribulation we enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Or, to put it bluntly, between here and heaven, we should expect a lot of trouble. It’s not par for the course; it is the course.
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