December 18, 2012
"Clergy Killers”—and the Church
More than one in four pastors say a faction has forced them out.
Research conducted in recent years by two different organizations paints a disturbing picture about certain conflicts between pastors and small factions within their churches. The in-fighting often festers long enough that many pastors wind up pushed out.
Researchers at Texas Tech University, surveying nearly 600 pastors, say 28 percent of pastors indicated they have been forced out of their congregations at one time or another due to personal attacks or criticism from a small group of members. Separate work from Duke University’s National Congregations Study in 2006-2007 shows 9 percent of congregations had experienced a conflict between a pastor or leader and a group of church members within the previous two years that led to that pastor or leader’s departure.
A full graphic from ChristianityToday.com further illustrates all of the data, including details about which denominations saw more or less of these situations, what types of leadership roles were involved, and how many times a pastor or leader said they’ve experienced such a situation (of those forced out, three-fourths said it has happened only once so far in their careers).
David Briggs from the Association of Religion Data Archives says these factions within congregations are called “clergy killers”—“a small group of members [who] are so disruptive that no pastor is able to maintain spiritual leadership for long.” As the Texas Tech researchers point out, the toll is a heavy one in terms of the stress and dysfunction that carries on for weeks, months, or perhaps even years. A separate study of 55 ministers by Texas Tech and Virginia Tech University showed these dismissed pastors faced higher levels of depression, stress, and health problems, and lower self-esteem, Briggs says.
Beyond the short- and long-term effects on the pastors, which are significant and not to be casually dismissed, is the health and well-being of the congregation left behind. A small faction, for better or worse, has exerted enough influence to force a leadership change. If it was for the worse, the situation isn’t healthy, and the lingering toxicity likely will make it difficult to call a replacement.
How can churches avoid such situations? Or, better yet, how can church leaders respond when one or more individuals bring forward concerns about the pastor? We asked Ken Sande, founder of Peacemaker Ministries and an Editorial Advisor for ManagingYourChurch.com, for guidance.
In the Fall 2012 edition of Leadership Journal, Sande recounts a near-disastrous force-out at a 2,500-member congregation in Tennessee. Sande says the situation reminded him that church leaders must turn to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7. “In these situations, relationship trumps everything else,” Sande says. Force-outs, bitter arguments, and splits can be avoided “if we focus on relationship and tend to that, humble ourselves, confront our own sin and confess it, and treat others with love.”
Sande also offers three lessons church leaders should learn and use for future reference when the pastor faces a faction.
For more help regarding pastors, employment law, and conflict, check out the following resources:
- Pastor, Church & Law, Volume 1: Legal Issues for Pastors and Pastor, Church & Law, Volume 3: Employment Law, both by Richard Hammar
- What the 'Ministerial Exception' Ruling Means for Churches, by Richard Hammar
- The Essential Guide to Employment Law for Church Boards eBook, by Richard Hammar