What Are You Willing To Be Fired Over?

Quick-raise your hand if you know a pastor or other church staff leader who has been fired.

We all know clergy who have been terminated from their positions. It doesn’t always happen the same way. Sometimes it’s an outright firing, while other times it’s a forced resignation. Sometimes it’s indeed time for the church leader to move on due to incompetence or sin, while other times the church is vindictive and unChristlike. Some terminated clergy quickly find another ministry position and life goes on, while others times the individual is pushed out or opts out of vocational ministry for good.

I’ve seen loads of statistics about the number of ministers who are terminated: 72000 clergy are terminated every year, 1600 ministers are forced out every month, almost 25% of all clergy are terminated at least once, etc. Regardless of which statistics you cite, I think most would agree that too many pastors are terminated, and even in those situations when there are legitimate grounds for termination, it’s often handled in a way that dishonors the Lord.

One of the things I ask students every semester is,” what are you willing to be fired over?” What are those issues that you are willing to lose your position over, even if you’ve only been at a church for a few months? What hills are you willing to die upon? Of course, I get different answers from different students, many of which are already serving in vocational ministry positions.

I encourage my students to categorize their convictions and preferences into three categories:

1. Crucial matters I’m willing to be fired over at any time

2. Important matters I want to eventually see addressed, but I can work for an extended time period to lead the church in a new direction so that it is highly unlikely I’d ever be fired

3. Matters of mere preference that I’m never going to be fired over

I realize that different people would put different matters in different categories, but the point isn’t uniformity. The point is to offer a paradigm that helps present and future pastors and other church leaders think strategically about how best to lead the ministries with which they’ve been entrusted.

Let me offer some personal examples that I share with my classes each semester. Your examples may be different, but hopefully this will serve a helpful illustrative purpose.

If I were a pastor, I’d be willing to be fired over attempting to lead a church to embrace redemptive church discipline. I think this matter is crystal clear in the Bible and is a glaring blind spot in the vast majority of Baptist churches. Now I certainly wouldn’t want to be fired over this issue. Ideally, I would be able to serve the church for a few years, earn the congregation’s trust through faithful preaching and godly living, introduce the concept of church discipline as I teach through the relevant biblical texts, and allow the issue to take hold organically before I begin to overtly lead the church in a new direction. That would be the ideal, and I’ve seen it happen successfully many times. Pray for the ideal!

But sometimes the ideal isn’t reality. Sometimes circumstances force us into corners we don’t expect. What happens when you’ve been pastoring a church for ten months and it comes to light that a church member is engaged in adultery and shows no signs of repentance? And what if you talk to the church’s deacons or elders or personnel committee or whomever and they think that church discipline sounds mean-spirited, judgmental, and cultish? What if they think you, the pastor, should be terminated rather than exercising any sort of discipline against flagrant, high-handed, unrepentant church members? Are you willing to be fired over that? I’d be willing to be fired over that, though again, I hope that scenario would never arise.

If I were a pastor, I’d want to eventually lead my church to embrace a plural-elder-led-congregationalism as our church’s polity. I think this is closest to what we see in the churches of the New Testament. But I’d rather not ever be fired over this issue, at least not until after I’ve spent many years trying to lead the church in this direction. Lord willing, if the church was wholly unwilling to embrace this model, and if I remained convinced it was the best polity, I would’ve moved on voluntarily long before the situation devolves from impasse to termination.

The reason I don’t put this matter in the first category is because I don’t think the structure of pastoral leadership is as clearly biblical as redemptive church discipline. There’s some room for debate. For example, should all the elders be paid staff or can some of them can be unpaid pastors? Should you have total parity among your elders, or does one man need to function as a senior/lead pastor? Should all ministerial staff also be elders, or will some staff not be considered pastors? These are matters debated within the plural-elder-led-congregationalism camp, and we’d need to work through them as a church before we settled on our leadership structure. With a couple of exceptions, most churches I know that have embraced this model did so after the primary preaching pastor had been serving for at least seven or eight years, sometimes much longer. For me, patience trumps zeal when it comes to tweaking the pastoral leadership structure.

If I were a pastor, I’d be unwilling to be fired over music styles. It’s not that I don’t have preferences-like all of us, I do. But I think music styles are mostly adiaphora, and so I see no reason that my musical preferences should trump the preferences of others simply because I’m the pastor. (I’m assuming of course that the lyrics are biblical and the songs themselves are conducive to congregational singing.)

Until I moved to seminary, every church I’d ever been a part of was what I’d call a Southern Gospel congregation. There were Southern Gospel solos and choir anthems on a weekly basis. Many folks owned Gaither Homecoming videos. Trios and quartets passed through for Sunday evening concerts on a periodic basis. And I hated every minute of it. But it’s a preference thing, not a matter of biblical conviction. So I could serve in a Southern Gospel church that is bent on ever-remaining a Southern Gospel church. My iPod would be my refuge. I’d occasionally scream into my pillow in the dead of night. But I wouldn’t be fired, because my preferences are just that-preferences.

These are just three examples-I could give others. But I think you get the point. Though we won’t always put the same things in the same categories, the point is to begin thinking in this way before you get into a local church context and are faced with these questions for the first time. Lord willing, if we think in this way, fewer pastors and other staff will be fired for the wrong reasons. And our churches just might become healthier in the process.

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  1. Pingback: One Baptist Perspective » What Are You Willing To Be Fired Over?

  2. Caleb Land   •  

    Dr. Finn,

    I have read books that include topics on church discipline…I was especially influenced by Gregory Wills excellent “Democratic Religion,” study in Baptist’s in the 1800’s and Church Discipline…I’ve read 9 Marks stuff, etc. But, I was wondering if you could recommend a good book dealing with what you term “Redemptive Church Discipline,” especially as it applies to modern church life (i.e. we need to recover it an implement it with wisdom and charity) I would greatly appreciate it.

  3. Les Puryear   •  

    Nathan,

    I appreciate what you’re trying to communicate here, however, until you actually spend 10+ years pastoring, I don’t think you can truly know what you are willing to be fired over. Believe me when I say your perspective changes when you’re in the middle of it.

    Blessings,

    Les

  4. Tim G   •  

    Nathan,
    I think your idea to get students to thinking is great. I just happen to think you are asking the wrong question and have the wrong motivation. You are planting a divisive spirit with that question. Such spirit is the ultimate cause for many young Pastors being fired.

    Take a different approach. Ask them to begin thinking how to lead people and grow them. It amazing to the results that hard work done in the right spirit can bring. Leadership and communication are the key. Please give students this nudge instead of the divisive one. We have too much of this already!

  5. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr Finn:

    You bring up a timely topic. Namely, “separation” of a pastor from his current job.

    I say “separation”, rather than “being fired” because this can be a two way street: sometimes the pastor will quit rather than being fired.

    Take this real-life example that I have first hand knowledge of here in Oklahoma. The names and location have been changed to protect the innocent.

    Pastor X is the pastor of a fairly large baptist church in a county seat town in Oklahoma. One of the deacons (or staff members — I don’t remember this detail) of his church is involved in an extra marital affair. The deacons refuse to take any type of disciplinary action. The pastor quits as a result.

    P.S. This same pastor now is the pastor of another church outside of Oklahoma. In this particular real world example it was about a year or so from the time the pastor quit his position as the pastor in Oklahoma before he started as pastor at the out-of-state church.

    My point: Sometimes the possibility of being fired is mute point because you should bail out first.

    Roger Simpson

  6. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Caleb, I’m not sure of a book, but I know of many churches that have taken the time to write out helpful position papers on how to practice church discipline. If you email me, I’ll point you to some of those resources.

    Les, I heard some about your situation and I’m very sorry. No doubt my views would be shaped by experience. I would note, however, that my immediate family has walked through a clergy termination before, even though it wasn’t me personally. So while my views aren’t born out of direct personal experience, neither are they born out of ignorance.

    Tim, you are welcome to disagree with my question. However, you are not welcome to disagree with my motivation, which you are not privy to and thus wholly ignorant of. You also seem to assume this is sums up all of the pastoral leadership advice I offer–far from it. This is one post about one topic. I (and my colleagues) spend much of our time on what you describe in your second paragraph. But sometimes it doesn’t work out, good efforts and godly motive aside. And that’s what this post addresses.

    Roger, agreed. Sometimes the pastor needs to leave before it ever reaches that point. But this doesn’t always happen, does it? Besides, I think there is still wisdom in thinking in these terms before one goes into a church.

    All, please note that I used three of many examples that could have been used. They were for illustrative purposes only, and I purposefully chose three matters that are hotly debated. The same would apply to a whole range of less controversial matters that, Lord willing, would never be cause for potential termination.

  7. David Dreyer   •  

    Nathan,
    I applaud you brother, for posting this as well as “sticking to your guns” or more accurately sticking to Jesus’ guns on these issues. Too often leaders and pastors are willing and sadly do compromise on the more hotly debated or “touchy” topics, succumbing to the fear of man. But, Christians, especially leaders and most especially pastors, need to take the same stance behind the line that Christ drew in the sand and be unwavering in the position on the close-handed issues of salvation and sin. I completely agree on the open-handed issues of preference (worship/music style, etc.) I’m actually trying to get some attention paid to a situation at the church I grew up in where pastors and leaders were forced to resign because they would not overlook some sins or teachings/decisions that were clearly un-biblical. We can’t be afraid of offending people. Jesus offended lots of people. Not that we should seek out opportunities to do so, but inevitably, there will be times where we can follow Christ or spare people’s feelings. The true question that needs to be asked is “Where does our allegiance lie? With Christ or men?”

  8. Robert   •  

    This is a fine post, but it shows the distance between the academic community and reality on this issue. I don’t disagree with what you’ve said but reality is much different than what you’re suggesting.

    I was fired from a church because the new executive pastor came in and decided he wanted to clean house of all the upper level staff members. And the Senior Pastor (who is a significant Southern Baptist leader) sat by and let him do it.

    This wasn’t because I had failed morally, had put up a fight methodologically, or even staked out grounds on biblical matters. It was because this guy has a pattern of replacing the entire staff of churches he leads. What does a minister do then?

    Thankfully (praise God for this) I had a new position within several weeks. The same can’t be said for the 8 other people let go the same day I was let go. What does the academic community say to them?

    Honestly I still hurt over the whole thing. Since I left the entire staff has been turned over at the church, and all for people who the new executive pastor knew.

    The disconnect between the academic community and practical ministry level stuff is too evident in posts like this. Since I graduated from seminary (is was after 2000 btw) of my close friends about half aren’t in ministry anymore, a quarter have left the convention, and rest of us are doing well. But that’s a 75% attrition rate and it isn’t for the reasons (largely) listed above. It’s a serious problem.

  9. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Robert,

    If you are convinced that we are “disconnected,” then I’m not going to be able to say much to change your mind. However, I would remind you the post was not an exhaustive list of why people are fired, nor did it claim to be. Furthermore, I know folks who have been fired for all of the things I mentioned. So your protests notwithstanding, my examples are far from disconnected–they’re just not identical to your unfortunate experience.

    NAF

  10. Morris Brooks   •  

    Nathan,

    I don’t see the disconnect here as your question is pretty straight-forward. I do think as pastors we need to know in our own heart which hills we are willing to die on. I believe it should be the same for elders as well.

    While there is no way to forsee each and every circumstance, knowing our non-negotiables would certainly help us be prepared.

  11. A. Amos Love   •  

    Just wondering…

    In the Bible, were any pastors hired or fired?

    Hmmm? **Todays** “Pastor/Leader,”
    is this a “Title” and “Position” even found in the scriptures?

    In the Bible, How many people are… called pastor?
    In the Bible, How many people have… the “Title” pastor?
    In the Bible, How many people are… ordained as a pastor?
    In the Bible, How many congregations are… “led” by a pastor?

    And every pastor I’ve met also has the “Title” Reverend.

    In the Bible, Does anyone have the “Title” Reverend?

    Be blessed in your search for truth… Jesus…

  12. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr. Finn:

    This thread has pretty much run its course.

    However, one item was raised that really drew my attention. Namely the attrition rate of pastors.

    Robert, stated that in his experience this number is around 75%. If this is typical of grads from our six SBC seminaries, then I’d say we have a large system problem. As a prof at Southeastern do you believe there is any type of “preparation” that seminaries could do which might help grads to survive in the real world?

    I’m an software engineer. My field is quite dynamic with people moving between companies all the time. But I’d say that less than 20% leave engineering within five years of graduation with a BSEE / MSEE.

    In comparison with other professional jobs it is evidently the case that the ministry is incredibly unstable.

    Roger K. Simpson Oklahoma City OK

  13. Scott   •  

    Nathan –

    I personally liked your post. Although I was recently pushed out of a church…in the Wake Forest area I might add…I do believe that pastors should decide what issues to fight over and to what lengths they are willing to go. Truthfully, it is the people in our congregations that are hurt most when conflict happens. God provided me with another pastorate in four months. But the pain many in my previous congregation felt is still a reality for them.

    I will challenge you to consider an issue that many people often miss…you mentioned redemptive church discipline as an example of something you would be willing to get fired over. If a pastor is passionate about an issue such as this (or others) he should fully disclose his beliefs and intentions to a committee before he is hired. In addition, he should fully comprehend the churches stance on this issue. Many pastors get into bad situations because they do not ask the hard questions and reveal the right information during the interview process. This is because they want to get hired. This is understandable, but ill advised. If it is not a fit…dont go there.

    So many conflicts could be avoided if pastor and committee would be up front at the beginning.

  14. Scott   •  

    Nathan

    Thanks for the post. Here is something to consider…if a pastor is passionate about redemptive church discipline (for example) and is willing to get fired over this issue, he should be completly up front with a search committee about this issue and any others like it BEFORE he is called as the pastor.

    Many pastors get into trouble because they are afraid to be brutally honest with a search committee from the beginning. This is understandable, but ill-advised. A pastor should ask questions about the issues he is passionate about and reveal himself fully to the committee. The committee should do the same. Much conflict could be avoided if pastors and committees would do this more effectivly.

    Be honest with a search committee about your theology, ecclesiology, musical style, political views…everything. After all, that is what we want search committees to do for us…tell us everything.

    When the church where I currently serve interviewed me I was totally and completly honest about all my views on everything. I hid nothing. Guess what…they loved me. I am in God’s will and I can be completly myself. I can preach and lead exactly in keeping with who God has created me to be.

    I think this is both smart and practical.

    Hws taht fro belnding teh rael wrold wtih teh scohlarly wrodl. Ha Ha :) :)

  15. Nathan Finn   •  

    Scott,

    Thanks. That’s well received. I should have been explicit in the post about telling search committees about your convictions. I’m assuming a pastor has been up front and honest, but you rightly note I didn’t express that clearly, so it left room for confusion. Thanks for your helpful comment.

    NAF

  16. Nona Mills   •  

    Scott, Thanks. That’s well received. I should have been explicit in the post about telling search committees about your convictions. I’m assuming a pastor has been up front and honest, but you rightly note I didn’t express that clearly, so it left room for confusion. Thanks for your helpful comment. NAF

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