One of the most popular sermons I have preached is entitled “How to Fire Your Pastor.” I should have been suspicious when so many people requested copies of it! My purpose wasn’t to advocate such action; rather, I wanted to help the church know what to do and how to do it if that unfortunate necessity ever arose.
The issue is certainly relevant. It is estimated that in the United States over fifteen hundred ministers are dismissed from their positions each month. In some denominations it is almost epidemic.
The relationship between churches and pastors is vitally important because Christ has ordained that His sheep are cared for by qualified, called, and equipped undershepherds. The dissolution of that relationship should never be regarded lightly or pursued haphazardly.
Untold harm has been done to the reputation of Christ’s kingdom by the improper firing of pastors. Yet 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.
Though Scripture does not provide a step-by-step procedure to follow when dismissing a pastor, it does give some very clear principles to follow. Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 5:19–21 provide practical guidelines that transcend the distinctives of ecclesiastical polity.
Paul takes up the issue of elders in verse 17 by noting 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. Next, he tells Timothy how to handle problems that arise between the congregation and elders.
“Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (v. 19). There is a wrong way and a right way to handle accusations against a pastor. No pastor should ever be dismissed based on rumor and innuendo. In fact, if Paul’s prohibition is heeded, then no unsubstantiated accusation against a minister should even be accepted.
A man should consistently display Christian character and conduct before he is placed in the office of pastor. That is what Paul emphasizes in his list of qualifications for an overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1–7. If a church takes these qualifications seriously before installing a man as pastor, then it should not be difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt if a rumor about him emerges.
Anyone can make an unsubstantiated charge against an individual and gain a hearing, particularly if that individual is in a leadership position. Because they are often called to engage people on very personal level, pastors are easy targets for false accusations and gossip. For the sake of the man as well as the gospel that he preaches, a church must guard against even giving credence to an isolated accusation against their pastor, much less moving to dismiss him on such flimsy evidence.
This does not mean that pastors are above criticism or that they cannot be held accountable for their actions. There is simply a right way to do it. Before any charge is received it should be brought by “two or three witnesses.” The appropriate church leaders, who are responsible for guiding and protecting the church according to God’s Word, should then conduct a careful investigation.
If the charge cannot be proved, the matter should be resolved without repercussions for the minister. However, the fact that it was made at all indicates a problem exists somewhere. Perhaps it is a simple misunderstanding or miscommunication, or it could be something more serious. This should be sorted out as clearly as possible in order to prevent future difficulties.
If the charge can be proved and the pastor is judged guilty of serious sin, then the matter is not to be dealt with lightly: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). By letting the matter get to this point, the pastor has “persisted” in his sin. Because of this he should be addressed and rebuked publicly in the presence of either the whole congregation or their appointed leaders.
The church must then decide if the pastor has disqualified himself from the office of elder. If he has, they must humbly, sorrowfully, and soberly remove him from his responsibilities remembering that their actions are taken before God (v. 21). The protection that God has given for men in the office of elder must not be misused to allow them to get away with scandalous sin.
No church ever wants to go through the sorrow of dismissing a pastor. But if it must be done, for the honor of Jesus Christ, let the Word of God guide the process.