When Things Go Wrong: How to Communicate About a Pastor’s Exit

When Things Go Wrong: How to Communicate About a Pastor’s Exit

July 23, 2012 by

The following contains a fictional tale. So, all the characters and the church are made up.It is hard to actually use information like this honestly if it were completely true. But, based on experiences I have witnessed and heard in over 20 years in church leadership, I can attest that things like this happen more than I care to admit. Here is a little tale and then some suggestions.

The senior pastor was subject to a coup d’état, abdicating his position as lead pastor of Summit Valley Church under pressure. Jim, who faced a rocky tenure as his student ministries director, heard the news in the worst possible fashion. Over a burrito, Brad—the board member who helped orchestrate the pastor’s exit—sang, “Ding dong the wicked witch is dead,” as he slapped his menu on the table. He was barely able to withhold his glee as he said, “The pastor resigned.”

Without much pause, Brad quickly put his business hat on. “Jim, we are gonna need something from you. It’s time to cash in a chip.” Brad went on to describe the wishes of another team member in exchange for letting Jim be part of the leadership team. Quid pro quo ruled the day. Brad’s confidence waned for a moment when Jim visibly received the news poorly, shocked at losing his boss and pastor in this manner.

Two letters were sent to the congregation, with a version from the pastor and Brad’s board. These two letters were actually quite long, which in itself was confusing. During the business meeting, parishioners questioned why the pastor who resigned after serving for only six years was given such a generous severance. Not a word about “differences” or “difficulties” would be spoken or allowed. So much was not being said. A party for the departing pastor was planned and Brad was not invited. Awkward.

What Jim and the rest of the church did not know was the politics behind the scenes that led up to the resignation. Tension brewed for more than a couple years leading up to this, but out of public view. Conflict? What conflict? A forced exit would be spun into something else. Often it is time for a pastor to leave or even be asked to leave. That may very well be the best decision a governing body makes. The sadness in a story like this is not that a pastor has to be removed, but in the lack of healthy communication.

This tale is pretty common. Some pastors and boards are more generous to each other. Other times, it gets uglier. But, we should not fear honesty. Much of what is seen publicly is the tip of the iceberg. People lose trust in leaders who lack transparency, so the key is planning with good ethics. People make mistakes. Sometimes an exit will not end up friendly, even given best intentions. Preparation trumps reaction in communicating bad news.

Here are some tips for communicating bad news:

Be Transparent
Transparency hurts at first, but builds trust in the long run. It will likely cause a gasp, but to admit that under the radar some differences exist or that some unpleasantness is in the mix will go a long way. If you messed up on something, be willing to admit that fact (this does not mean that every detail or fact has to be presented, however). Openness is always better than orchestrating a charade.

Who Knows What When?
Plan ahead of time who should know what information and when. Ahead of time at a retreat, agree on a policy for communicating bad news. Doing this before the emotion is in place will limit mistakes and cools political plays. Some people should not know all the details, and transparency is not always telling all.

Don’t Use Facebook
Never use social media to break the news. Recently, I heard of a pastor who posted on Facebook that his worship leader was leaving. This forced him to call meetings to address confusion. The more traumatic and shocking the news, the more personal you should be, and forums are more effective when planned.

Let People Have Their Own Reaction
Honor the emotions of your church before your own. No matter how angry leaders may be about an offense, a staff member failing or team member leaving, people in the church love that person. Their honor, even if they do not deserve it, honors those they served. So, let your church celebrate, mourn and accept the loss.

In my experiences, I have personally been part of some very well-communicated exits. I have a huge respect for the ministries I personally have served, and in one case where I was not sure about continuing my position, the leadership handed me a letter to affirm me regardless of the decision I made. In another setting, when I decided it was time to go, we sat and talked through all the details and came up with something that honored all involved, both publicly and privately. These are tough conversations. But, I have seen difficult things like separations communicated well, allowing God to bless his church even when significant differences and conflict were in the mix.

Photo by Today is a good day
Post By:

Rich Kirkpatrick

Rich is a writer, speaker, musician, blogs at RKblog.com and elsewhere, and is a dad of two and married to his best friend. In 2014 he authored the book, The Six Hats of the Worship Leader.
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2 Responses to “When Things Go Wrong: How to Communicate About a Pastor’s Exit”

  • Jonathan
    July 23, 2012

    Good tips. The problem is that people who are behaving like the elder in this story are too busy playing politics and pushing their own agenda to be concerned about shepherding their flock and communicating well as you suggest in this article. It’s really sad that stuff like this happens in churches. The people who are focused on shepherding the flock and giving God the glory are less likely to have situations like this (although it’s still highly possible), and more likely to communicate well because they care about how their flock hears the news and receives the message.

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  • Rich Kirkpatick
    July 24, 2012

    Jonathan, you reflected well the main point in church communication that I think is primary in ministry–people matter most, they are our business.

    This fictional character on the board perhaps had valid emotions. But, it is how we dispense emotions as leaders that leave a good or bad legacy in communication.


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