183. Case Study # 13: The Drama of Dismissal

[Although the story in this case study may seem to resemble a real situation, the names, places and actual circumstances do not describe any actual church, church board, pastor or chairperson.]

When his cellphone rang about 10pm Wednesday night, Jack, the church board chair, had no inkling what it portended. The person calling identified herself as the administrative assistant to the lead pastor and proceeded to share a story that Jack could scarcely believe. She claimed she had witnessed the lead pastor rather passionately embracing and kissing one of the younger female members of the congregation. Jack knew the lead pastor, married with three children, was working under considerable pressure and his family situation was somewhat strained, but he never imagined such factors might push their pastor to do anything grossly immoral. As the conversation ended, Jack thanked her for her call and assured her that she had done the right thing in sharing this matter. He also asked her to prepare a short account of what she has told him, sign it and date it. He would pickup a copy sometime tomorrow.

Jack was not sure what his next step should be. It was late and so he committed the pastor and this serious situation in prayer to God, asking for wisdom.

The next day Jack phoned his regional denominational director and shared what he had been told, asking for advice. He knew that whatever transpired he needed to protect the reputation of the congregation, the reputation of the lead pastor and the reputation of the church member involved, as much as possible. However, he also needed to help the board follow a fair, but rigorous process in dealing with the situation. Fortunately the church board had a standing personnel committee. So he asked the chair of that committee, Paul, to meet him for breakfast the following day. Meanwhile he got a copy of the administrative assistant’s account.

Over breakfast Jack shared the written statement with Paul. Once Paul had absorbed the shock, they began to explore what process should be followed to ascertain the truth (as best they could) and then act upon it fairly and in line with their newly approved code of conduct. Fortunately the board had required all employees to sign in writing their agreement to the code. They decided that they would meet with the female congregational member and discern her part in this matter. Then they would meet with the lead pastor and ascertain his response to the accusation. These meetings had to proceed quickly.  If these meetings confirmed the essential truth of the story, then within twenty-four hours they would call for an emergency executive session of the board meeting.

They were not quite sure in the meantime how to manage things in the office. It would certainly be awkward, if not intimidating, for the administrative assistant to continue in her work under the supervision of the lead pastor until things got sorted.

At the emergency board meeting Jack and Paul shared with the board how things had unfolded and the results of their conversations with the female congregational member and the lead pastor — initial denials from parties had eventually changed to admissions of an inappropriate relationship when the testimony of the staff person was shared. The written statement by the administrative assistant was confirmed in its essential details. The board invited the lead pastor into the meeting and a very strained and emotional interchange occurred. In the end the lead pastor confirmed that he had acted immorally. The lead pastor was extremely remorseful and asked that some process of restoration be implemented.

When the lead pastor left the board meeting, Jack gathered the members into a time of prayer. He then reviewed with them elements from the code of conduct and the employee manual that might be pertinent to help the board respond appropriately. Now the board had to decide what action to follow, what to communicate to the congregation and how to protect the “whistleblower,” while securing the reputation of the congregation.

What would you advise this board to do? Do you agree with the steps that Jack as chair took? Does your board have the structures and policies that Jack could call upon to help his board navigate such a difficult situation?


Some observations:

1. The emotions that emerge when such tragic events occur cannot be underestimated. People are angry, feel betrayed, and terribly saddened. Those directly involved live in a bit of a relational windstorm. Office relationships particularly will be damaged because trust has been violated. Those in leadership have to recognize the reality of these emotions, but not to let such emotions govern decisions or process.

2. Jack’s appeal to denominational leaders was an important action. It is hard to admit to others the moral failure of a trusted friend, but the interests of the congregation superseded personal concerns at this point. The denominational leader was able to affirm Jack, provide some good advice, and assure him of his help at any time should he need it. He also urged Jack to make sure what decisions were taken, that they fully comply with pertinent labour laws.

3. Crises reveal the value of policy — as well as its limitations. This board had some operational processes it could call upon to help it process this situation. When boards lack these policy tools, their ability to provide spiritual leadership for the congregation is greatly compromised. Of particular importance is the code of conduct which all staff and board members should be signing annually.

4. The protection of the staff person who “blew the whistle” is also an important consideration. Few church boards have any policy regarding “whistleblowers” and how to help them live through such a situation and continue in the employment of the congregation. In many cases their own integrity will be attacked as people seek to justify their actions.

5. Be wary of making any promise for reinstatement in the moment of decision. With such a serious moral lapse, dismissal is a necessary step. It leaves all options open to the board and assures the congregation that the board is taking the lapse seriously. This also gives full freedom to the employee in terms of his future.  The board in the future has the option to consider the possibility of reinstatement but on the board’s terms and once serious remedial efforts have been demonstrated. In a multi-staff context one of the associate pastor can carry the preaching for two weeks, until some longer term plan is implemented. The denominational leadership should be able to assist in arranging some interim pastoral leadership — perhaps for three months.

6. Be generous to some degree because the actions of the individual will probably have serious impact upon his family. The dismissal should be immediate, but with one month’s salary minimally to help the family in this time of readjustment. One rule of thumb to consider is that the period for continuing salary be tied to the minimal period for considering reinstatement, i.e. three months.

7. The more difficult decision will deal with possible reinstatement. The board should work out what steps it will require to consider reinstatement. The denominational family will also have policy in such cases. Try to build your board policy with as much compatibility with the denominational policy as possible. Reinstatement is a possibility, not a right. Put a timeline in place by which a decision will be made so that if reinstatement does not occur, the congregation can get on with the selection of a new lead pastor within a reasonable time frame.

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