I’m sorry to say that I have heard these very words from the leaders of more than one congregation, sometimes followed by the question: “Now what?”
This should almost never happen of course. Pastors, of all people, should know how to – as the old saying has it – “just go away,” instead of going away in anger.
But I can’t condemn. I did it myself once when I was young and foolish. And the stresses of the pastorate are such that you don’t have to be young to make this serious mistake. I would imagine that every pastor who has done this has his own sad story of how he got to a place where he would leave in a graceless manner. You might want to check out my post, Pastoral Resignations, (Thirteen Ways To Leave With Grace).
In any case, while the pastor is escaping from his problem with his abrupt departure, the church’s leaders are left with a serious problem: “What do we do now?”
If you are a board member or a staff member who is a vital part of your church’s leadership team, here’s what I’ve observed that works:
(1) Get help ASAP. Guidance from a denominational leader, consultant, pastor or former pastor can help church leaders immensely and can help to explain the situation to your congregation. You don’t have to make the mistakes that others have made before you.
(2) Commit yourself to doing right and expect God’s vindication. Psalm 37 (especially, vss. 1-7) is full of precious promises that you can hang unto as you move forward. There is no need to retaliate. You can’t control anyone else’s behavior, but you can control your own.
(3) Pray desperately and expect the Holy Spirit’s guidance through your dark valley (Psalm 23:4). The Holy Spirit has never stopped guiding church leaders.
(4) Be extremely careful about what you say. This applies equally to the spouses of church board and staff members.
I don’t think it’s wrong for whoever is leading the church through this crisis to carefully craft the words they will use to explain what happened to the congregation. I’m not suggesting even a hint of dishonesty; I’m advocating grace, discretion, tact, unity, clarity and simplicity.
And do not think that you can share the “gory details” with one or two discrete church members “in confidence.” Most words spoken “in confidence” are spread all over the congregation in short order.
Tell your congregation the truth, sparingly. Aim for understanding. Tell as much as you have to. At times it is better to say less and have people speak critically of you as a board than to tell them more and have them hold the pastor in contempt.
These can be hard decisions. Was the pastor’s discouragement or dysfunction obvious and public? If so, you don’t have to say much. The hardest situations are when most or all of the pastor’s dysfunction was private, not public.
(5) Be even more careful about what the community. As the board and/or staff should give careful thought to what is said to the congregation, the congregation should give careful consideration to what is said to the community. It’s not wrong for church leaders to suggest how church members should address questions from outsiders.
(6) Get a clear end-date on the pastor’s employment and hold your ground on this. Don’t be bullied into asking the pastor to reconsider. I’ve never heard of this working out well. His abrupt resignation has just disqualified him from church leadership – at least for a while. Church board members may have to be firm, calm and strong as they clarify, in writing, the pastor’s resignation and final employment date.
(7) Board members should be honest about their own failings without failing to lead responsibly. They should not walk into congregational meetings without a clear agenda and clear proposals. Don’t be like David (II Samuel 19:1-8 ), who felt so conflicted after the death of his son Absalom that he failed to give vital crisis leadership.
(8) Regarding the personal failings or sins of board members, each should speak only for himself and not for the larger group unless the group has discussed this thoroughly and agreed upon their common culpability.
(9) Offers from board members to resign should be discussed carefully with the board. Resist the temptation to make dramatic resignation offers – especially for other people – in emotionally charged meetings. “We’ll all quit if that’s what you want!”
(10) Be as generous with a severance package as possible. Technically, this isn’t a case for severance at all, because severance is related to dismissals. Besides that, pastors leaving abruptly don’t exactly deserve honor, do they?
But mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). God deals with each of us with grace and mercy and we should do the same for others. It’s not going to be easy for him to find his next position; it’s going to take time. It may well be years before he’s ready to be a pastor again. In some cases his pain is directly related to how he was treated by the congregation he is running away from.
So my suggestion is that the church gives a generous severance package, without actually using the word “severance.” Just call it a “gift.” Think of that gift as an investment in the pastor’s future ministry.
Be generous also with praying for the departed pastor and family often and sincerely, both privately and publicly. (But don’t do this forever; there will come a time when the church will need to “move on” emotionally.)
(11) Pursue a “no pressure” listening session with the departed pastor. If done without any urgency to “fix” anything or even to achieve relational reconciliation, this can be very helpful. More than likely, both the pastor and the church’s leaders can learn valuable lessons from each other that will help them move into the future.
(12) Expect that someone will leave your church. Almost all pastors have at least a few church members who feel they are the greatest pastor since Spurgeon. Those who were led to faith through the pastor, enjoyed a real friendship with him, or were helped through a particularly trying time by him, are likely to have a fierce loyalty that defies all logic. Some will find another church no matter how graciously you handle this situation.