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.