Pray — Then Think — Before Declaring the Office of Pastor Vacant

Robert Grant

Robert Grant

The term “declaring the office of pastor vacant” is a standard statement included in many church bylaws. The practice by many South Carolina Baptist churches of letting their pastor or staff go has reached epidemic proportions. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear about a church in our state terminating one of their ministers. Some cases are traumatic; others are reserved “bow-outs.” Some have substantial severance packages; others are barbaric treatments of disrespect and just plain cheap, with no financial consideration for the pastor/staff or their family.

Terminating your pastor or staff member can have a profound effect on their health, living arrangements (in the case of vacating the parsonage), credit rating, personal and economic development, retirement plans, family stability, and future job options. Pastors do not qualify for state unemployment benefits since they are, technically, self-employed for Social Security purposes.

When pastors or staff members are terminated, many lose access to vital health-care specialists and expensive prescriptions that allow them to function well enough to work. In fact, the psychological strain alone compounds the problem. When church-provided (pre-tax) individual or group insurance is lost, deteriorated physical and mental health may cause many ministers to lose the ability to seek and perform a new job. Many of these church plans provide for the family as well. Without church-provided health care, many are forced to drop coverage. Even continuation of insurance coverage would have to be paid with after-tax funds. When this takes place, the staff member and family often fall victim to being uninsured. When a new church is seeking to call this minister and family, no prior proof of insurability is available, and underwriting is required, which takes time and often delays employment transition. If there was a pre-existing condition applied to the pastor/staff member’s health plan, the loss is significant and devastating. Churches seldom take these health-care needs into consideration when terminating staff.

Churches need to think about their staff before terminating. Many churches have become cyclical with turnovers — some call a new pastor every five to seven years. Individuals or groups within a church often flex their leadership muscles and take it out on their staff in order to clear the air and start over again. This practice is malevolent and biblically wrong.

Ministers are often like many other Americans — just a few paychecks away from financial collapse. Staff caught up in a termination can experience difficulty proving reliability to a landlord and experience limited funds for moving. Those who own their own homes (some for the first time ever), experience great loss in equity and value to relocate away from the current church community.

There is a better way to handle these issues. Before termination is in sight, there must be communication, deliberation and mediation. Church personnel committees must step up to the plate and recognize the frictions and find a way to communicate a resolution that is applicable to all involved. Too often, termination is exercised with an ax, when a cotton swab could have been the instrument of choice.

When a pastor is terminated (rather than being able to change leadership roles or work out a timeline to separate to a new calling), finding a new church becomes much more difficult. Churches searching for a new staff member prefer calling those who are already employed. Churches often terminate without considering the consequences it might bring to the staff member. It is difficult for a minister to explain termination at an interview without casting doubt upon one’s leadership or without placing blame on the previous church leaders.

Churches may create a poor reputation for themselves when they terminate staff or downsize their staff leadership. Many times, churches wait too long to act. Many have their heads in the sand about programs, location, worship style, budget and facilities (avoiding the obvious communication and discussion of issues), then turn on the staff member, point fingers and terminate. Unfortunately, the problem is still there after the staff member leaves and will recycle five to seven years later with another staff member.

Churches need to think before they act!

Churches need to pray before they think!

When will churches begin to truly weigh the perceived transgressions of staff? When will churches recognize their selfish acts of termination can cause such potential devastation to staff, family, home, and church community? To those church leaders who feel it is their place to clear the air and rescue their church, I hope they never have to face the same situation as the man (and woman) called of God to serve.

Most pastors and staff I know follow a Colossians 3:23-25 model in their calling: “Whatsoever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord — you serve the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong he has done, and there is no favoritism” (HCSB).

Robert Grant is director of church retirement, insurance and administration for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.