How to Fire Your Pastor

Founders Journal · Winter 2003 · pp. 1-9

How to Fire Your Pastor

Tom Ascol

“Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear. I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels that you observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing with partiality” (1 Timothy 5:19-21, NKJV).

Several years ago I preached a message with the same title as this article to the church I serve in Cape Coral. When I mentioned my intentions to a pastor friend, he said, “Tom, haven’t you heard that you never put a loaded gun into the hand of your enemy?” My response then remains my conviction now. First, I do not consider the church I serve to be my enemy. Far from it. Though some individuals from time-to-time have positioned themselves as my enemies, the church as a whole has been and remains the body of Christ and therefore a wonderful means of grace in my life. When a pastor starts viewing the church as his enemy it is a sure sign that he has outlived his usefulness to that congregation.

Secondly, in the sense in which my friend meant it, church members already have a gun. As one who is charged with the responsibility to lead and nurture the flock of God, I want to do everything I can to make sure that it is loaded with the proper ammunition and fired in a right direction.

Even the pastor who rejects any form of congregational government must face the fact that the members have a huge say in his tenure. Regardless of formal suffrage policies, all church members vote in two ways: with their feet and their pocketbooks. Many ministers who have never been officially dismissed have nevertheless been forced out of office by the withdrawal of support by the members.

The pastor-church relationship is a sensitive and vitally important issue. The proper dissolution of that relationship in difficult circumstances needs to be carefully considered in the light of biblical teachings. Untold harm has been done to the reputation of Christ’s kingdom by the improper firing of pastors. By this I do not mean to suggest that it is never proper for a church to remove a pastor from leadership. There are, sadly, occasions when such a step should be taken for the glory of God and the welfare of the church. When faced with this course of action, however, a church is not free simply to ignore biblical teachings while taking the path of expediency.

Evangelical pastors of all denominational stripes today are being dismissed in epidemic proportions. A few years ago studies showed that 2000 Southern Baptist ministers were being formally dismissed each year from their pastoral responsibilities. This figure does not include others who were forced out in less formal ways. Bill Bright’s Global Pastors Network (GPN) estimates that 1500 pastors are removed from their ministries each month!

Many denominations and state conventions have established departments to deal with “church-minister relations.” Personnel are now in place whose primary responsibility is to mediate between pastors and congregations who are in conflict.

A new type of insurance has recently become available called pastoral dismissal or termination insurance. It is being promoted with the ominous warning that no pastor really has job security. “It could happen to you. Then what will you do?” Obviously, there is a market for this product. Too often that market has been expanded by the unjustified actions of a misguided congregation.

However, as I have already suggested, there are churches that suffer under the leadership of pastors who, quite honestly, ought to be dismissed. It is a two-way street. Churches can be hard on pastors. But it is equally true that pastors can be very hard on churches.

Most men who make a start in pastoral ministry do not last long. Research from GPN indicates that eighty percent of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will abandon it within the first five years. Others continue on who have no business doing so. They abuse God’s flock by teaching heresy, exercising authoritarian leadership or engaging in personal immorality. Scandalous illustrations of these types of pastoral malpractice abound.

Any man guilty of such abuse should be removed from his office and helped to turn away from his sin. Sadly, many churches languish under lethal ministers because of inertia. They know that something ought to be done, but are not sure what it is or how to proceed. Out of fear of doing the wrong thing, they often do nothing and merely hang on, hoping for the best.

Two realities lie behind much of the confusion and misunderstanding about how to deal with difficulties in the pastor-church relationship. These realities should never be played against one another but should always be remembered together. When controversy erupts, the tendency is to focus on only one of them to the neglect of the other. What are these two realities?

First, the pastor, by virtue of God’s ordination, is in a position of spiritual authority in the church and therefore, is due respect and esteem by virtue of his office. Regardless of his person (though that is not unimportant) the office which he holds is worthy of esteem and respect by the whole congregation. Church members should demonstrate by their conduct that they desire their pastors to serve with joy and not with grief, “for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account” (Hebrews 13:17). It is wonderful when there are personal reasons also to esteem, love and admire the pastor; but even if such are hard to find in the man, the office itself requires respect.

Second, the pastor is a mere man–a real man–who is, like everyone else, a frail creature of dust. He is subject to the same passions as other men and is liable to the same temptations and the same sins, just like others.

To remember only the respect and esteem that is due to the office will inhibit one’s ability to recognize and deal with real sin on the part of the pastor. Many loyal church members have been blinded to the failures of their pastors out of sincere respect for the office.

On the other hand, if one wants to find fault with a pastor, it is easy to do. Pastors are sinful and regularly deal with problems and temptations like everyone else. It is easy to pick a pastor apart. If the fact of his humanness is not balanced with the reality that, despite his sin God has placed him in this office that must be esteemed and respected, then it will be too easy to declare open season on all his faults.

So what does a church do when members become convinced that a pastor needs to be removed? While there is no formula or step-by-step outline in the Scripture telling us how to dismiss a pastor, there are some very clear principles. These principles should govern any procedure adopted by a congregation to deal with this unfortunate event.

First, consider Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy. Paul sent this letter to Timothy to encourage him in his work of leading and serving the church in Ephesus. After outlining the qualifications for elders and deacons in chapter 3, Paul explains why he addresses the subjects he does in the letter: “These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (3:14-15). He wants Timothy to know and to be able to teach others how to behave and conduct themselves in the church.

In 1 Timothy 5 Paul turns his attention again to the issue of elders and pastors and notes that elders who rule well, especially those who labor in word and doctrine, are to be financially remunerated for their labors in a manner that corresponds to the expertise with which they dispense their responsibilities. “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages’” (5:17-18).

Our interest is in verses 19-21 as we consider the question of how a church should go about dismissing its pastor. Paul indicates that there is a wrong way and a right way to dismiss an elder. It is important to identify both. It may be right to remove a pastor but it is never right to do so in the wrong way.

How should a pastor not be fired? He should not be dismissed based on rumor or innuendo. The pastor should be known as a man of Christian character and conduct, or else he never should have been placed in the office. There should be demonstrable evidence of his mature, Christian character. Paul addresses the whole issue of qualifications for pastors, bishops or elders (which, for the purpose of this article are used interchangeably) in 1 Timothy 3. Little is said of their duties. One would be hard-pressed to come up with a full job description for a pastor based on the first seven verses. But it is not hard to come up with a character sketch of what pastors ought to look like. God is obviously concerned with the character of the men put in the office of pastor.

If the church has done its homework and taken seriously its responsibilities then the pastor should be a man who has from the beginning demonstrated the kinds of qualities Paul lists in these verses. Whenever a rumor about the pastor comes wafting across the wind–either in the congregation or in the community–and that rumor is unsubstantiated, it should not be allowed to overshadow what is already known to be true about the pastor’s character and his Christian conduct. Love hopes all things and those who love their pastor should be very slow to believe a bad report about him.

A second instructive passage related to this is 1 Thessalonians 5:12. Here Paul says, “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.” In other words, because of the job that pastors are called to do, and the office they are fulfilling, the congregation is to esteem them “very highly in love.” To entertain (much less start!) a rumor about a pastor that would cast aspersion upon his character or conduct is a violation of the kind of respect that is owed. It also has the potential to undermine his credibility and hinder his ministry. In fact, the church member who is determined to obey 1 Thessalonians 5:12 will be unwilling to listen to such accusations.

Anyone at any time can start a rumor that has absolutely no basis in reality. Anyone can make an unfounded, unsubstantiated charge against an individual, particularly if that individual is in a leadership position. Spiritual leaders should not become suspect because of rumor or innuendo. Neither should a process of dismissal be instigated based on a single, unsubstantiated accusation. Paul wrote very unambiguously, “Do not receive an accusation against an elder, except from two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19). In other words, just one witness is not enough.

In the Old Testament, it was part of the Mosaic code that an Israelite could not be indicted and convicted based upon the testimony of one person. Deuteronomy 17:6 says, “Whoever is worthy of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witness, but he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” This was a safeguard built into the covenanted community, in the political realm in which the Israelites lived. One person could not simply make an accusation against his Israelite brother and on that basis see his brother executed.

Paul takes this teaching and actually elevates it in his application to the elders in the congregation. Pastors are protected against a charge that is brought by a single individual. Paul is not simply saying that a pastor cannot be indicted and convicted based upon the testimony of one. He is saying that if there is only the testimony of one person, that testimony is to be thrown out of court. It is not be entertained or heard. It is not to be brought to the docket. Without substantiation, the charge is not even to be entertained.

Is Paul building walls to protect pastors from ever being accused of serious sin? Not at all! Rather, he is establishing for us, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, proper guidelines and parameters in which we must walk if we are going to bring charges of serious sin against an elder or pastor.

Pastors are extremely susceptible to false accusations by virtue of the nature of their work. Think of counseling. Who can prevent a disgruntled person from charging a pastor with improper speech or conduct in a one-on-one situation? Even with people whom I trust implicitly, I try to be very careful and not give any occasion, as best I know the possibilities, where an accusation could be charged against me by someone who may want to do in the reputation of the church I serve or its ministry. It is simply prudent for pastors to avoid situations that make them easy prey for rumormongers.

The Apostle Paul was very much aware of how vulnerable pastors are to such charges. In 2 Timothy 4:1-4 he says this to Timothy: “I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing in His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.”

What do you think was the tendency of those who had listened to Timothy when he tried to convince them, rebuke them and exhort them? Paul warned Timothy that some would turn away from sound teaching and be swayed by fables. It would be very easy for these disgruntled hearers to turn the tables against Timothy and speak falsely of him. Paul was very much aware of how easy an accusation or charge can be made without any substantiation and do great damage to the efforts of ministry in the congregation.

The Apostle Paul himself had experienced similar opposition to the truth of the gospel. In 2 Timothy 2:11-13 he said this is how he had lived: “persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra–what persecutions I endured. And out of them all, the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.” Paul knew that every Christian who determines to live godly in Christ Jesus is setting himself on a course facing opposition and persecution. This is certainly true of ministers of the gospel.

John Calvin, in his Commentary on 1 Timothy 5:18, made a wonderful statement on this whole subject:

For none are more liable to slanders and calumnies than godly teachers. Not only does it arise from the difficulty of their office, that sometimes they either sink under it, or stagger, or halt, or blunder, in consequence of which wicked men seize many occasions for finding fault with them [in other words, the pressures of the ministry sometimes get weighed down so much that the temptations become more formidable and the defenses are weakened and sometimes these slip-ups and sins do come in light of that]; but there is this additional vexation, that, although they perform their duty correctly, so as not to commit any error whatever, they never escape a thousand censures. And this is the craftiness of Satan, to draw away the hearts of men from ministers, that instruction may gradually fall into contempt.

This is very insightful and to the point. In the Old Testament, when Absalom was allowed to return to Jerusalem while David was king, remember what Absalom did? As the people came to David to have their cases solved, and as David was busy and unable to hear all the cases, Abasalom, the Scripture says, “began to steal the hearts of the people away from David.” Through innuendoes, doubts and question marks placed in the minds of the Israelites, he stole their hearts from David. This is exactly what can happen with ministers, and when it happens, it causes the instruction of the Word of God, which they are commissioned to give to the people, gradually to fall into contempt. Calvin continues:

Thus not only is wrong done to innocent persons, in having their reputation unjustly wounded, (which is exceedingly base in regard to those who hold so honourable a rank,) but the authority of the sacred doctrine of God is diminished.

And this is what Satan, as I have said, chiefly labours to accomplish;… Not only so, but as soon as any charge against the ministers of the word has gone abroad, it is believed as fully as if they were already convicted.…

We need not wonder, therefore, if they whose duty it is to reprove the faults of all, to oppose the wicked desires of all, and to restrain by their severity every person whom they see going astray, have many enemies. What, then, will be the consequence, if we shall listen indiscriminately to all the slanders that are spread abroad concerning them?

It is easy to make an accusation, spread a rumor, or begin speaking with innuendoes that undermine the credibility of the voice–the mouthpiece–that God has placed in the church to instruct from the Word of God, and we must guard against it. Paul had been falsely accused when he wrote this letter to Timothy. In Jerusalem he had been accused of desecrating the temple by taking a Gentile into the court beyond where the Gentiles were allowed to enter. Though he was not guilty, nevertheless the charge was made and he wound up being imprisoned and ultimately sent to Rome. The difficulties he faced there, along with the opportunities to preach the gospel, can all be traced back to false accusations.

Among the Corinthians, Paul was also accused of being one thing when he was present and something altogether different when he was absent–specifically of being a hypocrite. Paul had to defend not himself but the office of apostle which God had commissioned him to fulfill. This he does in 2 Corinthians 10-11.

The same thing happened among the churches in Galatia. He was accused of teaching something that he never taught. He had to come and defend his teaching as an apostle of Jesus Christ among those churches.

Pastors must exercise great care to avoid putting themselves at unnecessary risk in this matter of opening up avenues for unfounded rumor and accusation. Simple wisdom must be used regarding planning and procedures, setting up schedules and agendas, particularly with counseling sessions. All of these things must be brought into the light of the reality that Satan will seize upon opportunities to cause false accusations to be made. Even after you have done your best, as congregation and as pastor, there is no way to guarantee absolutely the stifling of all rumors. It cannot be done. You cannot prevent accusations completely from coming.

What happens when an accusation is made against a minister? The public ministry of the Word is undermined. There is a question mark that begins to arise in the listeners. “Could it be true?” “This man is preaching the Bible, but what about that rumor?” The question mark remains there. Also, the very character of the minister as well as the church is called into question by the community. “Did you hear about that pastor?” ” What kind of church is that if they have a pastor who does that?” The gospel itself may well be hindered in the lives of individuals as it was among the Galatians when the rumors and accusations against Paul were believed by some.

When an unfounded accusation is made by an individual against the pastor, not only is this accusation not to be acted upon, it is not even to be received. Rather, 1 Timothy 5:19 ought to be cited and the accuser ought to be asked if he or she has another witness to substantiate the accusation. If not, we are not to receive it. The Scripture tells us not to even listen to or entertain an accusation that is unsubstantiated. If it cannot be substantiated, you and I must not participate in the sin of the accuser by listening to it.

The Puritans had a saying that the person who gossips has the devil on his tongue, and the person who listens to gossip has the devil in his ear. Paul here says, don’t even listen to an accusation that comes from only one witness.

What about a situation where a single individual steps forward to accuse a pastor of a criminal offense such as embezzlement or sexual abuse? The ongoing scandals in the Roman Catholic Church as well as in many prominent Protestant congregations make this issue painfully relevant. Any attempt to silence victims or cover up the misconduct of leaders is shameful and does not serve the cause of God and truth. Where criminal charges are filed, a criminal investigation should be conducted by proper civil authorities.

Both the church and minister are placed in awkward situations in such cases and must carefully heed the Apostles Peter’s instructions in 1 Peter 4:14-16, 19:

If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter..… Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator” (1 Peter 4:14-16, 19).

The result of the criminal investigation will provide further evidence that sheds light on individual’s accusation. Often, other victims are discovered or more information is uncovered that becomes corroborating evidence against the pastor (such as missing funds discovered by an auditor). The church must weigh this evidence carefully and proceed with biblical steps of removing the pastor if his guilt is demonstrable. If the evidence suggests he has been falsely accused, that should be declared by the church and the practical issue of his future effectiveness in the church as well as possible discipline against the accuser should be considered.

Have you ever fallen prey to the subtle snares of Satan in this issue and entertained an unwarranted accusation against an elder? If so, then you have violated this passage. If the accusation was not brought by two or three witnesses then you have become ensnared in that accuser’s sin. Next time, act upon the principle of 1 Timothy 5:19 and resist that temptation.

That’s how not to dismiss a pastor. Don’t do it on the basis of rumor and innuendo and don’t do it on the basis of one accuser only. How then are you to go about dealing with the sin of a pastor that is serious enough to require his dismissal?

First, verses 19-21 require two or three witnesses before the accusation is even entertained. This may be what has happened: You know that this pastor has done this, but the next consideration is, do you have a witness? If you do, then the accusation may be entertained and brought to the proper church leaders.

Then, in the investigation that ought to follow, a church is to research the accusation and the specific charges to see if they can be sustained. If the charges can be substantiated and there is reason to believe, from the mouth of two or three witnesses, based on the evidence that is brought forth, that something serious is going on, then the charges ought to be taken to the church by the leaders.

When accusations arise, they ought to be handled this way as a matter of simple Christian prudence. The leaders of the church have been recognized by the whole congregation as men of integrity and trustworthiness–men who have pledged themselves to serve the congregation by following as best they can the principles of God’s Word and giving leadership and direction to the procedures of following that Word, no matter what the consequences or where it will lead. Those leaders are obligated to make a very careful and detailed investigation of the whole issue, to research it and go through the evidence, to hear testimony and bring in witnesses, to see what is going on, how it has arisen, and get to the bottom of the issue. That is their duty and their responsibility before God for the welfare of the congregation.

If, in their detailed investigation, the charge cannot be proved, the matter should be resolved without formal accusation and charges being brought against the minister. However, the question still remains: Why was the charge made? There must be some problem somewhere. Something may be going on–maybe a simple misunderstanding or miscommunication–but nevertheless, there is a problem even though it may not reside in the actual content and essence of the accusation.

However, if the charge can be proved and the pastor does seem to be guilty of serious sin, then the matter is not to be whitewashed or dealt with lightly. Paul says, “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may also fear” (1 Timothy 5:20). If the investigation concludes that yes, there is more, there is doctrinal or moral sin of serious nature, then the pastor should be addressed and rebuked publicly by the congregation. When a problem escalates to such a serious level then the congregation must decide whether the pastor had disqualified himself from public ministry in the church, and remove him if he has.

The protection that God has given for good men in the office of elder is not to be misused to protect bad men by allowing them to get away with scandalous sin.

These are the procedures to be followed. In verse 21, the Apostle Paul brings a very sober note, a very weighty charge, right on the heels of the instruction: “I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels that you observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing with partiality.” The procedure is to be followed with strict justice. There is to be no prejudice, no pre-judging. No one is to say, “Well, we already know where this thing is going to go so we’re just going to go through the motions.” No, we will, under God and recognizing that we stand before God, seek to evaluate the evidence and follow it wherever it leads. We will draw the conclusions that are required and endure the consequences as the Word of God instructs us, without prejudice and without partiality. In other words, if we are called upon to engage in the investigation and bring the matter before the congregation, we should, in our mind’s eye, take a blanket and put it over the faces of all of the principle parties involved so that we are not improperly influenced by relationships. We must look at the evidence without partiality and seek, on the basis of that evidence, to come to the truth of the matter as we cry out to God to be spared from making a mistake. We are to proceed with strict justice.

This process is to be followed with grave solemnity: “Before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels …” Paul is painting a picture of the heavenly tribunal: God Himself, the Lord and Sovereign of the universe; Jesus Christ, whom He has appointed to be Judge of this universe; and in His service, the elect angels who always are there doing their bidding without hesitancy. Paul says that you stand before God, His angels and Christ himself, before whom you must give an account eternally, as you discharge this responsibility and seek how to carry out this grave matter that has been brought into the life of the church.

Pastors are not above sin. They are not above the temptations of grievous sins, both doctrinally and morally. When a pastor is guilty of doctrinal or moral sin in a grievous way, he should be dealt with for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ and His glory, whom he represents, for the sake of the church of Jesus Christ, which he serves and for the sake of his own soul.

The church belongs to Jesus Christ and we have been told in Scripture that one day the church will be free from spot and wrinkle. That be a glorious day! But that day is not yet. We still have spots and we still have wrinkles. We still have to deal with the reality of sin that remains in the church. Sometimes the church has to deal with scandalous sin and tragically there have been times in local churches where congregations have had to deal with scandalous sin in the lives of their pastors.

It should be our desire and prayer that the Lord would spare His churches and pastors from ever having to come to the point of dealing with these kinds of issues in a formal way. No elder wants to bring the kind of reproach upon Christ’s church and His gospel that would require these strong steps to be taken by a congregation. But if the need arises, let us be faithful to follow biblical principles in whatever steps we must take. And, let us refuse to be ensnared by those who would bring sinful accusations against the leaders that God has appointed in His church.