When a Pastor Has Exceeded His Expiration Date

Sometimes it's hard for a pastor to know when he has passed his "expiration date."
Sometimes it's hard for a pastor to know when he has passed his "expiration date." (Lightstock )

Of all the questions church people send my way, this may be the most difficult.

"Our pastor has been here umpteen years. He has lost his vision and his energy, and the church is dying. The numbers are down considerably, and yet the church is located in a growing area. We love him and are so grateful to God for his ministry over the years. But isn't there a limit to the loyalty thing? At what point does a pastor need to be told that his time here is up?"

There are no simple or easy answers to this. Handled wrongly, this matter can destroy a church, inflict a terminal wound to a veteran minister, and hurt his family in lasting ways.

On the one hand, the minister is there by the Lord's doing. Paul tells us the Holy Spirit makes the pastors and elders the overseers of the church (Acts 20:28). We do not want to casually hurt God's servant since our Lord Jesus said, "Whoever receives you, receives me" (Matthew 10:40). Now, we are not equating today's pastors with Moses but throughout Israel's wilderness wanderings, it was clear that the Lord took personally the treatment and mistreatment of His man by the people.

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I think that's still the case. When people mistreated God's prophets down through the ages, He interpreted that as an offense toward Himself.

So, we always want to try to honor the Lord's servant, even if he is undeserving at this particular moment.

On the other hand ...

We feel a strong devotion to the health of the Lord's church and the need to protect it. Anyone who is depressing the church, blocking its mission, sapping its strength, and deadening its soul needs to be dealt with, even when that happens to be the undershepherd himself.

So, what is a church to do?

Pray for wisdom. Pray for understanding to know what to do. Pray for courage to be able to do it. Pray for the pastor to get his act together. Pray for the church leadership to be faithful and responsible. Pray for the membership as they respond to their leaders.

Pray for the Lord's will to be done in this and everything.

That said, here are a few wrong ways to go about dealing with a pastor who is past his expiration date:

1. Anonymous notes and sniper fire.

2. Vigilante committees. Small groups that meet in the foyer and gather in people's homes to share their unrest usually do more harm than good.

3. Impetuously, abruptly. Someone rises in a business meeting and makes a motion. It all goes downhill from there.

So, what would be the best way of dealing with a pastor who needs to leave but doesn't seem to know it?

1. You start by assuming he knows it. Unless he is blind or, pardon the expression, stupid, he knows. He's just in a quandary. He is not ready to retire, not able to support his family without this job, and yet has lost his joy in serving in this church. He is probably depressed and discouraged.

The leadership can do him a huge favor by jolting him out of his lethargy.

2. Every church needs to have in place a leadership council to deal with important matters. No matter what name it goes by—church council, pastor's advisory team, administrative or personnel committee, or even the deacons—a church with no group in place to deal with critical matters is asking for trouble.

Such teams or councils must be led by courageous, Spirit-filled men and women who do not fear "speaking truth to power."

It's not only possible for a group of laypeople to say to a pastor, "You are not doing your job," but if that is the truth, they are his best friends. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend," says Proverbs 27:6.

If as your pastor, I am in the dumps and discouraged, if I am not doing my duty and the church is paying for it in slackened attendance, lower morale, declining contributions, and canceled ministries, the church team that speaks truth to me and wakes me up is doing me a big favor.

3. The church with no council already in place to deal with pastoral issues has a steeper hill to climb.

Unless the elected leadership acts, two things will occur, both of them bad: either church members will rise up and take matters into their own hands, or they will leave.

You must not let that happen.

Even though a church has no official group to speak to the wayward (or discouraged) pastor, each congregation has certain ones who are looked to as leaders of the ministries. These are the ones who must step into the breach and act.

How to do that?

I doubt if one approach will fit all situations. So, what follows is a general scenario:

1. Get people to praying.

2. Wait on the Lord to show the way.

3. Then, as He leads, and as godly men and women hear from Him, let them share with one another the best approach.

4. Find a godly and wise adviser from outside your church. In many cases, this individual is on the staff of your denomination or a retired veteran pastor in the area. If he or she happens to live a hundred miles away, so much the better. You can travel there and meet discreetly for counsel without others finding out.

That counselor can say if you are going about this wisely and faithfully or if the approach you are considering could be divisive and dishonorable. Pay close attention to suggestions from this one.

5. At what point should your group meet with the pastor? Answer: Early. He needs to know that a) the members of the church are concerned, b) the leadership is acting, and c) that conditions cannot go on as they have been. He needs to know also—this is a biggie—that no one is forcing him out and that no decisions have been made yet, and that the one thing everyone is in complete agreement on is the status quo cannot be tolerated. 

6. My suggestion—and that's all this is—is that the group ask the pastor to think and pray about the matter, and to talk to his family and his mentors. Then, set a second meeting time for one week later, and no longer. This is not something you are going to allow to drag on indefinitely. While the actions to be taken may come months down the road, the meetings to discuss and pray and consider will be ongoing, beginning now.

7. So much from this point on will be determined by the maturity and spirituality of the pastor. If he is immature and selfish—we grieve that some fit this description!—he will call his buddies in the church to complain that a "power group" in the church is trying to force him out. If he does this, there is no recourse but to have a full meeting of everyone and lay the matter on the table.

The leadership council—those who initiated the meeting with the pastor in the first place to address the declining conditions in the church—must take the lead in this, and must heed the admonition of our Lord to "be wise as serpents and as harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). No one who "loves a good fight" should be on that council or have any part in this matter. They are a disaster waiting to happen.

When the "full meeting of everyone" takes place, it should be led by the leadership team, with the pastor in attendance as well as anyone and everyone else who cares to come. 

What takes place in this hour may determine the course of the church for the next generation, so it's important to get this right. Therefore, we leave the matter with this strong word of caution:

The leaders who speak to the entire group must be gentle and Christlike, accusing no one, loving everyone, listening to every person who rises, and offering considerate responses. Leaders must not demand their way, but have no other agenda but finding and doing God's will.

Never forget that a soft answer turns away wrath. Never is this admonition more true than in a church meeting where the continued employment of a pastor is in question.

Churches have split over lesser issues.

God bless and lead you in this delicate time.

After five years as director of missions for the 100 Southern Baptist churches of metro New Orleans, Joe McKeever retired on June 1, 2009. These days, he has an office at the First Baptist Church of Kenner, where he's working on three books, and he's trying to accept every speaking/preaching invitation that comes his way.

For the original article, visit joemckeever.com.

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