When is it Right to Fire a Pastor?

The callousness of the letter stunned me. I rambled through a drawer and found a copy of a long-forgotten hand scribbled note sent to a pastor twenty years ago. I had known him in seminary and early ministry. He had faithfully served his Southern Baptist church in a small southern town for a couple of years. He loved pastoring the congregation under his charge. But that did not stop a group of deacons from firing him. The note gave no reason for his dismissal. The threat had no veil.

1. All deacons were unanimous in 2 previous meetings and prayer that for good of the church and Bro. ______ that he should leave our church by the end of the current church year, Sept 30.

2. It is agreed that we will pay him through month of Oct, with the following exception.

This matter is not to be discussed from pulpit or prayer meeting or in public. To do so would end his time with the church immediately as the deacons will call for a vote of the congregation and stop his pay at that time. This we want to avoid at all cost.

He should know this is done as a favor to him. He has not been voted out by deacons but if he does not tell _______ that he will comply—we want him at a deacons meeting Friday night.

What horrific thing had he done to meet with a secret dismissal from the deacons? Had he taught a false gospel, as happened in Galatia (Galatians 1:6–9)? Had he taken an iron hand to the church, shutting out genuine brothers in Christ, and used words and power to be first instead of a servant leader, like Diotrephes (3 John 9–10)? Had he neglected leading the church to walk in purity, as at Thyatira (Revelation 2:18–29)? Had he failed to shepherd the flock purchased by the blood of Christ, which the Lord had entrusted to him (Acts 20:28)? Had he failed to model the Christian life and lead the church toward maturity in Christ (I Timothy 3:1–7; Hebrews 13:17)? Had he committed open sins worthy of public rebuke (1 Timothy 5:19–20)? If any of these issues were the case, then removal would be justified, although not in a scheming way.

Which of these traits served as rationale for his dismissal? None applied to him. He faithfully preached Christ, led the church in godly living, called the body to faithfulness, and sought to stir the congregation toward passion for Christ. Living, leading, and doing as Christ expects of His under-shepherds appeared to be the reasons for the deacons’ subterfuge and subsequent dismissal.

What happens when a power group uses their weight to toss out a pastor, just because they can? Sometimes pastors cling to Old Testament texts about doing no harm to God’s anointed, as evidence that they are untouchable. Yet texts about kings and priests must be used in their OT context. There is certainly appropriate time for removing a pastor, as noted above. However, Jesus is God’s anointed—the Christ, who is “head over all things to the church” (Ephesians 1:22–23). He is Lord over the church, not a power group—and not even a pastor. He will not tolerate those who seek to destroy the unity, purity, and testimony of the church (Ephesians 4:3; 11–24), be it power group or corrupt pastor. He gave pastors and teachers (“shepherds and teachers,” ESV) to equip the body for service, to build up the body until it attains to “the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–13). So removing without legitimate cause the God-appointed instruments for Christ’s purpose for His church means that such power groups will face reckoning with the Lord of the church. Just as Jesus addressed five “messengers” out of the seven churches in Asia Minor with rebuke and warning, even so He continues to exercise His authority over every church called by His name (Revelation 2–3). The one who attempts to destroy Christ’s church, God has promised to destroy (1 Corinthians 3:16–17).

So can a pastor be appropriately dismissed? Yes, if he does not preach Christ, intentionally teaches false doctrine, neglects personal godliness by failing to be an example to the flock, commits acts worthy of public discipline, or fails to lead the church into maturity and faithfulness due to laziness or incompetence or greed. No doubt, there may be a few pastors who need to be dismissed for such causes. However, to pursue such a course of action against a pastor without clear biblical warrant, subjects those perpetrating dismissal to be accountable to the Head of the church. He will settle all accounts with justice.

It seems that the deacons who dismissed my friend many years ago gave no thought to giving an account for their actions to the Lord of the church. And my pastor friend, although dismissed from that church, continued to faithfully serve as shepherd of another flock. He bore no bitterness toward those who wronged him. He proved to be diligent in shepherding God’s flock. That’s the goal for every God-called pastor.

Instead of firing a pastor because one group dislikes him, communicate with him in love. Pray for him. Encourage him. Hold him accountable to preach Christ, to live as an example to the flock, to lead the body in growing in grace, and to serve with faithfulness. Pastors and congregations remain accountable to the Lord of the church.

Phil planted South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1987 and continues to serve as senior pastor of that congregation. He previously pastored churches in Mississippi and Alabama. He received his education at the University of Mobile (B.A.), New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Fuller Theological Seminary (D.Min.), and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). Phil and his wife Karen married in 1975, and have five children and seven grandchildren.
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