By Roger Lovette
A pastor’s wife tells of a recurring dream. It was a stormy night. The rain was coming down hard. She was in the front seat of their car. Her husband was driving. Their two children were in the back asleep. Suddenly the car spins out of control, turning around and around in the road. She wakes up screaming. Night after night she dreams the same dream.
In real life, the family is caught up in a church fight. The officials of the church have met with the pastor and suggested he might resign. Slowly nightmare and life merge. The pastor’s wife says that their life is like a runaway automobile. She nor her husband have much control of their lives. She feels danger for the man she loves, for her children, even for her marriage.
Forced termination affects everyone in the minister’s family. No one is immune. Family systems tell us that the family unit is much like a spider web. When one part is touched all is affected. When the rains and winds blow – the fragile spider web is threatened by collapse.
The church has a responsibility for all its flock. Part of that responsibility involves reaching out to the minister and his or her family. Many well-meaning church members have no idea of the trauma and pain their action or inaction causes in the lives of those who serve them in the church.
One wife said she felt powerless as she watched her husband’s self-confidence and faith erode week after week. He was going to the church, meeting with committees, trying to work things out. She had no one to turn to. She simply stood by and watcher her husband slowly self-destruct.
After a minister or staff person is terminated, they must deal with enormous loss. Loss of self-confidence which leaves spouses and children vulnerable. One of the most frightening of all the problems in forced termination is loss of income. Suddenly the family’s primary source of income dries up or ends abruptly. Where will they go? Move out of the parsonage, give up the home they cannot now afford to make payments on?
Sudden termination brings other problems. One minister told that with a child in college, they had to borrow on their retirement and completely cut out their hospital insurance just to get by. Spouses often must leave jobs. The psychological damage of little or no money is one of the highest stresses that can happen to any family.
Many wives lose emotional support suddenly. “The hardest thing for me,” one wife said, “was the loss of friends.” Suddenly she was cut off. She did not know who she could talk to. She nor her husband wanted to hurt the church by talking too much about their feelings. Old friends in the parish stopped coming by. Some were embarrassed and did not know what to say. Others just stopped calling. The pastor and his family were isolated and alone. They left angry and ashamed.
The minister’s children suffer enormous hurt from forced termination. One teenager watched his father driven from his church. Twenty years later he could still remember the pain of that awful time. “I never thought I would ever, ever come back into this building again. I remember what they did to my Daddy here. I hated this place.” Children have to endure the rumors about their parents. They lose friends. They lose their church. And if they move, as they often must, children lose their friends and all the activities that were so much a part of their lives. After one of the MTM retreats a young lawyer who met and heard the stories of wives and husbands who had been terminated said, “This is a nightmare. I never knew the church could inflict so much pain on the people who served them. The damage is far worse than I imagined.”
One of the great Biblical words is justice. Justice is doing the right thing for all. That concept applies to the minister and his or her family as it does to every other church member. Paul writes that in his struggles with the church, he only kept going because his Christian brothers and sisters remembered him with prayer and support.
The local congregation must do a better job of taking care of its ministers and their families in times of crisis. We must extend the same kind of support we offer other members of the congregation to those that serve them.
The church can do this by providing financial help until they find another place of service. They need not abandon the minister or his or her family but provide emotional and spiritual support even after the minister has been terminated. Denominations must take seriously thee psychological damage done to those who have been wounded by the church. Counseling, job training and financial resources must be made available.
One wife, after a bitter termination experience, said, “I would like to stand at the door when the next pastor and his family come that first Sunday. I would say to them: ‘Don’t go in there. Go somewhere else. They’ll break your heart, those Christians. Turn around and never look back.’ ”
Redemption is a hard business. Yet the church has been called to be ministers of reconciliation. Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me. Does this command not extend to all of God’s children, even troubled ministers and their families?
Roger Lovette is a charter member of the Board of Trustees of the MTM Foundation. He served as pastor of six churches in Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama in addition to several interim appointments. Roger is the author of five books.