In the episode, Ryan makes a point to tell the documentary crew that he doesn't want to be at Dunder Mifflin long enough to have a "thing", something that he's known for. The character's history, however, went through a number of changes during the run of the series, and if nothing else, it illustrates well how our intent and our plans can fall askew for good or ill because these choices aren't always up to us, and because our choices have these repercussive trails that we never anticipate.
I've written at length here on the work of ministry, and shared quite a bit personally. I do that because I like to write, I like to share, and I hope that maybe someone reads what I write and they get something out of it. That's why everyone writes, I suppose. People who write often say that they do so in an effort to let others know that they are not alone. I also think that people write so that they can feel that they are not alone, in hopes that, when appropriate, people will respond. People like to share of themselves for validation, and there isn't anything wrong with that in the right context. In fact, people who share the right things in the right contexts are often heralded and praised. Then there are those who are seen as "oversharers", people who give too much of their lives, and as a result are seen as needy. Hopefully I fall into the former and not the latter category. What I share here has been on my mind for a time, and I share it not just in light of recent events in our lives, but as a result of my experiences ministry over the last two decades.
In ministry, people like their pastors to be transparent. I've worked at five churches and I've heard this word (or the idea) a lot. In one church where I served, there were people who complained that the pastor's drapes at the parsonage were always closed, and the implication was that he had something to hide. It seems that people expect to have some window (usually figurative) into their pastors' lives, and in my last two decades I've always tried to do that. Why hide, I feel, when you'll be found out eventually? And the longer I've worked in churches, the more honest and free I have felt to share my opinions, my struggles, my victories. People have reciprocated, and that closeness can often be a wonderful thing. The first time I was hospitalized for a bi-polar episode, I was certain I would be fired. Instead, the church body supported me in amazing ways. Being honest about that struggle allowed me to minister to those who also struggle with mental illness. You and I both know it can cut both ways for sure, but I still feel that honesty is the best policy. It's the only way you know if you're on the same page with someone else.
In September, I was fired from my fifth ministry. It was the first time I've ever been fired from anything, and I was genuinely surprised. There had been a few bumps in the recent past, but I felt like those were getting ironed out and really was blindsided. I still am. I was not, as so many people are, asked to resign explicitly. I was not offered that courtesy, but I was told that it was not an indictment on me or my ministry work. There has been plenty that happened at the time and since then that causes me serious concern, frustration, confusion, and anger. We all know, of course, that there is nothing new under the sun, but we also know that when it happens to you, when it's personal, it seems new, and it certainly has been new to me and my family. The toll on us has been far greater than I would have imagined, even though I always knew that being let go at the drop of a hat from any church I served was a possibility. Seeing the toll, however, on my wife and son was difficult, and I was not prepared for seeing that emotionally at all. I knew the statistics about pastoral turnover and heard many stories. After all, I'd seen it done to my friends and co-workers. But I didn't think so much about things like my son no longer attending the only youth group he's ever known, or the abrupt end to fellowship with people we have worked with in the ministries I oversaw.
The difficultly with which we have struggled over the last couple months started a line of thought about all those other times when I've seen or heard of pastors being fired. The stories are seemingly endless. And every time I have seen or heard of it, it's never been done in a way that I would consider Biblical or with integrity. It seems that honesty tends to take a hit as these scenarios play out. And, put simply, that's not how God's people are supposed to interact with each other, or anyone, for that matter. It has, for example, always saddened me when I have seen other churches "ask for resignations" and attempt to cover themselves (and sometimes their leaving staff) instead of just being honest. I don't understand that. I've seen leaders dance around questions about why staff are let go. I don't understand that. I have heard several things about myself that were and are simply not true in the last couple months. I don't understand that. I've seen churches pass on bad pastors (and even give them good references) after they fired them so that they could "move them along" and get them out as quickly as possible, passing the problem of a bad pastor along to another church. I don't understand that. And I don't understand it because we are called to be people of integrity and honesty. We don't get a pass just because something is hard or uncomfortable. But not only that, the whole culture of how we deal with the firing (and hiring) of pastors in the church has to change.
I've been on the outside of a number of firings and I've never seen them handled well. In my experience, the leadership always circles the wagons instead of simply telling the truth. Starting with the way we speak of a separation, we should just be forthright: asking for a resignation isn't someone resigning, it's someone being terminated. It is. Why pretend? Is it because you say you want the leaving pastor to be able to say he resigned (which is a lie) or because you want to be able to say that you didn't outright fire him (which is also a lie). When I apply to church positions, their questionnaires sometimes ask if you have been asked to resign anyway, so you can either lie and maybe get to the next level in the interview process, or tell the truth and be summarily thrown out. I've been in many hiring meetings: those resumes get thrown in the "no" pile, sometimes with a laugh or a snide comment.
So I think we need integrity in that process, and also in our hiring process as well. I've also sat in enough hiring meetings to know that there are all kinds of reasons why a church doesn't hire someone, and here are a just a few of those that I've heard: "he wears a suit, he doesn't wear a suit, he was divorced thirty years ago, his wife couldn't come with him to the interview, his car was messy, his pants were wrinkled, he didn't have enough energy even though the kids liked him, he's too old, he's too young, he might be black (yes, I did hear this), he wrote something on his blog I didn't agree with." Ok, I get it. Organizations have cultures. Churches are no different. And they are looking for a cultural fit. But I've always encouraged any search team I've been a part of to pray first because we don't choose with human wisdom, we choose who God leads us to, right? Culture doesn't triumph over God's leading. And so it seems to be that talking about concerns you might have, and allowing the pastoral candidate to be honest, would be the best way to move forward. But we know the game, and that game is that neither side shows their cards. Instead, pastors are forced to make themselves look perfect, and elders are forced to make their church look as welcoming as possible. How could that possibly benefit the kingdom? Both pastors and churches have their cracks and both sides know they do; it's better to know what those cracks are up front because whether or not both sides can handle each other's flaws is what makes a bond strong. Marriages are a great example of this. The flaws of spouses are what cause divorce, not the commonality. Maybe that's an honest discussion worth having, instead of asking the benign "what is your greatest flaw?" question, which usually results in some milquetoast answer that really ends up being a strength. What interviewee or church elder in their right mind is going to answer, "I struggle with lust in my heart." They won't. Instead, they'll just keep on looking at porn and hiding it because that's the game. I've had questionnaires that have asked me about overeating and my relationship with my father. All at once, I see the value in a conversation about our struggles, but also see how overreaching questions like that are. Ideally, the body shares its challenges, but in that context it's all one sided. You're picking apart someone, essentially, making sure you find the perfect (sometimes, literally) candidate.
But it's not supposed to be that way in the church. In fact, we're supposed to confess our sins to one another. When was the last time any pastor really felt that they could do that, be up front about their struggles? Remember that any pastor you hire isn't an outsider; he or she is already on your team, on your side, working for the same goal. They are just as much a part of the kingdom as you and the other members of the church are, and when you treat them like hired help instead of an equal brother or sister, you are diminishing their ministry and their work. But, that's the rub: in the ways that I've seen pastors fired, including myself, you have to see them as a mere hireling to simply cut them loose from your part of the kingdom. Surely there is something very wrong with that, because there is no expression of forgiveness, restoration or unity in the body. That's wrong and sinful.
When I interview with churches, I now make a point to tell them I have bi-polar disorder. I don't know that I have always done so in the past, because I played the game and I knew that the conversation would probably end there. But why should I hide how God has helped me and used me through that affliction? I also speak out about things when I believe that they are unfair, and I have sometimes strong political opinions that I have never voiced in any teaching position at any church where I've served because I think that's an abuse of the pulpit. I do however express those opinions in private conversations and social media because I believe those opinions to be informed by Scripture. So isn't better for a church to know that up front? And I get it: some churches don't like that. But I also know that they should see who they're getting if they happen to want to hire me. It does no one any good when you box someone in on your church staff regarding their feelings, emotions, opinions, and struggles. But that cordoning off starts right there in the interview room. I'll be honest: I've pondered deleting posts and a few times have taken some down because I didn't want a church to get the wrong impression. I did it because I felt that I had to play the game, even though I feel that I share nothing that goes against what I read in the Bible. On the contrary, I hold those opinions precisely because of what I read in the Gospels and elsewhere.
So being transparent gets it all out in the open. When you are transparent in ministry, you are giving some power to those around you, but you are also empowering yourself to be who God created you. I look at the ministries of Jesus, Peter and Paul, and I see honesty. Sometimes brazen honesty. I see differences of opinion. I see struggle. I see purposeful conflict that resolves for the greater good of the kingdom. I see a closeness that I think many, if not most, churches will never experience, and it's because everyone had a voice. I know of churches that buy the silence of those they fire via extended severance agreements. But the truth is that if a church or a pastor does something wrong, either side has the biblical right to accountability, and the biblical responsibility to work through it even if a separation is the best thing for both parties. You'll never have the closeness, accountability or love of the early church utilizing such practices. Imagine the church at Corinth letting Paul go from his duties as evangelist, and telling him that they would give him a princely sum if he would keep his mouth shut about what goes on there. How well would that go over?
I think, maybe, the confusion about honesty is that we all have to think the same way, hold all the same opinions, etc. While there certainly is an orthodoxy attached to the Christian faith, there is so much that this orthodoxy does not contain. We believe that everyone in our tribe has to think the exact same way, but it wasn't that way in the early church. Paul address such issues when he talks about holy days and meat sacrificed to idols. On a personal level, I've had people express on social media that no one should be leading students unless that are absolutely pro-life, including exceptions for rape or the life of the mother. On a national level, almost a year ago we saw a pro-women march exclude women because of their pro-life views. This just proves that we all do it: we all go to our corners and reaffirm our rightness, and exclude anyone who doesn't sign on for all of it. I gotta be honest: unless I see it explicitly in the teachings of Christ, I can't do it. I can't take the rest of the church culture and what it's become lock, stock, and barrel. This also goes for those around me as well. How ridiculous would it be to expect everyone to acquiesce to my opinions that fall outside the scope of the Gospel?
And problematically, one of the extrabiblical things that we've seemingly signed on for is the way we treat church leaders (both pastors and elders sometimes, too) as if they are lesser, as if not all the rules of Christian engagement apply, all the while putting them up on a pedestal from which they will inevitably fall, and believe me, we will. I'll be honest: I'm not having it, and you shouldn't either. Sometimes, the questionnaires churches give you in the interview process read less like a "get to know you" sheet and more like a perfect moral and political litmus test. I often just feel like writing at the top, "I'll do my best to live as I see Christ has lived, to emulate his life and teachings. I will fail, and when I do, I will get back up and try again." What else is there, really? The pastoral epistles only serve to illuminate this very idea, and are less of a checklist and more of a fleshing out of what makes a good servant leader.
I know that some of this post will probably render me unemployable in certain circles. It took me two and a half years to find a full time ministry position last time, and I suppose I don't expect this time around to be any more expedient. And that was without expressing my honest opinion about what the hiring and firing process is like. But, you get sick of pretending, you know? Pretending that you always did or said the right thing, or thinking that the church you're serving totally mirrors and follows what you see in the book of Acts. You get tired. Because I have screwed up at times, maybe even many times: I haven't always been Christ-like. Sometimes, I've reacted to hurts in ways that did no one any good. Sometimes, I've lied and said that the church where I was serving was on the right track, when what I really should have said was that we needed a call to repentance, myself included. There have been people I've dismissed or haven't reached out to when I should have. But that's it right there: I'm telling the truth about my flaws, and when I have done so, I don't think it has ever done me any favors even though I feel that this is how the church is supposed to function. In the last few months, I'll admit, I have been more honest, and I'm pretty sure it hastened my demise. But I wonder what would happen if Christians were more honest with each other? Not in an offensive way, but in ways that they felt like they could be open about their own thoughts, doubts, and feelings without feeling the pressure to conform to all of those extrabiblical things? What would that church look like? What if Christians decided to resolve conflict without pushing an agenda or being the loudest voice? How would a church treat their pastors when they were hiring them or letting them go? Would they help them find another ministry, offer training, or counseling? What would a more honest, submissive and loving exchange look like in those scenarios? I don't know, but I sure would like to.
I never thought I'd be let go from a ministry. I'm not sure if that was naivete or hubris or a little of both, but now I have. Like so many of my fellow pastors, I'm "the fired guy." And many of them have been great at reaching out, sharing their stories, and being generally encouraging and wonderful. I have no idea if I'll ever work at a church again, but I like the work of ministry. At its best it can be fun, creative, and extremely rewarding. But it can put you through a slice of hell, no hyperbole intended. So, churches, when you pull that trigger and hire (or fire), make sure you're doing it the absolute right way. You are making life changing decisions for a pastor and his or her family. Think twice and pray at least that much before you give someone either the label of pastor or former pastor.