Uncovering the Trauma of Forced Ministry Exits

We see it time and again.

Whether you have been blindsided by a leadership decision or experienced a slow “death spiral” in a ministry role, the spiritual and emotional toll of a forced exit is great. Trauma is not too drastic of a word to use to describe what ministers and their families encounter when they are fired, forced to resign or find themselves at the mercy of a leadership coup.

By definition, trauma is a deeply distressing experience or event that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. It is often accompanied by a constant reliving of the event, anger, anxiety, loss of self-esteem and fatigue. These are the very symptoms we observe when we sit down to talk with those who have been exited.

  • Trust is deeply wounded – “Why would people do this?” “Where was God?”
  • Doubt colors the sense of calling, giftedness and worth. Pastors begin to see themselves as “damaged goods.”
  • Anger and fear begin to dominate relationships; and show up in unexpected ways.

And the ministers spouse and children? Many consider walking back through the doors of a church unthinkable.

In many ways, a forced exit from a ministry role may not seem much different from any other job loss. But the differences are real and can be dramatic. There is a deep spiritual and emotional connection that exists between pastors and their calling. There is also a deep connection that can, and should, grow between ministers and the fellowship of people they serve. This is, perhaps, one of the most significant differences. When a minister is forced out of their role it goes beyond merely losing a job. The typical support relationships that would help someone through any job transition are suddenly and traumatically ended for ministers and their families. Where can ministry leaders go, and who can they talk with to process the loss and grief when an exit occurs?

It is vital that we acknowledge the reality of spiritual and emotional trauma in cases of forced ministry exit. Otherwise, we can be tempted to minimize or even deny the long-term effects this kind of experience creates. In the introduction to her book Moving On – Surviving the Grief of Forced Termination, Deanna Harrison recounts her own experience with this kind of trauma.

“For reasons beyond our comprehension, our 30+ years of pastoral ministry came to an abrupt halt. I was still married to the same godly man of integrity but he was no longer a pastor. I was no longer a pastor’s wife. Within days of learning anything was wrong, it was all over. We had been terminated. Our lives shattered as we plunged into a grief so deep I wondered if we would survive.”

For the pastoral family, a particularly traumatic exit can create an emotional and spiritual “toxicity” that is carried into the next role if left unattended. Churches begin to see themselves as “employers,” making arm’s length business decisions without understanding how such exits not only change the life of a pastoral family, but also the very fabric of the church culture. Every time a pastor or ministry leader leaves or is let go, there is a measure of grief and loss for all involved. Forced exits come packed with a level of trauma that can feel like a tsunami.

Studies have shown that most ministers who experience a forced exit take a minimum of 18 months to return to an active role – and 40% never return. In every case, the first step in healing hearts wounded by an exit is accepting the reality of the spiritual and emotional trauma. The next step is to connect with those who have the tools and processes to help ministry families navigate through the dark waters after an exit. These people and ministries exist, and are equipped to offer hope when all seems lost.

If you, or someone you know, is in the midst of a season of grief following a forced termination, it is important to take these two steps as soon as possible. The trauma is real. But so is Hope. You can begin by contacting us at info@pirministries.org.

4 thoughts on “Uncovering the Trauma of Forced Ministry Exits

  1. Oh goodness. We were veteran missionaries of 12 years when we were removed from our position without warning. Our home church missions pastor, when we called him in a complete crisis, said (and I quote) “Yeah. I’ve got nothing for you. Maybe you should try talking to your friends.” (I should note that this is not a small church with limited resources–this is a megachurch that has been sending missionaries out for over 60 years. There is never and will never be a valid excuse for how he responded to us.) Our return to the US was without the support of our mission and without the support of our home church. Friends are wonderful and amazing and supportive, but unless they’ve lived overseas and experienced reentry–forced or voluntary–they are not able to help much beyond a shoulder to cry on. We have been off the field for almost 2 years, and reentry still keeps rearing its ugly head. We are attending a new church, but are unable to get beyond sitting in the pew on Sunday morning. The thought of commitment is too much for us. Our marriage has survived intact, which is nothing short of a miracle. Unfortunately the ability to step back into any kind of ministry is still a very long way off–if we ever get back there.

  2. Such great insight that could/should/does apply to all exits, whether ministry or otherwise. I’ve been through several myself. So grateful for faith in Christ who defines me, whose word guides me and speaks into my life. Even so, traumatic. This post is right on all the way through.

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