Thirty years ago when I was in seminary, the first of many Terminator movies came out. When it eventually made its way to the dollar theater, my friends and I made it almost a nightly ritual of going to see the movie. It was cheap entertainment and far better than memorizing Hebrew vocabulary words. You know the story. Arnold plays a cyborg that is sent back in time in order to kill the mother of his future enemy; thus preventing his birth. Later iterations of the movie have Arnold playing a Terminator, but a good one. The first movie gave us the line “I’ll be back!” and one of the other movies gave us the line “You are terminated!”
While it may make with imaginary delight when we say in our mind’s eye “I’ll be back!” it really takes the wind out of our sails when we hear the other phrase “You are terminated.” We envision ourselves saying one line, but dread hearing the other line. Chances are, if you stay in ministry long enough, you will hear the latter line at least once in your career.
Forced terminations in ministry are very hard; both on the church as well as the minister. Over recent years, there have been some fine materials written on this subject and a lot of it is helpful. In this brief essay, I seek to offer some perspective on this matter.
To break it down to its lowest common denominator, forced terminations usually occur because of two things: Something that you do; or something that you fail to do. Either way, you are out! In my 30+ years of ministry, I have known many pastors and staff members who have been fired. Sometimes it was justified because of a moral failure. Other times, the termination was less than justified because the church was resistant to change. Either way, it hurts both the church and the minster.
Here are some general things to consider when looking at this issue:
- Some churches have a history of termination. Anytime that a church has had to go through this process and they have done it before, it becomes easier and more destructive. Churches often take the easy way out of termination rather than work towards reconciliation and or reformation. What they fail to realize is that it sets them on a path for further hardship down the road. Once a church has gained a reputation of firing more than 1 or 2 ministers in a row, a reputation is gained in the spiritual community that can be hard to live down.
- The minister can also develop a pattern or a habit of forced termination. I once met a minister who had been fired from 10 different churches. His tenure was usually about 2 years. He told me that he had 20 years of experience in ministry but had been fired from every place he served. What he actually had was 2 years of experience that he kept reliving ten times.
- There are different types of termination. I once served at a Christian college and my contract was not renewed. At first, I considered myself to have been terminated. However, I then spent the next 7 years teaching on an adjunct basis and enjoyed it more than if I had been on the regular faculty. I figured that even though they did not renew my contract, they did keep me around for 7 more years so it was not a termination. This arrangement was beneficial to both me and the college. I was free to pursue ministry opportunities and the college was able to hire a much more qualified professor. Even though I am no longer officially connected to the college, we still give money to them and have a good relationship.
- Terminations often happen because of fault on both sides. The minister wants to move the church in one direction and the church is reluctant to make the changes. The minister fails to convey his vision and build a consensus and the church is against change to the point that they would rather die than change.
- Termination often result because there has been a struggle for control of the church. Many a minister has been fired because he went up against the ruling body (deacons, elders, a ruling family, or even just one little old lady) and his head was handed to him on the way out the door. When this happens, God has often ceased to work and the church is in danger of dying.
- Terminations often happen during the first few years of a ministry in a church. However, they can happen even after a lengthy tenure. I know a person who was terminated after well over a decade at a church. He though that because he had endeared himself to the church they would have a much harder time firing him. His mistake was that while he had counted his time as a term of endearment, people in the church likened it to a time of festering disease that finally needed to be lanced.
- A termination can be a time of renewed focus on the will of God in your life. This is a hard “reset” button, but can have positive effects to the surrendered life. Going through a termination is one of the most devastating career events that can happen. Bathing everything in prayer and seeking God’s perfect will is the minimum standard for recovery. This can be also true for the church.
A forced termination does not need to be then end of ministry. I was voted out of a church with 68 negative votes recently. A good friend reminded me that 68 negative votes was what Jesus received in the Sanhedrin. While I do not find any kind of spiritual significance in these numbers, other than just coincidence, I do take comfort in the fact that Jesus and I have something more in common than before.