“And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.” – Matthew 22:6-7

Every year, hundreds of pastors with their families suddenly go missing. It’s never reported, and strangely enough no one in their congregations seem to know what happened to them.

No one, that is, except for those who sent them packing.

No, they weren’t abducted by aliens. Instead, some church power-brokers decided they were no longer wanted. The conversation went something like this:

“Last Sunday was your last day in your position. You can resign or be fired. If you choose to resign, a severance will be provided for you over the next several months. If you keep your mouth shut, the money will keep coming and you can feed your family. But if you breathe a word of what we did, we’ll cut you off without a cent.”

The power-brokers know a few strategic things about pastors. They know they are considered self-employed and NOT eligible for unemployment benefits. You read that right—zero. So, instead of fighting for himself and his calling, the pastor moves along and tries to support his family any way he can.

I’ll never forget when this was done to us. It was many years ago, but the memories still sting…

I was a worship leader brought in to a church that had been in decline for over 12 years. I was told up front I was the pastor’s last hope of reviving the church, that what they needed was more contemporary worship. I should have seen the folly in that premise, but I was young. Flash forward two years later, and no surprise: my new style of worship had not stopped the church’s hemorrhaging numbers.

I was called into the church board room, and told I could resign with severance or be fired on the spot. I had done nothing wrong, had no moral failing. I was merely inconvenient. I sat there holding my wife’s hand, staring into space, wondering why God had abandoned me.

Immediately, our family had lost our entire local support system at the church. Our friends thought we’d just walked away and thoughtlessly abandoned them. What they didn’t know was that we’d been threatened to lose our severance pay if we continued our relationships with them or breathed a word of what had happened.

And a few weeks later, we found ourselves living in a small apartment above my in-laws’ garage. We’d lost everything except our family. In fact, I almost lost my faith in God as well, and, at times, even wanted to lose my own life. I functioned for weeks as either a non-responsive zombie or an angry, wounded victim.

I still don’t know how my wife survived during that bleak season. I was utterly lost: defeated and feeling like a criminal, though I’d done nothing wrong. And I feared I would never function again in the ministry to which God had called me.

You see, once a pastor is without a church, it’s terribly hard for him to find a new one. Prospective churches assume he must have done something wrong to be so bluntly dismissed. So he usually ends up in some secular employment, making much less than he did before, and now unable to follow his calling.

The executive pastor at that church, straight out of  the corporate world,  knew how to minimize any “blow back.” His goal was to cut off all communication with the former “employee” so the only story going out to the congregation was the executive pastor’s own. So this is how it plays out: The departing pastor and wife stay quiet and limp away. Their silent exit appear to everyone as confirmation that they must have done something wrong. So all their friends feel betrayed when their calls go unanswered, and they finally give up and move on with their lives.

Now, of course the church leaders would never say the pastor did anything wrong. But they wouldn’t have to. People assume from the quick exit and lack of communication there was an indiscretion of some kind. No one is talking about it because they don’t want to embarrass the pastor…at least that’s the impression the leadership leaves by their unwillingness (and posturing reluctance) to talk about it.

Meanwhile, the pastor and his family struggle with feelings of betrayal, loneliness, and being forsaken by God. Is it any wonder so many pastors’ deal with depression and suicidal thoughts, and their children leave the church when they come of age, never to return?

In my bitterness over being terminated, I remember writing a little limerick about my experience:

If your pastor disappears, don’t you worry for the parson. There’s a strategy behind his sudden loss.

If your pastor disappears, don’t investigate for martians. It’s clear they don’t abduct men of the cloth.

What you probably didn’t know is that some bullies got together, deciding it was time for him to go.

So they wrote up an agreement, threatening shoes they made with cement they’d attach to him unless he signs below.

If your pastor disappears, never fear he’s been abducted. It’s probably just the deacons at his throat.

Some bullies get together and decide to change the weather. And the pastor merely serves as their scapegoat.

Friends, we have to stop this. We must stop doing church like the world. We must stop treating spiritual leaders like nothing more than employees. I know the logical question to ask here is, “Then how do you terminate a pastor?” I don’t know that there’s one easy answer for the “right way.” But I do know this is definitely the wrong way.

As a pastor, I’ve only fired anyone this way once, when there was sexual abuse of a minor involved. We had to get the guy out of the position to protect children. But even then, we payed for him to enter a counseling program and to get help. If he’d had a family, we would have gotten them help as well.

But the ruthless way many churches terminate pastoral staff is a tactic of a ruthless world and shows zero compassion for them as brothers and sisters in Christ. And it presumes there is no spiritual component at work in their positions, no holy bond between the shepherd and the sheep.

We say we are Christians, but in the church we do business like atheists.

Do we seriously think this is the way the apostle Paul would have done it? Where is there a single biblical exhortation to do anything like this, except when there is blatant sin present. Paul reserved this treatment for the man living in sin with his father’s wife (1 Cor 5), not for a pastor who is simply deemed past his expiration date.

What that executive didn’t realize was he’d cursed his church for several years to come, not just because of me, but also because of the carnage left from similar treatment of other staff members. It took almost ten years before any growth finally came to that church, despite investing vast amounts of money and resources into it. I remember the executive pastor once saying in a staff meeting, “You don’t spiritualize a management problem, and don’t try to manage a spiritual problem.” Well, this is a spiritual problem. We are regularly wounding staff, misrepresenting it to our congregations, and expecting the judgment of God to move past us.

But if “judgment begins at the house of God,” how severely will God judge the devastation left by these practices? Do we really expect God to bless a church led in such a hateful manner? How many of our dying churches are actually being judged by God for how they treated his shepherds?

I look back now and can see the hand of God working, in spite of how we were treated. Just like Joseph, every attempt to destroy us only served to put us in position for God to bless us. But that does not absolve the perpetrators of ruthlessness for the destruction they’ve caused. I still look forward to the day all my grown children feel comfortable again in a church, and don’t see God’s bride as simply a manipulative machine that chewed them up. I grieve for those now experiencing the power plays of ambitious men who want their way, no matter the carnage it leaves.

Remember, the Church is supposed to be the Bride of Christ. May we never allow ambitious men to remake her into the Bride of Frankenstein.

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