What Happens to Pastors Who Get Disqualified From Ministry?
Every year, we get news of a pastor or Christian leader involved in a public scandal. If it isn’t something about misusing money, it is about sexual immorality. In Kenya, the most recent case is that of a Seventh Day Adventist pastor in Thika accused of having a sexual affair with an elder’s wife.
More prominently, stories of megachurch leaders and televangelists involved in one or other moral failures often leave their followers outraged, confused and divided. The most recent example is that of Carl Lentz, now former Lead Pastor of Hillsong NYC. Lentz was fired after it emerged that he had multiple sexual affairs with women who were not his wife.
If you identify as an evangelical, you’ve probably come across the following names personally associated with one or another form of sexual scandal: Jerry Falwell Jr, Tullian Tchividjian, Bill Hybels, CJ Mahaney.
Where the church “institution” is more prominent than its leaders, such as the Roman Catholic Church, cases of sexual abuse and cover-ups are just as rampant.
Protecting the sanctity of the office
Sin is no respecter of persons, parishes, or denominations. It is no respecter of orthodoxy or moral conservatism. We are all prone to it, and our church leaders are no less susceptible.
Yet, how different churches handle cases of pastoral sin is often shaped by their theological and traditional convictions. Among many evangelicals, pastors found to have committed certain “disqualifying” sins, such as sexual misconduct, are immediately stripped of their leadership role in the church.
Whatever else happens to these pastors, whether in the criminal justice system or in the counseling therapist’s office, protecting the sanctity of the office is often the priority.
Carl Lentz had to resign from his office after his sexual misconduct. So did Billy Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjan, who resigned in 2015 from his position as senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida. This is still what happens to other less prominent, less public pastors that we may know of but may not have made the news headlines.
Or rather, it is what we know is supposed to happen.
Which raises another critical question: What happens to a pastor who “falls from grace” and is no longer, at least for some time, qualified to be a church leader?
When a Pastor Loses His Job
I have a specific concern in raising this question. I am not particularly interested in what happens to the sinner who has been caught in his sin. Ideally, we would expect them to repent of their sin and work with their local church towards overcoming whatever emotional, spiritual, and relational pits their sin may have dug for them.
Where repentance is genuine and not simply expedient, forgiveness is assured. We expect reconciliation and restoration.
But my concern in writing this piece is narrower, and intensely practical. For many pastors, being a pastor is also their “job”. It is their career. It is how they make a living in a world that operates through earning and spending money.
I am talking about those pastors who are in “full time paid ministry” and working in the church is all they’ve ever known or prepared for. Some of these pastors went to Bible college immediately after high school. They were sure from early on that God had called them to a life of formally serving in the church. But now they have done something that has rightly disqualified them for the office of a pastor — at least for the near future.
When a pastor is removed from leadership, they don’t just lose a position in an otherwise economically neutral organization. It is not like they are removed from a volunteer position. They have lost their job. Which means many of them will no longer be able to make a living.
Until, maybe, if they get a different job that is not pastoring.
I see a pastor losing a job (as a result of sin) as similar to a lawyer who gets fired because it emerged that they had faked their law school certificates. Ideally, they can’t just move on to another law firm or create a startup in order to make a living. They have to actually find a different career path altogether until they get the necessary qualification — assuming the bar actually ever accepts them back.
Unfair and unjust dismissal
I searched all over the web for what happens to a pastor who has been fired. I was surprised by what I found as much as what I didn’t find. Beyond some churches helping the dismissed pastor financially for a few months as he “transitions out” not much is said about their lives beyond this.
Instead, virtually every article I read focussed on situations where there was an element of unfairness and injustice in the dismissal… In one case a pastor was fired allegedly because the leadership felt “the church wasn’t growing” since he came in… Another said they had been falsely accused… Many reported that it was an issue of doctrinal difference rather than moral failure, and so they moved to a more accommodating church or denomination.
I couldn’t find a situation describing the “after-life” of a pastor who had legitimately been disqualified from the ministry and “deserved” to be fired. Instead, many of these “full-time” pastors went ahead to found their own churches or join different churches and continued with their calling.
Unless the pastor was already nearing retirement, you will struggle to find a legitimate account of a pastor who was fired and had to “switch careers”, you know, like the rest of us would have to do in a similar scenario.
Instead, below are some responses pastors give after being fired, excepted from this article by Thom Rainer:
- “I didn’t see it coming.” Not only do many of the pastors comment they received no reviews or anything in writing, many of them tell us they never heard any hint their job was in jeopardy.
- “No one gave me a reason for my firing.” Though this comment may seem unfathomable, it is commonly true. Pastors are often dismissed without any reasons. They are then told not to say a word if they want a severance.
- “No one asked for my perspective.” Countless personnel committees and similar groups fire someone because of comments they hear from others. They have no desire to hear the other side of the story.
- “A power group pushed me out.” This reason often explains the third response. The perspective of the power group or the bully is the only one they hear.
- “A staff member (or members) pushed me out.” In one case, the executive pastor was actually on the personnel committee and conspired to force the pastor out. Of course, the personnel committee did not hear the other side of the story, or they would have likely fired the executive pastor.
- “My family is devastated.” Many spouses and children are scarred for life from these experiences. And many never return to church.
- “The severance was small.” Unfortunately, these types of churches are not typically known for their grace or generosity.
- “I can never return to pastoral ministry.” Some pastors do change their minds years later and return. Many never do. Many will not return because their families are unable to move back into the fish bowl.
- “I should have never followed a long-term pastor.” The unfortunate label of “unintentional interim” falls on a number of pastors who follow a long-term pastor. The successor just can’t measure up.
- “Secular employers are kinder and show more grace.” In too many cases, this reality is sadly true.
I wonder why it is so hard to find a case of life after a “genuine” dismissal. Is it that pastors are immune to the radical career shifts that the rest of us laity have to deal with after a scandal?
Pastor for life?
Or are we still living in the Old Testament system where you are “a pastor for life” and the primary qualification was to be born into the Levite tribe? Are pastors today simply born to be pastors and nothing else, no matter what happens? Why does it seem anathema for a “full-time” pastor to change jobs to something that has nothing to do with leadership in the church?
Why is it seemingly “unthinkable” for a former pastor to become a construction worker or an Engineer once they become unqualified for formal Ministry (unless they were already doing this before they became pastors)?
I can’t help but wonder whether this phenomenon says something about how our present society (and churches) hold those we consider leaders. We have learned to view their position through hierarchical lenses. Any other role below the pulpit would be “beneath them”.
And since we can’t see them anywhere other than behind the pulpit, is it surprising that many of these cases can’t help but weave their way back to the pulpit one way or another? Have you ever had this conversation with your own pastor or do you find it a bad omen?
Personally, I would struggle to see a serial-adulterer still leading a church, but I would not have a problem hiring the same person in a job whose skills did not require a direct link to their moral failures. I would hire a serial adulterer to be my driver, my security guard, my project manager, and even my CEO… just not my pastor.
But I wonder if they would be willing to take the job.
Of course there are other practical issues to consider, such as the fact that the ex-pastor may not be trained or qualified for many other jobs. Even so, many would still be qualified for a lot of “unskilled” labor”.
This is why I find the biblical account of Moses particularly compelling and instructive.
Moses’ fall from grace
Moses, though born a Hebrew, was raised in Pharaoh’s palace and received the highest levels of Egytian education. In Acts 7, Stephen describes Moses as “mighty in words and deeds” while he was still in Pharaoh’s household.
Jewish historian Josephus even mentions that Moses had a military leadership role in Pharaoh’s armies.
I like how author Steve Farrar describes Moses: “Many people today are devoting their lives to reaching the top of the pyramid. Moses was in line to own the pyramids.”
Then Moses messed up. He saw one of his Hebrew brothers being beaten by a taskmaster, went to his aid, and killed the taskmaster.
Suddenly Moses found himself in exile. In the blink of an eye he had lost all the power, privileges and trappings that came with being Pharaoh’s grandson. Suddenly he was even worse than his fellow countrymen. He wasn’t even a slave, he had become a fugitive.
From the fact that Moses attempted to help and save a fellow Hebrew, I believe he may have thought God had put him in his position in Pharaoh’s house so that he could be the instrument of bringing redemption to his people.
God had purposely reached down, taken Moses from a family of slaves into the very family of Pharaoh. And Moses most likely believed God had a purpose in doing so.
Then through just one act of moral failure, it all came crashing down. In one fell swoop Moses went: from the palace to the pasture; from wealth to poverty; from significance to insignificance; from freedom to felon; from a great future to a grim future.
I can’t help but wonder if this is how many pastors removed from their position often feel. They suddenly find themselves in a place that feels even worse than that of a mere congregant, and that’s probably why many seldom remain in the same congregation. The scandal is just too overwhelming.
Yet something that we often overlook is that Moses lived in the wilderness as a shepherd for 40 years before he ever heard God’s voice in the burning shift. He lived this way, not because he knew God will eventually use him to save his people. From Moses’ perspective, that life and those ambitions were behind him. This was now his life, till death.
He’d had an epic career shift and accepted it. He had an MBA and a PhD from the highest Egyptian colleges, but had now made peace with spending the rest of his life watering and grazing sheep.
No wonder he is later described as “more humble than any man on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3). If being kicked out of the palace to spend 40 years (in Moses’ perspective, the rest of your life) grazing sheep in the wilderness wasn’t humbling, then I don’t know what is.
Yet this does not seem to be one of the possibilities for many pastors who get disqualified for ministry. Many don’t seem to consider the possibility of a permanent change in careers to something “less dignified”.
What does this say about our attitude towards starting over? What does it say about our social pressure to align certain jobs with certain social “status” (and even age groups)? And what is it about being a pastor or spiritual leader that makes it a permanent position that must be grasped even when one otherwise becomes disqualified?
I felt compelled to write this article because I have more questions than answers on this subject. I am unqualified to address it, since I am not a pastor. But it also turns out to be an under-researched area. As I mentioned earlier, I struggled to find any article online that addressed a post-church-leadership situation for a pastor who was morally disqualified, and did not eventually end up back in church leadership in one form or another.
For instance, as I write this, Tullian Tchividjian, the pastor who had to resign due to sexual misconduct, has started a new, nondenominational church called The Sanctuary. Locally, all the pastors I know of that were fired for moral failures, even when their repentance and restoration was unclear, have eventually found their way back to “spiritual leadership”.
Some of them started new churches, while others were hired by churches that did not mind their past record, or did not think their past accusations were deserved.
In the next part of this series, I will talk to a few local pastors in an attempt to learn their thoughts on what it will mean for them personally (not other pastors) to no longer be qualified to be pastors.
Three weeks ago, we concluded a sermon series on suffering. We appreciate your personal feedback and encouragement. If you have a topic you would love tackled, please write to us. Thank you!