By Wes Beavis
Healthy church leaders do not spiritually abuse their church staff. Abuse of staff happens all too often, and it must stop.
I’ll share an example. Recently, a senior pastor called the family life pastor into a meeting. The executive pastor also attended. It was a two-against-one coalition. The family pastor felt vulnerable. This vulnerability escalated when the senior pastor relieved the family life pastor of his ministry position. This was not a response to moral failure or professional misconduct. It was simply a case of, “We don’t feel like you are the right person for this position.”
The firing was a complete surprise to the family life pastor. In fact, one month earlier, he received a glowing performance review that singled out his efforts and leadership. There was no indication of a problem. So, to be brought into the office and relieved of his position, “effective immediately,” completely blindsided him.
“What did I do wrong? . . . Have I been written up? . . . If I was underperforming, why did this not come up in my recent performance review? . . . Why didn’t I get at least a verbal warning prior to this?” The family life pastor asked all these questions but received only vague answers from the senior pastor and executive pastor. Curiously, no specific incident led to the decision. It was as if the decision was made because of a certain “feeling” or “leading.”
The family life pastor was devastated. He loved being a part of the church leadership staff. He spent years in college specifically training to advance the cause of Christ through family life ministries.
What’s Not Spiritual Abuse
By taking this action, were the senior and executive pastors guilty of spiritual abuse? You may be surprised by my answer. No! They were not guilty of spiritual abuse for anything I’ve described thus far. I could, with certainty, accuse them of being woefully inartful in their professional process. I could accuse them of being harsh toward this staff member who had done nothing wrong morally, legally, or theologically. I could accuse them of having the compassion of a Category 5 hurricane. But with all that said, spiritual abuse had not yet entered the picture.
I understand that senior pastors have certain preferences for who should serve “on the bus” and who needs to change seats on the bus. Sometimes a staff member’s tone or temperament might be viewed as deficient in some way. When it comes to building church staff, I contend the senior pastor has the right to choose who is on the team. So, if the family life pastor didn’t have the right chemistry, it was totally within the rights of the senior pastor to “let him go.” Senior pastors have the right to hire and fire as they see fit.
It is not spiritual abuse to make these decisions. However, I would hope such decisions would take place as humanely as possible. Unfortunately, this was not the case in this instance.
Now, I’ll describe the point at which spiritual abuse did occur.
What Is Spiritual Abuse
In the conversation with the family life pastor, the senior pastor asked, “What do you think Jesus is trying to tell you through all of this?” Therein lies the spiritual abuse—a 10-foot-high pile of spiritual abuse! The senior pastor, in the superior position on the organizational chart, brought Jesus into the firing process. The meeting suddenly became three against one. The senior pastor, executive pastor, and Jesus on one side—and on the other the family life pastor watching his ministry life crash and burn.
A healthy church leadership will never do this to a staff member—that is, introduce Jesus into the firing process to bolster or justify their decision. If you must fire someone, then state your reasons—professional, performance, or chemistry—as to why it should take place. But don’t you dare drag Jesus into it. When you do, you are committing spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse comes in many forms and statements. One example is to say, “We believe God has a better assignment for you, so we are going to ‘let you go’ so that you can pursue God’s greater calling.” That, my fellow leaders, is putting a sweet glaze coating on spiritual abuse.
Sure, it sounds good. As the person doing the firing, it may make you feel better. That messaging may even make the congregation feel better about the news. But it devastates the person being fired from their local church and spiritual home.
As a leader, from time to time, you will fire someone from your staff for reasons other than moral failure. But when you do so, do it in a way that preserves their spiritual dignity. Don’t drag Jesus into your firing squad.