A few weeks back I posted an article on congregations forcing good pastors out. It may be a good idea to reread that one first before reading this one. You can find it here. As a result of that article I was asked to write this.
The task of removing a pastor is a solemn task which should be given the same care and concern as extending a call to a man to be the pastor (if not more since what a congregation does to a man will likely take away his livelihood too).
Most congregational constitutions list three or four reasons for removing a pastor. They are:
1. Persistent adherence to false doctrine
2. Unholy life
3/4. Unwillingness to do the tasks of the office OR Inability to do the tasks of the office
From Scripture: Some passages from the Pastoral Epistles (each corresponding to above)
1. 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 1 Timothy 4:1-3, 6, 16; 1 Timothy 6:2-6, 20-21; 2 Timothy 1:13; 2 Timothy 2:14-15; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; 2 Timothy 4:1-4; Titus 2:1, 7-8; Titus 1:9-16
2. 1 Timothy 1:18-20; 1 Timothy 3:1-13 ; 1 Timothy 4:7, 12; 1 Timothy 5:1, 22; 1 Timothy 6:2-12; 2 Timothy 1:8; 2 Timothy 2:14-17, 22-26; 2 Timothy 4:1-5; Titus 1:5-16; Titus 2:7-8
3/4. 1 Timothy 4:13-14; Titus 2:15; also it shows that both #1 and #2 really fit in with #3/4 (#1 is unwillingness to teach sound doctrine; #2 is unwillingness to be self-controlled, above reproach)
What is amazing in a read through of the pastoral epistles is how #1 (sound teaching) and #2 (sound living) are intertwined (doctrine and practice).
What does this look like in a congregational setting? How does a congregation know if a man is violating his Divine Call and needs to be removed? The situations that come up vary greatly and so no “hard and fast rule” can be had on the topic, however:
If a man refuses to hear the admonition of Scripture on a certain teaching, then he should be removed. This means that repeated efforts have been made to convince him of the truth (Boards of Elders and Circuit Visitors [Counselors] can help with this). An example today would be a pastor who advocates open communion – he is holding to false teaching as to the Lord’s Supper. If he persists in this teaching, then he should be removed.
If a man has so disgraced the office with his lifestyle that the Gospel suffers, then he should be removed. This is a really hard one to determine what is “public disgrace”. Certainly in the Scriptures we can find that temptations to riches cause troubles like this, but also the passions of the flesh. How about anger and general temperament issues? Certainly a pastor who is known in the congregation as a mean person (contentious, angered) discredits his own message. How can he take care of souls? St. Paul makes it very clear that a leading man of God should not conduct himself in such ways. In that case it may be that something could be salvaged if a man would repent of his general behavior. These are hard issues that involve care for both congregation and pastor involved.
If a man will not do the tasks given to him, he should be removed. The difficulty in this is the reasons why he is unable or unwilling to do them. Is he suffering from depression? Are there other matters that are taking up his time? A congregation may choose to suffer with their pastor in these cases too, helping and encouraging him to seek help and improve.
Nothing of the requirements to remove a pastor have to do with whether or not he “fits”. If that is the issue, then work through it as a pastor and congregation. It would be beneficial to both to do such things as many great things can come out of the mutual struggle.
What if the pastor is “killing the church” by his preaching and teaching (which is silly since only false teaching kills) or the way he conducts his ministry (this is a little more tricky since it could involve a man who is not being patient or gentle but contentious)? This is difficult because there are many reasons a church may be shrinking: Demographics is a key one nowadays. Frankly put, in the past generations we did not encourage larger families nor support them (and then we didn’t worry too much about keeping them in our churches, so long as they went to a church). Another reason for a shrink may be offense to the Gospel – face it, Jesus was very good at drawing crowds, but after He preached and taught many fled from Him. Perhaps the previous pastor set up the shrink through lack of teaching or appropriate care for souls. Another reason could be the congregation itself. Perhaps it is simply God at work removing the “passing rain shower” of the Gospel from the place. A good examination should be had of why the congregation is shrinking before that charge is thrown on the reputation of the pastor. As I have just stated there are usually many reasons for a decline in membership and it usually involves more than just one.
The decision to remove a pastor is no easy task. It is never to be viewed as a “firing”, but instead is an action of God through the congregation. I sometimes wonder if it should not require a unanimous vote (or at least agreement to make the vote unanimous) because that is what we expect for a call to be extended. I suppose that would never be enacted (in the same way that excommunications hardly ever happen).