Friday, July 10, 2009

When a Pastor Resigns His Call

After following part of a thread over on the Luther Quest discussion board regarding the recent resignation of a pastor, I want to offer here something that seemed missing there. The biblical causes for a pastor to be relieved of his Call are clear: persistent teaching of false doctrine, a life unbecoming a Christian (moral failure), inability or unwillingness to perform the functions of the office. Sadly, many pastors are forced out of their parishes for causes far less than these. Even sadder yet, are districts that allow such forced departures for less than biblical cause. The means they use to do this might include as crass a move as to suspend his pay, thus starving him out of office, as it were. Or they may take the route of pressuring him to resign, offering incentives mixed with veiled threats as a way to press the pastor to leave. On the thread mentioned above a comment was offered that made it seem that if a pastor resigned his call by accepting a severance package he was leaving for the wrong reason. Money was placed above principle, or so it sounded to me.

As a pastor of more than two decades service, and a circuit counselor who has had the opportunity to be involved with other parishes, I suggest that the above conclusion is not altogether fair. One point missing (or maybe I should I read the thread further), is the pastor's struggle on how much strife he wishes to cause in the process of defending his Call. Yes, a Call can and often should be defended for the sake of the Office and Christ. Yes, it is shameful if a church would treat this Office with contempt by forcing a servant out simply because of personal distaste with the office-bearer. Yet the means of addressing these concerns with the parish does not always have to be a pitched and entrenched battle. And sometimes such an approach can cause untold pain and harm to the pastor's family and the very fellowship of the given parish. If a pastor resigns and accepts a severance package rather than take the parish down that path, he may indeed be making a choice that spares his family undo harm, and reduces the carnage of a protracted battle that might make further repair all the more difficult. The pastor may also be allowing the existing leadership (and/or district leadership as well) the chance to address larger issues without the interference of personal issues clouding future discussions. Sometimes the rancor of those who feel put out is so loud it drowns out everything else, and there is nothing one can do to quiet it down. Nothing except remove oneself from the discussion.

I suspect there are others who may disagree with this logic, and I respect that. The Office of the Holy Ministry is exceedingly important to me, and I believe that a man should not easily release himself from it. He has taken public vows before the people. But the question that looms before him is always the overall welfare and care of the sheep. He is not the only one who can shepherd this flock. Might another at some future time when matters have been adequately addressed more effectively lead again? It is worth pondering....

3 comments:

Bob Hunter said...

Remind me again why I'm going into debt at the age of 60 to become a pastor only to potentially come under attack by the congregation and/or the LCMS itself?

Don Engebretson said...

Actually many pastors are fortunate to be spared serious ministry-ending attacks, or by God's grace are granted what is necessary to survive and continue. Life in the church is life in the church militant where we struggle not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers of hell. When we heed this call we do it with the knowledge that we are entering into a life of ongoing spiritual warfare. Unfortunately the very places we think we should feel safe become the very grounds upon which our worst battles are fought.

revalkorn said...

I can speak with a certain amount of authority on this subject.

I'm not going to go into the whole "You don't know what it's like until you're going through it yourself" routine. After all, I don't have to be put into a meat grinder to know that it's going to hurt. So with that aside . . .

Each situation is unique. No two pastors nor no two congregations are the same, and there are more methods--good and bad--of dealing with conflict as there are congregations and pastors multiplied together. As you said, a congregation doesn't have to force a pastor to resign to make his life miserable. By the same token, a pastor doesn't have to do one of the "scriptural causes" no-no's for a congregation to know that it's probably time that a pastor's tenure at the congregation should come to an end. In my case, the congregation that forced my resignation has since done the same with another pastor, and the pastor who was still there when I left decided to resign less than a year later for his military vocation before the same could happen to him. As for me, with my wife seven months pregnant with twins and the threat of no severance and "restricted status" hanging over my head, I took the money and ran. If I had been a single man, maybe I wouldn't have left without a struggle. I don't know. What I do know is, there's more to any of these "forced resignation" stories than just a pastor's weakness against the will of a congregation and/or its leaders.

There are better ways for congregations to deal with a pastor who has been deemed undesirable without a "scriptural cause" no-no than to say, "Either leave or we're going to kick you out." In an ideal Synod, the congregation, the pastor, and the Circuit Counselor and/or District President can get on the same page and say, "We don't think he should be this congregation's pastor, but we don't want to see him out of the Ministry altogether," and the DP can get his name out there; and together they can work towards reconciliation so that there can be a truly "peaceful release" when the pastor receives another Call. Hopefully the congregation and pastor both will be wiser at the end of it all and can still treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.