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Praise the Lord, fire the Pastor!

There's one thing Jesus doesn't warn you about when he calls you to the church: job insecurity.

William Whitehead

Topics USA

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Forget those ministers who sleep with the organist or steal from the poor box, churches don’t need a reason to fire the pastor. More and more American protestant churches are flexing their muscles and giving their collared leaders the old heave-ho.

Senator Charles E Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, recently launched an investigation into six evangelistic ministries to determine whether they have illegally used donations to finance opulent lifestyles. But despite scandalous stories of flashy clergymen spending donations on private jets, cosmetic surgery and new outfits, it doesn’t take much for a pastor to be kicked out of church these days.

Pastors are experiencing what everyone else is experiencing – job instability – and lots of it. In fact, in the good old USA, it’s getting hard to find a minister who hasn’t been fired at some point in his or her career. I know of what I speak, I was pushed out the door of my first church and I didn’t do anything wrong. Blame it on Donald Trump. Too many people know how to say: ‘You’re fired!’

I should have known something was wrong when I first entered the ministry. A group of us ministers were sitting around a table having coffee and telling our stories. Every pastor at that table had a horror story about how they were forced to leave a past church. Several pastors were forced out on multiple occasions. This memorable session is consistent with statistics from Christianity Today which found that 23 per cent of surveyed ministers were either fired or forced out of a ministry at one time in their career. When congregations were polled it was found that 34 per cent of them either fired or forced the resignation of a minister in their recent history. These numbers come from research in the 1990s. My more recent interviews with colleagues suggest that these numbers have gone up. This is further supported by discussions with denominational leaders who spend an enormous amount of their time with pastor-church conflict. Words to the wise: if you are thinking about entering the ministry, keep your resumé updated.

One of the most famous American ministers, Jonathan Edwards, was sacked by his Northampton Church in 1750 after 23 years at the helm. He was given the boot because he insisted that his parishioners be ‘visible saints’. In other words, they should practice what they heard preached. Now that is what I call a worthy fight. There he was the beleaguered pastor fighting a bruising battle over doctrine and religious practice. A faithful minister standing firm on the side of right, opposing those who would pollute the church’s most holy teachings.

Forget about it. Doctrinal battles are rarely the reason why ministers end up like the Very Right Reverend Edwards. Malfeasance is also rare, despite the fact that married evangelical ministers having gay sex while popping pills makes for great headlines. Christianity Today found that the top two reasons for ministers hitting the road are: conflicting visions (46 per cent) and personality conflicts (34 per cent).

Vision conflicts are interesting because they can be battles like the one Reverend Edwards fought, but more often they are over less substantial subjects. Take music for example. One friend of mine was forced to leave his church when a war broke out between the people who supported traditional hymns played on the organ and those who preferred more contemporary music played by a band. The church budgeted money for the organist and the choir, but no money was given to support the band playing during a very popular second service. Soon the minister was gone as well as the well-attended contemporary service. Some call this a conflict over vision. I call it just plain stupid.

Personality conflicts are even more ruinous. A survey by the Southern Baptist Convention found that 66 per cent of respondents had conflicts with powerful members, thirty points higher than the Christianity Today poll. Personality issues certainly affect employees at every company. In the business world it’s simple – make your boss happy and you’re okay. In ministry it’s much more complicated, because everyone in the church is the boss. Think about it, you have to please not just one or two bosses, but hundreds of them. And that means that all it takes to make our lives a living hell is for there to be one determined member out of several hundred who wants the pastor fired really, really badly.

We call those people clergy killers. The Southern Baptists found that of the churches that sent pastors packing, 78 per cent had terminated previous pastors or staff members. Clergy killers have a lot to do with this statistic. They are anxious people who fear losing control over their relationships or their environment. They cannot tolerate that which is unfamiliar, that which seems to be unsafe. And so they fight when things start to change. My friend Marge had only just walked into a church as the pastor when she fell foul of the powerful church matriarch. Marge sat in on a Christian Education meeting and offered some suggestions on reorganising the classes. Everyone in the room agreed on the changes. From such a humble beginning came years of abuse. It got so bad that Marge and her family could no longer take the continuous misery and they decided it was time to move on. The next pastor of that church experienced the same problem.

Once you’re out its really tough getting back in. Ten per cent of ministers end up giving up the ministry. When I got pushed out the door I searched for jobs outside of the ministry for several months, but God laughed at me and called me to another church. The search can take forever. It took me a year to find my first pastorate and I was only seriously looked at by three churches in that time period. Church committees are ponderously slow. For six months, a church dangled a position in front of my nose only to give it to someone else. I know of one church that took a year looking at over 100 resumés and then begged their retiring pastor to stay on. Churches can search for two or three years before finally making up their minds. So for a minister who has just lost a position, it is a long, slow process finding another one. And here is something they don’t tell you in seminary: we don’t get unemployment insurance.

Lack of insurance is not the only difference. I was a banker before I became a minister and I experienced layoffs several times. Being forced out of a church is much worse. Along with the compensation, a minister and his family lose their home and their friends. In most cases the church owns the home we live in and so when it’s time to leave we must pack up and go. Even when ministers own their home, it is rare that they can find a new church nearby, and so they must move away as well. It is unethical to continue friendly relations with our former parishioners because it will conflict with the relationship building of the new minister. However, all of the people in the church I considered to be my friends. Some of them were as close as family, and so close personal relationships are severed and never to be repaired. My children were very angry with me when we left. It really shattered their world. Mine too. My wife and I have a very happy marriage. But now we know what divorce must be like.

Whatever the problem, churches’ solutions seem to be to fire the pastor. The church is struggling to make budget? Fire the pastor! You don’t like Sunday’s music selection? Fire the pastor! The new female minister likes to wear pink and you think it’s a disgrace and women shouldn’t be clergy anyway…so for God’s sake just fire her and throw her and her dress out the door! This is the world we ministers live in today. I guess it’s just like the world everyone else lives in. Funny, I thought it would be different, seeing that Jesus said things like love your neighbour as yourself. What he should have said was, love your pastor and cut him just a little more slack.

Reverend William Whitehead is a writer and the Pastor of First Baptist Church of Rahway, New Jersey.

Previously on spiked

William Whitehead commanded: Thou shalt not steal church members. Frank Furedi said that, today, many religious institutions are in search of eco-salvation. Jamie Douglass showed how the Church of England managed to get its cassocks in a knot over the thorny issue of gay priests. Dolan Cummings went to the 2006 Edinburgh Festival, where religion was all the rage. Or read more at spiked issue Religion.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics USA

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