Why Clergy Get Kicked Out

by | May 4, 2015 | 20 comments

Every year thousands of clergy are moved, removed, or otherwise asked to retire from the pulpit.  Aside from big splashy issues like running off with the choir director, making off with the money, or not showing up for worship, there are a few key reasons clergy are kicked out.  According to denominational resources, these reasons are surprisingly consistent across Protestant denominations—from United Methodist to Southern Baptist.
You might think that rapidly growing acceptance of gay marriage coupled with denominational tensions about the rights and roles of GLBT people would make doctrinal differences a primary reason clergy are shown the door.  But it’s not.
Nor is it outspokenness on other hot topics such as racism, excessive police violence, poverty, immigration, or climate change.
So why do clergy get kicked out?  For the surprising results, and what they might mean for you, read on.
Southern Baptists, who have been tracking this for over 15 years, show that 4 of the 5 top reasons clergy are let go is related to the leadership style of the pastor. Too strong a style is cited twice as often as too weak a style.  But one thing that is consistent no matter the style is poor people skills.
An inability to get along with others is not limited to Southern Baptist pastors. In a broader study, Christianity Today has found that personality conflicts account for one third of all clergy dismissals.
On the flip side, a recent study conducted by United Methodist Bishop Grant Hagiya explores the top qualities that highly effective clergy share.  The number one quality they exhibit is high Emotional Intelligence.  EI is the ability to accurately know and manage oneself in a variety of social settings, as well as how to work well with others.
Similarly, another denominational study on clergy effectiveness indicates that strong people skills is central to the work of clergy, whether rallying people to enact a vision or helping them do good in their communities.
How do you know if you are close to being shown the door?  Keep in mind these three indicators of your people skills:
Excessive Conflict
If everything comes with a fight, or resistance, this may mean that you and others have a hard time establishing a mutually agreeable framework for making decisions.  Or that you disagree on the fundamental vision that underlies your ministry.  Even worse, it may indicate there is no vision at all except to survive.
If excessive conflict is the symptom, immerse yourself in prayer.  One of my favorite prayers is what I call the prayer of alignment:  “God please prepare my heart and mind for them, and their hearts and minds for me.”  This is a good starting point for seeking a new alignment whether the issue is timelines for decision-making or the need for a growth-oriented unifying vision.
Too Little Conflict
While too much conflict is a warning sign, so is too little conflict.  On the one hand it may mean your style is authoritarian and you do not encourage any debate or disagreement.  On the other hand, it may mean your style is so laid back that no new ideas or ministries are being proposed.  Neither is helpful.
Develop your internal capacity for healthy debate, and begin to encourage the give and take of ideas.  Ask for input from your allies and enemies.  Pray for the courage of Christ to share your vision of how the Kingdom of God is at hand in your setting.
No Results
In some churches, people skills are overly prized.  These clergy pay so much attention to maintaining harmonious relationships that results suffer.  Very little tangible work actually gets done.  No new ministries, no new outreach, no new worship experiences.  Perhaps committees do not meet and paperwork is left undone.
Re-read the Gospel according to Mark.  Notice how much Jesus actually did in a few short chapters.  Much as he loved people, he didn’t stay put and just cater to one population. He was on the move; he got stuff done.  He preached, prayed, taught, healed.  If tasks take a back seat to people, check to see if your church suffers from either people pleasing or analysis paralysis.  Pray the Spirit emboldens your spirit and quickens your pace.  Increasing the sense of urgency is key to accomplishing results that truly serves people without being a people pleaser.
Still need more insight?  If you are having trouble with people skills, check out the Platinum Rule for Thriving Congregations.  You’ll increase your ability to bring out the best in the people who frustrate you the most.  At the same time, you’ll learn how to grow in self-awareness and self-management encourage others to do the same.

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  1. Brian Hamilton

    Look; a lot of Churches are filled with bullies who are frustrated with their own personal or work life. They argue and love to bully people in leadership positions including the ministerial staff. They harass the staff until they leave out of frustration. Seen it so many churches.

    • Todd

      AGREE 100%!!!

  2. Rebekah Simon-Peter

    Your comment is right on, Brian. I don’t disagree at all. I do think, though, that the ability to deal with bullies is part of what pastors with excellent people skills bring to the leadership equation.

    • jason

      But some people need to be pruned when they are destructive and keep the church from being fruitful. No matter who the pastor or what are his or her skills, no one needs to put up with abuse. Sometimes the door needs to slam shut on the back sides of people to keep them from hurting the church and the leadership.

    • David

      People skills certainly help, but are a guarantee of nothing. Has anyone ever had better people skills than Jesus? The reward of good leadership is often suffering, and congregations have people who like to impose the suffering, and many more people who look away. While you make some good points, your perspective tends too much on blaming the victim when a pastor is forced out of a congregation. I would argue that the ones who need better people skills are our judicatories. The stories of their failures are legion. Too often they side with the congregation, for the sake of padding statistics and keeping the “mission” money coming in.

  3. jon larsen

    I know a pastor who made many changes and would be considered successful. One thing he would do is size up people who he thought would be contentious and be thought of as a leader and get them on board to help him.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Ah, the “Team of Rivals” approach! Often the “contentious” folks are leaders who simply don’t have a productive forum for leadership. Jon, your friend was savvy indeed.

  4. Ben B. Boothe, Sr.

    I was a young Bible Major in Harding University, and had a love for a type of thought stimulating teaching, by throwing out a subject that forced people to think. It might be called conflict stimulation. I learned that there are always human dynamics, in groups, including churches that simply cannot handle this kind of teaching. So, when I graduated from University I tried another approach, and in my first church quietly started using a New International Version of the Bible. It was often called the paperback Bible. I had the Elders call me in and tell me never to use a paper back Bible at the Church of Christ. So, then I moved to another approach, and befriended Pat Boone, an actor singer. I was told that he was one of the “Hollywood Crowd” and not to ever mention his name. So, then I tried, reconciliation, and started taking the young people to visit other churches…when we visited a black church and invited them to visit our Church of Christ, I was heatedly scolded. Finally, I determined that being a minister was an incredibly political job, and the ones that got the best jobs, never did or said anything that was progressive or of “meat”. They just presented a “feel good” image and message. At that point I moved to the business world and then I learned that whoever donates the most money to a church seems to have the most influence. So church like politics could be bought. Alas, I respect those truly spiritual people who can survive the ministry. I found that when I visited Cambodia, and worked in the minefields there, locating and blowing up mines, that it was less hazardous than trying to be a good and truly incisive minister of a church. God bless all ministers with integrity and effectiveness.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Ben. Yes, ministry is incredibly demanding. And in some settings, the laity have far more power to but the brakes on than is probably wise. Or healthy.

  5. Jeff Jones

    Churches are unique creatures. In 40 years of service I’ve encountered a lot of resistance and part of the frustration is lack of support from our supervisors. Some few individuals can raise a stink and it’s easier to move the pastor out, than to deal with the struggle. The church should be about working in the Kingdom of God field, but it’s often about a whole different issue. It’s often the non spiritual who lead the charge for a change. Change is usually the problem, too many new people, too much money to pay for the new facility because we grew. Too much interest in non-members, not in the office enough, in the office too much. We don’t apply the advise of Scripture either. Acts 6 encouraged members to do the caring for one another, not the apostles. Jethro advised Moses to think more about the big picture and not deal with the nit picking. Nehemiah was rebuilding the fallen walls and worship of Jerusalem and was extremely criticized. I’m sorry I’ve been hurt by being misunderstood and not bowing to a few people who had the wrong idea about what God asked the congregation to do. But I got invited out anyway. Thank God for forgiveness and the idea that my reward is in heaven.

  6. Rebekah Simon-Peter

    Thanks for sharing your experience Jeff. Churches are unique creatures indeed. People pleasing is one of the hazards of the job,as is not falling into people pleasing! Ultimately, we have to be true to the calling we believe have from God.

  7. Arbuthnaught

    I think a lot of church conflict is deomographic. The Depression and World War II generation that is almost gone kept pastors for 20 years. Boomers and their progeny are less deferential. The *average* tenure of a head pastor in suburban church is 7 years. (Of course we can all think of pastors that have lasted longer than 7 years in suburban churches) The upwardly mobile suburban demographic is very tough and demanding on church staff. It would seem that in this day and time conflicts build and about the seven year mark come to a boil. Head pastors take another call or get moved on. I think the EI analysis is correct. I think the pastors that last past the 7 year average have extremely high EI.

  8. Alan Newhall

    I am a retired UMC pastor. My father, who began serving his first church in 1939, ended up serving some of the largest Methodist churches in central Illinois. I remember a conversation with him once when he commented that in the mid-1940s there was another season of great conflict in churches when people returning from service in WWII wanted a very different kind of church than that envisioned by those who had led the church through the dark years of the Great Depression. Then in the `1960s and 70s, those of us who had dealt with conflict over civil rights and the Vietnam War faced the need for a different style of dealing with conflict. I have recently had several conversations with seminary students, and I am struck by the sense of entitlement many of them have. One young lady commented, “When I serve a church, we’re going to change everything, and do it my way. Those who don’t like it can go to another church!”. My comment to her was, “Good luck! You’re going to need it~!”.

  9. brian

    In my own personal experience, the number one point of conflict was money.

  10. Jack Stubbs

    I am reminded of what the late Rabbi Ed Friedman wrote about attaining happiness, “Grow a thick skin.”
    I am also a retired pastor and I reflect on my most successful churches had about the same number of problems as the least. Risking quoting a psychologist, the late Albert Ellis, “Its not what happens to you but how you handle it.” It is very true of churches.

  11. Christopher

    I was removed over Family Leave. Then I was reprimanded by the DS with the endorsement of the Bishop, both of whom are women.

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