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.

Exited Pastors: The Ruined Landscape

HurricaneI have lived through hurricanes. When I was much younger, growing up in Florida, there were several times when my family huddled together in our boarded-up home, lighting candles when the power went out and listening to the fury of the passing storm. Once the “all clear” was given, we would step outside to survey the damage done to the landscape – tree branches strewn about, water everywhere and the usual debris left behind by the battering winds.

Sometimes, the effects were more serious and long lasting; the residents of the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard will be living with the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy for years to come.

When a pastor is exited from ministry, it can feel like they have been hit by an emotional and spiritual hurricane. Emerging from the storm, the ruined landscape of life that greets them can be overwhelming – and the impact can last long into the future. Exits occur for many reasons, and regardless of why, the devastation to a pastor and his family is real.

Working on his doctoral dissertation at Covenant Seminary, Dr. Art Hunt studied the occurrence of forced exits among pastors in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. His conclusions are insightful:

“Three significant themes also surfaced: (1) the ongoing, unresolved conflict that often swirls like an unending storm around pastors who experience a forced pastoral exit; (2) the personal, multifaceted impact or “cost” of such a forced exit for the pastor, his wife, his children, and his current/future ministry practice; and (3) what might best be described as the “post-traumatic care” that is desperately needed but often sorely lacking after the pastor is forced to leave the church he once served.” – Dr. Art Hunt (Cornerstone EPC), Doctoral Dissertation, “I Never Expected This Would Happen To Me.”

Exits affect every area of the life of a pastor and his family: physical, social, emotional and spiritual.

When asked, many describe the experience with words like pain, emotional stress, and depression.

From the March 2012 issue of the Review of Religious Research, an online study found 28% of ministers said they had at one time been forced to leave their jobs due to personal attacks and criticism from a small faction of their congregations. The researchers from Texas Tech University and Virginia Tech University also found that the clergy who had been forced out were more likely to report lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression, stress and physical health problems. Months of suffering traumatic and demeaning psychological and emotional abuse as they are slowly being forced out of their pulpits due to congregational conflict, Tanner said, “is a really, really horrible process.” A separate survey by Texas Tech and Virginia Tech researchers of 55 ministers who were forced out of a pastoral position found a significant link with self-reported measures of post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

debris

 

What debris is left behind after a pastor has been exited? Damage shows up most often in these three areas:

 

MISTRUST

A pastoral exit means more than the loss of a job. It is also the loss of significant relationships. Those of us who lose a secular job have our church family to turn to for encouragement and support. Not so, for a pastor and his family. Mistrust of the church sets in and many become ambivalent toward and distant from the church. The house has been leveled – we can’t go back and we wouldn’t want to go back even if we could. The place of healing becomes the pit of hurting and trust has been compromised.

Even more deeply felt is the damage done to a pastor’s trust in God. The loving counsel so easily dispensed to others regarding God’s faithfulness and sovereignty is difficult to recall for the exited pastor.

LOSS OF SELF ESTEEM

The idea that exited, burned out or fallen pastors are “damaged goods” runs deep on both sides of the pew. When a pastor begins to see himself as a failure, shame hangs over every aspect of his life. It is hard to see the difference between I have failed (which we all do, and hopefully learn from) and I am a failure. It doesn’t take long until doubts about one’s call creep in, like rot at the core of the heart.

As a result, there is a growing sense of isolation for the exited pastor and his family – former colleagues move on with life and ministry while the exited pastor feels left behind.

ANGER

No matter how stoically a pastor may try to move through the ruins of an exit, anger bubbles under the surface. This is especially true if the pastor is “blindsided” by church members or leaders when the exit occurs. “How could God’s people do this?” “How could GOD do this to me?” These questions are the seeds of anger that can eventually grow into a life filled with negativity, bitterness and frustration.

The pastor’s spouse and children can be collateral damage in the wake of the storm of an exit. They often hurt the most. They bear not only the pain and disappointment of their loved one, but are often subjected to their own wounding in the process. Add to this the pastor’s desire to protect his family, and an already significant amount of anger can easily be doubled. It is no wonder that 40% of those exited never return to ministry again. It is too hard to rebuild.

THE NEGATIVE IMPACT ON CHURCHES

One additional piece of wreckage that is often overlooked is the impact that forced exits have on the Church.

A great deal of time and effort is spent trying to clean up after the storm of an exit. The resources that might normally be expended in effective ministry and communication of the Gospel are instead spent sorting through the mess left behind. Unfortunately, many churches opt to try to gloss over the issues rather than deal with them – creating a toxicity that builds over time.

“Leaders urge the congregation to ‘put this behind us and move on.’ Emotions and feelings resulting from difficult, significant, painful experiences in the life of the fellowship may be submerged for a while, but these emotions will appear in future events in the church. A suspicious attitude may become characteristic of the congregation. Percentages are high that having once terminated a minister, the congregation will repeat unhealthy methods of dealing with conflict or disagreement.” – David A. Myers, D.Min. (Ministering to Ministers Foundation, 2012)

THE GOD OF HOPE

The ruined landscape that appears after storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy is overwhelming. Pictures take our breath away. The stories of deaths and injury, of the breadth of destruction left behind, of the sheer magnitude of lives changed forever, weigh on our hearts. Yet alongside of these there come evidences of hope.

rebuilding

Though some people just walked away, many didn’t following Hurricane Katrina, and 8 years later, they are still working to reclaim the city from the brink of utter ruin.

Even as the 2013 Super Bowl was ramping up in New Orleans, the rebuilding and restoration of that city continued. I can’t think of a better metaphor for the God who can suddenly appear in the middle of the mess and bring hope, peace and restoration to the broken lives of exited pastors and their families.

Finding Hope in the Midst of Conflict – Part 1

If I were to ask you for the most common reason pastors are exited from their churches, what would be your guess? Lousy theology? Bad work habits? Lack of concern for the members?

fired2 Drawing from numerous studies conducted over the last 4 decades, the experts agree that conflict – “the ugly pastor/pew rift over how the life and work of a particular church is to be understood and acted upon” (Chuck Wickman, “Pastors at Risk, p 39) – is the top reason.

Last Fall, I was invited to Grand Rapids Theological Seminary to speak to a class of seminary students studying “Moral Issues in Christian Life and Ministry.” The topic I was asked to comment on was this very one – conflict. Over the next few weeks, I would like to share with you what I shared with them regarding this key issue that divides churches and crushes pastors. Let me begin where I began with them…

We are not sufficiently aware of conditions – In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard observes how the story of early polar exploration can mimic our experience of the church and ministry. She describes, in detail, one of the more memorable failures in attempting to navigate the Artic:

 “In 1845, Sir John Franklin and 138 officers and men embarked from England to find the Northwest Passage across the high Canadian Artic to the Pacific Ocean. They sailed in two three-masted barques. Each sailing vessel carried an auxiliary steam engine and a twelve-day supply of coal for the projected two or three years’ voyage. Instead of additional coal…each ship made room for a 1,200-volume library, “a hand organ, playing fifty tunes,” china place settings for officers and men, cut glass wine goblets, and sterling silver flatware. The officers’ sterling silver knives, forks, and spoons were particularly interesting. The silver was of ornate Victorian design, very heavy at the handles and richly patterned. Engraved on the handles were the individual officers’ initials and family crests. The expedition carried no special clothing for the Artic, only the uniforms of Her Majesty’s Navy.” The last sighting of the expedition was two months after it had set sail.”

sir john Dillard notes that over the next 20 years search parties discovered remains of the expedition – “…life boats dragged across the frozen wilderness containing chocolate, tea and a great deal of table silver. Skeletons were found, silently gripping settings of sterling silver engraved with officers initials and family crests.

Reflecting on the early attempts of polar exploration, Dillard makes this insightful comment, “In the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.”

(Not) sensible of conditions…unfortunately, this oft-repeated approach to ministry can lead to similar outcomes. Idealistically, many pastors – especially those new to ministry –  believe that conflict will either never happen to them, or will be easily navigated. Here is the first key idea in dealing with conflict –

 EXPECT IT!

For countless generations, the idea of conflict as a part of all of life was the norm. But somehow, we have lost this understanding and replaced it with the drive to keep the peace at all costs. More on this later.

If you were to describe conflict in the terms of physics, it is two or more objects trying to occupy the same space – usually you and me! The reasons are multi-faceted, from churches with unresolved issues where factions and power politics are at play, to pastors with personalities and leadership styles that elicit confrontational responses or are unable to navigate troubled waters.

We need to expect conflict because we live in a broken world with broken people, and WE are broken.

BibleConflict runs throughout Scripture: Nehemiah faced it with the exiles who had returned to the land, Jesus had to deal with conflict among his disciples, Paul experienced conflict with both Peter and Barnabus, and the early Church had its encounters with it as well. Gordon MacDonald remarked that, “Adam blamed Eve for his problems, thinking he could wiggle out of conflict. Abraham and Lot split their joint venture because of growing contentiousness among their servants. Brothers Jacob and Esau reached a point of resentment so great that one of them simply skipped town. Joseph had a legitimate case against his brothers but chose to end it in forgiveness. The Israelites constantly drained the spirit of Moses with their complaining. They may have left Egypt, but Egypt never left them. There is Saul angrily chasing David through the wilderness, Ahab expressing antipathy toward the prophet Micaiah, Nehemiah fending off the efforts of saboteurs. In the New Testament, there is frequent squabbling among the disciples, the debates among the early Christians, and the messiness of life in the divisive church in Corinth. Each of these conflicts was different. Many ended badly (David and Absalom). Others ended with great grace, none better than the morning when Jesus made breakfast for the failed disciples and offers them another shot at being on the point of his mission to the world.” – Gordon MacDonald, “When Bad Things Happen to Good Relationships” (Leadership, Winter 2011)

Even the famed colonial pastor Jonathan Edwards ran headlong into conflict – with a less than optimal outcome for him. In 1728, he succeeded his maternal grandfather as pastor at Northampton, Massachusetts, where his preaching brought remarkable religious revivals. But he alienated many of his congregation in 1748 by his proposal to depart from his grandfather’s policy of encouraging all baptized persons to partake of Communion and instead to admit to this sacrament only those who gave satisfactory evidence of being truly converted. He was dismissed in 1750. More recently, in 2009, Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham, succeeded the late James Kennedy as pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Tchividjian’s church plant, New City, merged with the larger Coral Ridge, but the honeymoon was short-lived. Seven months later a group of church members, headed by Kennedy’s daughter, circulated a petition calling for his removal. On September 20, 2009, Tchividjian survived a vote to remove him from leadership.

So, rather than packing our proverbial pastor’s suitcase with fancy silverware and flip-flops, we need to be aware of the conditions we will likely encounter, and prepare sensibly. The weather in many churches can change from balmy to blizzard in a hurry, and pastors need to expect that snowshoes and winter survival gear may be necessary. The expectation of conflict is the first key to surviving it.polar gear