Pastors Find Job Security Fleeting as Firings Increase

From Religious News Service

Working life was rosy for the Rev. Frank Kuriger back in 1985, his 10th year as pastor of a Baptist church in Grafton, Ohio.

Membership was growing. Kuriger loved his parishioners. They loved him.

Or so he thought.

When the bombshell dropped--church leaders fired the 61-year-old pastor, saying they wanted someone new--Kuriger was stunned.

He had joined the growing ranks of pastors who, in the language of religion researchers, are "involuntarily terminated," often with little warning.

Religious leaders say such firings are on the rise in part because of changing expectations that many ministers are ill-prepared to meet.

Instead of the traditional role as shepherd of a flock, congregations are beginning to compare their pastors to chief executive officers employed to achieve profits and church growth.

"If the congregation isn't growing in numbers and dollars and productivity, the model in our country is to fire the CEO," said Guy Futral, a consultant in minister-church relations for the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

Futral is among experts who are troubled by the problem.

Twice a year, Kentucky Baptists offer a three-day conference designed to help fired pastors work through their emotions.

A 1988 study by the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention demonstrated a need for such programs.

The Baptist study showed that 116 congregations fired their pastors each month, a 28% increase over 1984, when a similar study was conducted.

Even in denominations that give bishops control over hiring and firing, such as the Episcopal and United Methodist churches, congregations may have their way in regard to pastors by withholding contributions, signing petitions or "being generally annoying and disruptive," said Speed Leas, senior consultant with the Alban Institute in Washington, an organization that mediates church conflicts.

Leas conducted a study in 1980 of Episcopalians, Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ. It showed that 1% of congregations in those denominations fired ministers, not counting those who were dismissed for immoral conduct.

Leas, who is updating his research, believes that terminations of pastors are becoming more common and are "something to be concerned about."

In some cases, pastors become scapegoats for problems, and congregations hire and fire pastors at will. Larry L. McSwain, provost of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and co-author of a book on church conflicts, describes those as "killer congregations."

The increasing tendency to fire pastors is also related to a surplus of people to do their work, experts said.

Joseph O'Neill, principal research scientist at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., cites "a kind of gridlock" in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), where about 2,200 ministers are competing to fill 600 positions.

In the Southern Baptist Convention, there are nearly two ordained ministers for every congregation in the country, said the Rev. Norris Smith, consultant with the Sunday School Board, making it easy for churches to discard problem pastors.

While some denominations, such as the United Methodist Church, guarantee ministers a position, many afford almost no job security, experts said.

Often, as in Kuriger's case, termination is swift and with little warning, according to a study by the Dehoney Center for the Study of the Local Church, an arm of the Baptist Seminary in Louisville.

The study showed that about 65% of pastors fired said they had no warning; a third said they were asked to leave immediately.

Religious leaders point out that ministers are ineligible for unemployment insurance and, although most receive at least three months salary as severance pay, some get none.

Ernest White, director of the Dehoney Center, said the problem is acute for older ministers because many churches prefer to hire pastors 35 to 45 years old. At any age, finding a new position may be complicated by a perception that a fired pastor is damaged goods, experts said.

White believes that churches should be looking for solutions to their problems rather than too readily blaming a pastor.

Even better than programs to help pastors after they are fired would be programs aimed at helping congregations mediate conflicts with pastors. Other programs might prevent a mismatch between ministers and congregations.

With help, "problems could be resolved before they become terminal," White said.

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