Why Churches Die, Part 2: A Pattern of Forced Terminations

By Bob Bickford

You likely know someone who has been forced out of their leadership role at a local church. Unfortunately, it’s something that is part of our history, it exists in our present, and it will continue to be a reality in our future.

Historic research indicates that churches and pastors have experienced and endured forced separations quite frequently. [1]

  • Of all pastors, 23% to 41% will experience a forced termination at least once in their career.
  • In 2012, a Lifeway survey, in partnership with Baptist State Convention leaders, a panel identified 452 pastors and staff members who succumbed to a non-voluntary or non-self-initiated separation from the church they served.
  • It is estimated that over the years of their vocational service, four out of 10 pastors will be forced out of their church by firing or some sort of pressure that leads to their eventual resignation.

Forced termination of a pastor is defined as an involuntary dismissal from service, due to no fault or moral failure or dereliction of duties on the part of a pastor, brought about by a few within the local church.

The actions, strategies and tactics of those who seek to oust the pastor range from informal to formal. Secret meetings, whisper campaigns, anonymous letters and emails to one-off office visits, in which a critic might boldly declare that the pastor’s tenure is over, are but a few of the unofficial actions taken to intimidate or influence a pastor to leave. More formal approaches include special called business meetings regarding the pastor’s employment or a church exercising its option to vote on an annual call.

When a pastor is terminated without cause, it is often a prediction point in the history of a church – the place where steep, prolonged and sustained decline begins. It is the marker under which many dysfunctions are buried. [2]

  • Where pastors were forced out, 34% to 45% of those congregations had simmering divisions and internal conflict that predated the pastor’s arrival.
  • 23% of the congregations that force-terminated a pastor had done the same with previous pastors.
  • 2/3 of the congregations that force-terminated a pastor did so within the first five years of his tenure.
  • The top reasons cited for conflict leading to a forced separation: conflict for control among groups in the church 68%, congregational stress 43%, values/directional conflict between pastor and some people in the church 27%.

We often think of how a forced termination affects the pastor and his family. We may not think deeply enough about the impact of these actions on the congregation. As I consult churches, we often find that historic decline began when a group forced out a pastor or staff member. This decline goes well beyond the normal attrition we see, where people depart when a liked or loved staff member leaves on good terms or at their own choosing. In those cases, a church often rebounds.

David Meyers, a retired director of missions from Chattanooga, Tennessee, states: “What forced termination does to the soul of the congregation is significant in and of itself, but the practical, logistical impact also is significant. The church may lose members who are unhappy with what has occurred or how it was done. The loss of financial support may result from membership decline or withholding money. The name and reputation of the church is marred in the community and beyond. Hesitant, reserved or negative recommendations of the church are given to prospective new ministers for that church. Many ministers are reluctant to consider relocation to a church that terminated its previous minister(s).” [3]

The church that force-terminates a pastor, for no cause, is taking a step in the wrong direction; one that forces out multiple pastors is sliding down a slope from which it may never recover.

What can be done for the church caught in this act or pattern?

  • Address the wrongs committed to pastors and their families who were undeserving of a forced termination. Repent and publicly apologize and make restitution where appropriate.
  • Remove those who were involved in or instigated unfounded and unreasonable forced terminations from leadership positions within the church.
  • Address informal campaigns to force a pastor out through biblically based and bylaw-supported church discipline.
  • Make careful note of the actions taken above in the minutes of a church business meeting so the record shows these actions will meet with disapproval.

Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1983[4] spoke about this problem in a resolution encouraging all churches to act “redemptively and ethically” in this matter. I pray their words echo from the past, into our present and well into our future, for the sake of the gospel, the care of the church and the pastors God sends to lead in accomplishing Jesus’ mission to be witnesses and make disciples.

[1] https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/pastoral-termination-common-but-oftern-avoidable-experts-say/

[2] Musical Pulpits, Baker Publishing Group, 1992. Rodney J. Crowell pg.25, 66

[3] https://ministeringtoministers.org/2017/12/forced-termination-affects-churches-too/

[4] https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/resolution-on-the-forced-termination-of-ministers/

Published January 10, 2023

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Bob Bickford

Bob Bickford is a Replant Pastor in suburban St. Louis, serves as the Associate Director of Replant for the North American Mission Board and is the co-author of Am I a Replanter,  Pathways to Partnership and the Associational Replanting Guide. Follow Bob on twitter @bobick