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In the Valley of the Shadow of (Ministry) Death

Editor’s Note: Any youth pastor who’s been through the trauma of getting fired (or a “forced resignation”) will tell you that it’s only a matter of time before it happens to you. So, what should you do if the axe falls?

“Terrence” (not his real name) is living that nightmare—and he told his Facebook friends (also with assumed names) in ministry all about it. They, in turn, weighed in on the lessons they’ve learned as they moved through their own “valley of the shadow of (ministry) death.”

I followed this Facebook thread for several days, and was impressed by the savvy, bold, and genuinely humble way these “average” youth workers offered their friend the kind of advice you’d treasure in a dark time. Here’s the entire thread, edited just a little to excise side comments and repetitions. I’ve also included my own comments, posted at the end of the thread (see the box “My Response”).
—Rick Lawrence

Terrence—I’d appreciate your prayers—I was asked by my church to resign tonight. As of 6 p.m., I am no longer their youth minister. I’m speaking with another church at this moment, but nothing is set in stone. Pray for my former church—they have a ton of internal issues and it was time for us to part ways. God’s got a plan, but pray for my family as we try to figure out what to do from here. They offered me one month severance at my resignation. My deacon said he’d try to get me more, and that just one month was terrible. But we’ll see.

Bart—Look at your church’s constitution. If it says fired ministers get a month’s severance, then tell them you want more if they want you to resign.

Stephan—At my last church, I got crossways with one of the personnel committee members because I expected his grandson to follow the same rules as the rest of the students. He lobbied to have me fired. I was called into a meeting and told I could keep working for three months while I looked for another position, on the condition that I announce to the church that I was being “called to a new position” at the end of that time. I told them: “Nope, that’s a bald-faced lie. I’ll take the three months, not a penny less, and I’ll be gone in two weeks.”

In my resignation letter I referenced that I was asked to leave, and one of the committee members threw a fit. He threatened to make sure I was never hired at another church. I reminded him that an action like that is against the law, and if I were him, I would not expose the church or himself to that kind of liability. He backed down, and I got three months of pay.

Paul—When I was fired I asked about severance—I found out the hard way that the church doesn’t have to pay you anything. It’s one of the joys of being in limbo when it comes to federal taxes—I was an employee, but not in the same manner as if I worked at Target (which I did for a little while).

ChristieDo not turn in your resignation letter until you have your severance check. Include it in the “thank you” response for your three months of severance. They want to be able to say that you resigned, not that they fired you. They don’t want the political trauma of that. If this was all a surprise to you, then you need to help them help you properly provide for your family. Let the deacons and your senior pastor know that you’re ready to turn in your positive “thank-you” letter when you’ve received a three-month severance check.

Then, you absolutely must finish strong and take the high road. No gossip, home meetings, or stirring up anything. Everything you do from that point has to be for the good of your family first, and then the good of the students second. Leave your office immaculate. Make sure that you leave helpful resources for whoever fills your role in the future—calendars, directories, job descriptions, curriculum, and so on. When you leave, take nothing that wasn’t yours. Then walk out and totally minimize all connections to the church.

Bradley—Reviewing your constitution is important. I went into a meeting with the senior pastor and, out of the blue, he told me I had two choices: Leave on good terms or leave on bad terms. It was up to me, and I had 24 hours to decide. The next day, after praying all day and seeking advice from people outside my church, I told him I wasn’t leaving. I didn’t believe God was done with me there. He thought he could fire me quietly, but the bylaws said differently; a firing required a church vote.

We had four deacons and three disagreed with the pastor’s attempt to fire me. I’ve now been at this same church for 14 years. The pastor stayed for another two (awkward) years, then moved on. Even the deacon who’d originally sided with my pastor gave me a big hug the other day. Don’t move on just because people want you to. Move on when God makes it clear to you that it is time.

Jeffrey—I was given 12 hours notice for my meeting—they offered me probation or forced resignation with three months of pay. I should have taken the money. I ended up quitting a few months later, about two hours before my associate did. I’ve kept the rules of my probation in my drawer for six years to remind me of how God is faithful.

Miguel—You and your wife have a unique opportunity to honor Christ together as a couple. It’s my prayer that you both are able to say (with complete clarity of conscience), “We did our best to do right by our Savior and for His bride.”

Bart—[tweet_dis]However this ends, take some time to heal—both you and your family.[/tweet_dis]

Mary—I agree with that statement. I’m still hurting from being laid-off and wouldn’t think of applying for another job right now. I haven’t missed a Sunday, though. We’ve worshiped at three different churches and it’s been emotional every time. It’s my one moment during the week where I let my guard down and just release the control that I cling to. My God is bigger than the problems that I face, and I need to be constantly reminded that he has not forgotten me and he’s in control and will provide for our family.

Bart—I recommend taking some time off, even if you leave under good circumstances. When I left my first church, we took a month off before starting at my second church. We visited family, friends, and even took a weekend vacation. It really helped with the stress of packing and moving—we had plenty of time to get it all done. It also bought us time in the housing search. Any transition should have a mandatory couple of weeks off just to refresh, regroup, and get any vacations in, since you won’t be getting time off for a while.

Philip—Every situation is unique, but do not be shy about asking for professional help. The hurt is always deeper than we want to acknowledge.

Monique—When churches hurt their own (when Christian people hurt Christian people), it can feel like your soul has been wounded. That’s how I felt when I went through something like this. A friend suggested I read Amish Grace. I did, and it helped me on the road to healing. We are with you in this. ◊

My Response
By Rick Lawrence

At the end of the thread, here’s how I responded to “Terrence” and all his youth ministry allies who offered their “light” in his “darkness.” If you’re reading this, and you can relate to this thread, my words are for you, too…

I hate what’s happened to you, and to so many others on this thread. What you’re all describing is something like the heat of battle, and your true identity is in the crosshairs. How do you remain open and vulnerable—an absolute necessity when you’re a conduit for ministry—when your workplace is like a contested intersection in gang territory? Drive-bys are common.

Courage is the most precious of resources, and we’re so often courage-poor. [tweet_dis]There is no courage apart from its Source. [/tweet_dis]Everything we desperately need, He has and we don’t. So I’m praying that you’d be awash in His courage right now.

I think you people are amazing, by the way. I often feel the same awe for what you do, and what you’ve been through, that people felt after they found out exactly what SEAL Team Six did.

What I’ve Learned From Firing a Volunteer
By Phil Bell
Over the last year I have struggled with a leader who has constantly rejected the vision, plans, and purposes of our church and youth ministry. This person has been continually divisive with me and other volunteers. So today, I asked him to leave my ministry. It was not an easy thing to do… But sometimes the tough conversations have to happen, and we should not run from conflict. Here’s what I’ve been learning along the way…

1. Take your time to work through the struggle. All of us are unique—sometimes difficult people are just different from us, right? It’s imperative that we take time to struggle through and acknowledge the real issues. It’s also important that we’re not quick to fire people just because they don’t think like we do.

2. Pray earnestly about what to do. Before the summer I met with this divisive volunteer to talk through the challenges I was experiencing. Rather than get into a big debate about the issues, I simply asked him to pray over the summer about his involvement in the fall. I committed to pray, also, and over the last two months God has given me great clarity.

3. Don’t take it personally—it’s ministry. It’s easy to get ticked off with people when they don’t respect our leadership—that’s to be expected. Our job involves entering into the fray with messy people and relationships. I have to remind myself not to take it personally; it’s just ministry.

4. Meet face-to-face. No matter what, always meet face-to-face when you have to let a volunteer go. I gained so much understanding, just because I could experience his reactions more viscerally in person. And it was imperative that he could see my face, and my care for him, as I asked him to step down.

5. Expect it to be messy. I have never had anyone thank me for “firing” them. This morning went well, but it was still messy and painful. Even though it’s messy today, it’s good to consider the ongoing challenges we’d have to endure if we allowed a volunteer like this one continue to be a part of our ministry. The messiness of today is much more bearable than the messiness of the next year, if we allowed divisive people to continue wreaking havoc in our ministry.

6. Love well. As I prayed about this situation, I specifically asked God to give me a heart for this guy. And as I sat across from him today, God enabled me to carefully and gently talk to him, inviting him to consider his own best interests as we navigated through the painful reality.

7. Consider how to communicate the person’s exit. When people have asked me what happened, it’s been important for me to be both honest and respectful. I asked the volunteer what he would like me to communicate with students and other leaders, if they asked. We agreed on a kind, but truthful, way to communicate that offered a clear picture for my students and other leaders. And our most important communication is with our direct supervisor. That person must be kept in the loop.

8. Expect some fallout. We should expect ongoing challenges after we’ve made the decision to fire a volunteer. This guy is loved by many of our students, and I knew some would take it hard. But I know time will heal and God will always provide great adults to fill the void. In the past, when I’ve asked a volunteer to step down, the fall-out is often short-lived.

9. Be clear, and don’t compromise. Because asking someone to leave can be so challenging, it’s important that our guilt or compassion does not leverage us to reconsider. If we’ve struggled through the real issues and prayed earnestly, it’s crucial to stick to what God has called us to do. My volunteer asked me to reconsider, but I was clear that I’d prayed for two months about this decision, and I was not able to change it.

10. Remember that you’re not alone. As you struggle through with difficult volunteers, parents, or others at your church, know that there are many like you going through the same struggles. We’ve navigated through these situations and have survived to tell the tale. ◊

Phil is a longtime youth pastor who’s just transitioned into a new church with a new title—“family life pastor.” He’s the author of Answers to Teenagers’ 50 Toughest Questions (Group/SYM). He lives in Michigan.

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In the Valley of the Shadow of (Minis...

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