Being fired is devastating. In my own experience, though, there was a particular element that I’m not sure everyone would understand.
In that final meeting around my kitchen table, I was told I had two more weeks to preach; then, I was done. I did the math in my head and realized that my first Sunday unemployed would be Easter. “I need to be able to preach on Easter,” I said. But I was told that was impossible; the terms were already set.
I’m sure they didn’t get it. The firing was terrible enough, but having nowhere to proclaim the resurrection on Easter morning was insulting and demeaning. So next year, the church we attended asked me to fill in and bring the message for Easter Sunday.
That church has an excellent understanding of grace.
In the previous post, I focused on mistakes made on both sides. I want to end with some positive focus.
What They Did Right
Twenty years is a long time to think about this. I’ve served with two other churches and various ministry boards in the past twenty years. I’ve confronted ministers one-on-one about their failings. Elders and others in leadership have called me in when problems needed to be addressed. So I preface this section to convince you and myself that I’m writing this with much experience in conflict management and resolution and not writing with a twenty-year-old raw nerve.
There is not a single thing they did right.
Maybe the question should be, what could they have done? I want to think if I were in a similar situation with a young minister who was not effectively serving the church, I would do the following:
1. Address the issue before it gets to the point of firing.
I will admit there were meetings, and I’m slightly hard-headed. I need things given to me in plain English. Instead, I was told, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” Yes, that is an exact quote. Down-homey movie catchphrases are no substitute for an honest appraisal of an issue.
2. Present a plan and issue ultimatums.
I’m not sure how I would have responded in my youth, but even if I had responded poorly, knowing exactly what was expected of me would have been helpful. Offering clear and measurable goals and saying, “We will revisit this in 90 days to see if there has been any improvement. If not, we will have to take action,” is a much better choice than firing with two weeks’ notice. It gives both the minister and his critics a chance for an honest evaluation.
3. Have an honest and open discussion that clearly states, “It’s time for you to look somewhere else and move on.”
Instead, I think the dysfunction was to the point that they were lying to themselves. Amid all our trouble, I had an interview with another church—exploring other options only made sense. A short time after the interview, I decided to be open with one of the elders I considered a friend. He was appalled that I would even consider going somewhere else.
Looking back on it, I think, in some way, they realized this was as much their failure as it was mine. But they didn’t want to admit to it.
What I Did Right
These were difficult times for my young family and me. We were poor, out of our home and out of our community. Nothing from those days feels right. Still, looking back, I see the wisdom beyond anything I could realize at the time. For those who find themselves in similar circumstances, maybe this will help.
1. I took a break.
I wanted to be in ministry badly, but I felt like a man who was just divorced and rejected, deciding to “get out there and play the field the next week.” Bringing my hurt to another church would not have been right. My wife wanted nothing to do with it either. It was a long time before I would ever be comfortable with leadership again.
So, I got a job at a lumberyard and sold building materials for about five years. I cannot recommend it. Still, I learned a lot during that time. Getting experience on the other side of the pulpit was also helpful. I worked long hours and knew the tension of not wanting to attend another church meeting because I was tired.
2. Close friends in ministry blessed and encouraged me.
I genuinely feel for guys out there on their own. I can’t imagine how they survive. But the best resource I have is the friendships I’ve built with other guys in the area. They counseled, encouraged, and nurtured me back into ministry. After twenty years, they are still some of my most meaningful friendships.
3. I learned to define ministry in new ways.
I knew better, but I had always seen full-time located ministry as the be-all/end-all for me. However, over the next eight years, I came to a new appreciation for the many different ministry roles available through the different opportunities.
Those close friends in ministry kept me busy when they needed someone to fill in for them. Within a year, our church asked me to come on as a part-time associate. They didn’t need an associate–they were investing in me. I would work part-time with national and international ministries in the following years. Then came the day I was asked to enter a six-month interim ministry. That interim ministry turned into full-time work that has kept me busy for twelve years.
You’re Going to Be OK
I’ve been wondering what I would tell 1994 me if I could talk to him. He was beaten, felt like a failure, and lost everything except his wife, child, and his faith (and the faith was iffy). I doubt he would listen to me while he sat in that lousy little apartment, wondering what went wrong.
But I would tell him that there were things that he did right. They didn’t seem important at the time, but those things he did right were the seeds that kept him growing and eventually producing a fruitful ministry.
“You going to be OK, kid.” That’s what I’d tell him.
And so are you.