Hundreds of Southern Baptist pastors and staff ministers will be terminated this year, according to recently compiled reports, with fulltime pastors more than twice as likely to be fired as bivocational pastors. Control Issues—“who’s going to run the church”—topped the list of reasons for termination. The issue of control, cited in 209 instances of forced termination in 2009, has anchored the top spot in this and similar surveys previously compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources’ pastoral ministries department. Nearly twice as many pastors are dismissed annually related to this issue than any other issue.
“We consistently see the inability to develop and maintain healthy relationships within the church as the [top] reason for dismissals,” Bob Sheffield, formerly a pastoral ministries specialist with LifeWay, commented after the 2006 report. The current report reveals that the trend continues.
Reports from twenty-two state Baptist conventions compiled by the Alabama Baptist Convention over a two-year period (2009-2011) indicate that 2 percent of pastors, and 4 percent of staff ministers, will be terminated. While those percentages may seem small, multiplied by the total number of churches that cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention, they translate into more than eight hundred ministers who are asked to leave their positions each year.
Information gathered annually by state Baptist convention directors of missions comprise the reports which are shared with their counterparts from other states. These twenty-two state conventions have a combined 26,620 cooperating churches, about 60 percent of the more than 45,000 churches that consider themselves part of the SBC. While the report is not a strict scientific study, its findings are consistent with years of research and provide a look at a continuing trend of terminated pastors and church staff members across the Convention.
The top causes for pastoral and church staff termination in the most recent report are:
1. Control Issues—who’s going to run the church (cited in 209 instances);
2. Poor people skills on the part of the pastor (cited in 123 instances);
3. Pastor’s leadership style—too strong (cited in 100 instances);
4. Church was already conflicted when pastor arrived (cited in 86 instances); and moving into the top five for the first time,
5. Pastor’s leadership style—too weak (cited in 57 instances).
Termination studies have been compiled since 1996. Sixteen years later the top reasons for dismissal have remained relatively the same. “The only difference is in their order from year to year,” Sheffield said.
Decline in attendance has been in the sixth or seventh position for the past four years of study. Disagreement over doctrine was in the number ten spot in 2007 and 2008, but was replaced in the most recent study by “Ethical misconduct—mismanaged monies, dishonesty.” Sexual misconduct appears as the ninth most frequent cause of termination. Sexual misconduct has stayed in the ninth spot since it first cracked the top 10 in a 2006 study compiled by LifeWay.
The inability to develop healthy relationships isn’t a problem only between a pastor and the church. The compiled reports show that terminations for church staff members within Southern Baptist churches is at twice the rate of pastors who are asked to leave their positions. Although there are no hard data to define why there is a disparity between the two termination rates, Bill Northcott, church-ministry relations specialist with the Tennessee Baptist Convention—and someone often called upon to mediate conflict within churches—speculates that many staff terminations are the result of conflict between the pastor and a staff member, a speculation reflected in part in the study which shows conflict with other staff as the eighth most frequent cause for termination.
“The staff person is more vulnerable than the pastor,” Northcott said. “By virtue of the pastoral position, the one who sits in that seat generally has greater power than someone in a staff role. . . . Members of the church, and even the pastor, see the pastoral role as one of ‘boss.’ If there is a conflict between the pastor and staff person, there is a strong probability that the staff person will lose out and be forced to leave.”
Northcott said that sometimes disagreements may be over a difference in ministry philosophy or over the distinction between quantitative and qualitative growth. But, in some instances, it may simply be a matter of economics: a decrease in attendance or offerings may make a staff position more vulnerable to termination. There could be an obvious clash of personalities between a pastor and staff member, or it could be political.
Regardless of the reason for a dismissal, there is rarely a positive outcome. The implications of failing to “get along” are far reaching. Ministers’ families are often left in a financial lurch, sometimes being given little to no severance package. Churches may end up divided along faction lines and often lifelong friendships are forever torn. The effect is even further reaching than that, Northcott said.
“Conflict damages individuals, the reputation of churches, and the cause of Christ,” he said. “[Spiritually] lost people are looking for ammunition against the church. Unfortunately, conflicted congregations provide more than enough for lost people to conclude, ‘If that’s what being a Christian is about, I don’t need it.’”
Chris Turner is a freelance journalist living in Brentwood, Tennessee, and a member of Grace Community Church in Nashville, Tennessee.