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Understanding Pastoral Termination Part 1: Defining the Issue

Jun 3, 2024 | Help & Hope

The following is the first of five articles in the series “Understanding Pastoral Termination.” My work at Pastors’ Hope Network focuses on caring for pastors and their families who suddenly find themselves without a church, so I often talk about the topic of termination. Invariably, I encounter several reactions: raised eyebrows, innuendo, and the implication that pastors who lose their ministry position somehow deserve their fate. The skeptics blame the pastors who have been pushed out. “Well, they must have done something wrong. Otherwise, the church would not have forced them out.” Oh, how wrong those skeptics are. The outcome of a recent meeting made it abundantly clear that many people do not understand what’s behind the loss of a ministry position. They especially do not understand the phenomenon of pastoral termination. Misconceptions abound. Please allow me to guide you through the experience that impacts so many ministers and their families.

Defining the Issue

Pastors who lose their ministry position—lead pastors and associate pastors—fall into 1 of 2 groups:

Group 1

The first group is made up of pastors who have been fired. Being fired means losing a ministry position for justifiable reasons such as mismanaging funds, continuous poor performance, having a moral failure, or behaving in an unethical manner. These pastors often make the headlines, especially if they serve at large churches. The event is also referred to as being fired for cause.

Group 2

The second group is made up of pastors who lose their ministry position through no fault of their own – i.e. without cause. Some in this group lose their ministry position when they find themselves on the wrong end of situations such as staff restructuring, church closing, budget cuts, or a new lead pastor arrives and wants to bring in his or her own staff. Sometimes these pastors are asked to officially resign. But the bottom line is that these pastors have lost their ministry position for unfortunate reasons that have nothing to do with anything immoral, illegal, or unethical.

Some pastors join this group when they walk away from a ministry position because their church culture is so toxic that it is endangering their own well-being or the well-being of their families.

And still other pastors in this group have been forcibly terminated. They too, have lost their ministry position through no fault of their own. However, according to the scholarly research of Marcus Tanner, PhD, pastors who are forcibly terminated lose their ministry position after experiencing a brutal process that includes “psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual abuse.”1 The reasons behind a forced termination are subjective and often leave the pastor never knowing exactly what went wrong. Since the abuse is typically carried out by a small group of powerful people, most of the congregation is left in the dark. As author and worship pastor Dave Gipson says, it’s as though their pastor has been abducted by aliens.

The staggering fact is that nearly 1 out of 3 pastors will experience forced termination at least once.2 Let’s put it another way. Nearly 1 out of 3 pastors will experience psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual abuse ending in the loss of their ministry position having never done anything immoral, illegal, or unethical. When all the dust settles, the cause of termination typically has to do with things such as personality conflict, leadership styles, and power struggles. In healthy churches, all parties involved work toward healthy solutions. When a pastor is forcibly terminated, however, underlying issues are ignored rather than addressed in constructive ways.

Since 2019, Pastors’ Hope Network has provided resources to over 240 pastors in 38 states and Canada who have lost their ministry positions. The need is enormous. What an honor it is to walk alongside ministry families and provide support as they seek to hear God’s voice and discern His will for their lives.

In Part 2 of this series, we will look at the process of pastoral termination. Until then, you can impact the lives of pastors and their families by supporting the ministry of Pastors’ Hope Network.


1Tanner, Marcus. “Clergy Who Experience Trauma as a Result of Forced Termination.” Journal of Religion and Health, published online 2012.

2Tanner, Marcus. “Forced Termination of American Clergy: Its Effects and Connection to Negative Well-Being.” Review of Religious Research, published online 2011.

NOTE: While there are different reasons for losing a ministry position—and we believe it is important to understand the differences—Pastors’ Hope Network does not ask pastors to give details regarding the loss of their job. For one thing, many churches require pastors to sign NDAs in exchange for a severance, so pastors and their spouses are not free to share. Plus, regardless of why a pastor was let go, their needs are similar: they need counseling to help heal, expert guidance to avoid poor financial decisions, and employment assistance to land a job and put food on the table. So, the question we ask our clients is not “How did this happen?” but “How can we help?” We exist to pick up the wounded, get them stabilized, and put them on the road to healing. We invite you to join us in our mission.