I write this post with a good bit of trepidation. Let’s face it, my livelihood pretty much depends on the goodwill and invitation of solo pastors, senior ministers, and senior staff. However, after having a couple of conversations with a colleague, it became clear that there are some who are in need of an article like this.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that there are five types of pastors. At least two of those five types have no real business leading a congregation through a transformation effort nor through a serious church-growth process: the chaplain and the catatonic. This article deals with the catatonic type of pastors … the ones who are, frankly, lazy. The description of the catatonic (and the other types of pastors) are found in the former post.

The question is, what do you do if you’re a church leader and find yourself being “led” by one of these pastors? Getting a pastor removed is an issue fraught with dangers and difficulties. For one, church members have been duped into thinking the the role of any church member, let alone a Christian, is to be nice. And asking an ineffective leader to leave isn’t very nice. Never mind that s/he may well be killing the church … nice is a top value that trumps almost all others including faithfulness. But nice is just a part of the problem. Asking a pastor to leave, even a catatonic one, will (not can, WILL) create conflict within the congregation. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, there’s the nice factor and there will be those who raise Cain about a church that’s not Christian … I mean, nice. Second, there are almost always some in the congregation who love their pastor and not only won’t understand, but will be offended that the pastor was asked to leave. And finally, asking a senior member of management to leave is gut-wrenching work that even for many veteran supervisors and HR people … and the church’s expectation that the Staff Parish Relationship committee or the board/council/session is up for holding the pastor accountable is almost untenable.

So you see, dealing with this issue is difficult. Very difficult. In fact, it’s so difficult that most chuches will tolerate ineffective leadership long enough that many of the brightest and best church leaders will leave to go to other churches before the congregation acts. By then it may well be too late to recoup the “brain drain” (as my judicatory leading wife would put it) that’s exited the congregation.

Okay, with all that said … there are some things a congregation (board/council/session or Staff Parish Relationship committee) can do. The first thing is to review the job description – if your congregation doesn’t have one then you got what you asked for in a leader. However, this is seldom helpful, since most job descriptions are so vague or encompassing that they offer little help and less guidance. On the other hand, if yours is one of the few that sets forth clear and concise objectives you can use these to help hold the pastor accountable for their actions or inactions.

On the other hand, if the job description is seriously lacking, the next best thing would be to engage in a serious evaluation of the pastor. This is not a process for the timid, but it is a process your congregation should be utilizing anyway. Today’s best practices includes a 360 degree assessment, meaning that there are a number of folks in varying strata, from staff to church leaders to less-involved laity who are involved in sharing their experience and observations with the staff in question. Those chosen to complete the assessment form should be selected judiciously and include reasonable people who don’t have an obvious grudge (they’re not out to “get” the pastor fired), nor should they be given to those who suffer from pastor-idolatry – think reasonable and think cross section. The point is to be fair and evenhanded.

The assessment form itself should include key objectives from the job description if there were any listed, and if not the assessment should be designed to cover more general objectives. For one, I’d include something about spending time with the people who are unconnected with the church (those people formerly known as “lost” or “unchurched”) … but that’s just me. A good assessment should also include interpersonal interactions, particularly if the church is multi-staffed. There are a number of good 360 degree assessment tools that can be adopted and it would probably behoove the church to connect with an HR professional to develop an effective one for the congregation. (As an aside, every staff member should receive a 360 degree assessment every year … and it wouldn’t hurt if these were extended to key leaders in the congregation, such as the chair/president of the board/council/session.)

Once an assessment is complete, then the congregation has something to work with. If the assessment comes back rosy, then those in contention with the pastor may need to evaluate whether or not their complaints are with the pastor or with the general direction of the church at large. If the assessment comes back not-so-rosy, then the congregation has somewhere to start. Whomever is handling the personnel issues should develop an action plan from the assessment that is consistent with the vision, mission, values, etc. of the church and the job description (even within an inadequate job description, since that’s what you have to work with). The action plan should include specific measurable goals and objectives that are achievable. Consider using SMART goals … Specific, Measurable, Achieveable, Results-oriented, and Time-bound. Goals must not be subjective, such as “preaching better,” but should be objective such as “the pastor must be on time to council meetings” or “the pastor must monthly recruit two new families and bring them into church attendance.” One key to these objectives must be achievability. Here is where the committee must be honest. If the pastor is responsible for bringing two new families into the church each month, but the church’s worship is stuck in 1956, you’re setting the pastor up for failure … even Jesus had harsh words for the Pharisees about holding on to traditions that got in the way of reaching the unconnected. Objectives must be realistic.

Of course, once the committee has met with the pastor and laid out the expectations, then the next step is to hold the pastor accountable to them. If the pastor doesn’t perform, make sure the committee documents the issues. At that point, it might be time for laying out some ultimatums. Putting the pastor on a 90 day plan where the committee creates a series of short-term goals and then meets with the pastor every 30 days to ensure progress. The plan should specifically spell out actions that will be taken if progress isn’t made, which could include the phrase, “lack of progress could result in termination.”

Let me be honest. This stuff is difficult at best and as I said, fraught with problems. But in some cases, this may be what’s needed to move an ineffective leader from catatonic to alive, alert, and practicing. And if not, this may help in simply moving the leader out of leadership.