I sat quietly and listened as the pastor shook his head in both grief and bewilderment. He was desperately trying to make sense of his unexpected, forced termination from the church he had pastored and loved. To add insult to injury, he grieved that there was no effort for a Biblical resolution, which, in his opinion would have addressed some of the issues that the board threw on the table for his dismissal. It was painful to watch as the reality of what he was facing washed over him.
Sadly, this respected pastor who had served his church faithfully was left dealing not only with his own sadness but also with the shock of a congregation trying to figure out “what just happened?”
As the director of Kerith Creek, with over 35 years pastoral experience myself, I realize I’m only hearing one side of the story, this fact is not lost on me, but what has become increasingly clear over the last several years is that this is not an isolated story. The faces are different, the stories are different, but the pain is the same.
Dallas Speight (D. Min. Ed.D.) of Clinical Pastoral Education International, agrees.
His research in 2011 says, “Forced termination had become a pandemic.” In a seminar I recently attended he said, “our research shows that the issue of forced termination is even more concerning today than it was twelve years ago.” This epidemic of forced resignations continues to exist and increase within the borders of the church world.
Marcus N. Tanner Ph.D. who leads Healing Choice Family Therapy stated in a Common Table Network webinar in November 2022, concurs. In his research of dealing with pastors from over 39 denominations, “28% of pastors have at least one forced termination experience during their ministry.” That’s more than one in four.
For Dallas Speight this research was more than just an academic pursuit, he was one of the 28% of pastors that had experienced an unexpected termination. As he worked through his own dismissal (and as he worked with other pastors who have had to navigate the same turbulent waters) he readily admits there were some issues that he and the other pastors had to own. With time and reflection, he along with many of those pastors, realized they had contributed to their dismissal due to with poor people skills, being overly ambitious, unresolved personal grief, conflicting visions and a misunderstanding of calling and gifting. Others simply, despite their best efforts couldn’t keep a controlling board member happy or were sideswiped by an Absalom like staff member.
Sadly, Speight and the vast majority of pastors he has dealt with were given no time to address the issues resulting in their termination. No matter what the issue was or where it had originated, many pastors were simply shown the door abruptly. Many of those pastors would have been satisfied with a grace filled resolution even if that meant they would still resign. For most, that wasn’t an option.
Speight says pastors who’ve faced forced termination are unquestionably negatively impacted because their experience causes them to question their calling. They lose sight of their identity while experiencing psychological, mental and emotional symptoms. Anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviours are on the rise in this group. Many withdraw socially rather than face the questions people are asking. Not surprisingly this only compounds the problems they are facing.
Speight says pastors who’ve faced forced termination are unquestionably negatively impacted because their experience causes them to question their calling.
Not only do they have to deal with their own turbulent emotions, but the released pastor also has to try and help their spouse and children navigate the confusion and hurt. The strife felt by the family, if left with no help to process the pain, is a toxic recipe for cynicism, bitterness, resentment and unforgiveness towards the church and even God. Tanner’s research concurs and he states that pastors and their families, “experience significantly more physical health problems, including PTSD” when they are working through a forced termination.
Thankfully there are a few churches that are now realizing they have a responsibility to these pastors. Perhaps things haven’t unfolded as everyone had hoped, but these are still brothers and sisters who are hurting, and churches are increasingly seeing the need to offer career and personal counselling for terminated staff. Pastors need time and space to work through feelings of abandonment, ambivalence, shock, disbelief and anger.
In helping pastors work through a forced termination and based on his own experience, Speight says there are a few things that need to happen for a pastor to move forward.
Firstly, they need to realize that, even in this, God has a higher purpose. God indeed redeems everything that is offered to Him.
Secondly, they have to come to a place forgiveness. It certainly will be for those who have hurt them and their family. But it’s likely they will have to forgive themselves as well. It’s during these difficult seasons we are confronted with our own missteps, and we come face to face with our own failings. It’s painful but it’s an important step in moving forward.
Speight suggests that generally, to process fully through the pain, pastors will need to commit to spending time with a wise, discerning counsellor. All these things take time. There is no quick fix, no super glue moment where the pieces are put back together immediately.
The afternoon I listened to Speight, I smiled as I realized his painful dismissal has now led him to a place of personal peace and increased influence in the kingdom. As he authentically walked through his own grief, he has put together a valuable strategy which has and will continue to encourage those who have faced the perplexing feelings of a forced termination. His experience reminds us that with time and some hard inner work there is hope and joy and abundant fruit after a forced unexpected termination.