Pastors: Tenure or Contract?

One of my pastor friends in ministry was recently notified that his contract as pastor with his church would not be renewed. I’m not privy to the inner workings of the church and their decision-making process and so I don’t want to comment on that, nor do I want to defend either him or his church in this post.

I do, however, want to examine the pros and cons of the contractual nature of many independent churches’ call for their pastors. I know my Anglican and Presbyterian friends don’t have to really deal with this issue, as their pastors basically have tenure. However at my own church that I’ve been serving at for the past 7 years, pastoral staff are called with terms of either 3 or 5 years. It hasn’t been an issue for me and I’ve been quite happy having my term renewed every 3-5 years. Even though I don’t have tenure, my church has never given me any doubt that they would keep me as long as I’m willing to serve there (provided moral or doctrinal failure doesn’t disqualify me).

So here’s an attempt at a working list of pros and cons to contract / limited term callings for pastors:

Pros

  • It’s an automatic mechanism that ensures pastors get reviewed by the leadership in terms of suitability and performance. Many times pastors with tenure get too comfortable and just keep the ministry on ‘cruise-control’ because there isn’t a likelihood in their lifetime of losing their “keep”.
  • It’s a safety net to rid a church of pastors who may have more serious doctrinal and personal problems in an easy way. Denominations with tenure tend to cement in bad teaching or doctrinal compromises that don’t disqualify one from the ministry (because definitions and doctrinal statements can always be flexed and re-interpreted). Within a generation liberalism and real heresy creeps in and then it’s nearly impossible to change the course of that church. Many denominations then have to put up with a diversity of parishes within its region/diocese – i.e. some high church, some broad church, some liberal, some charismatic, some conservative.
  • It’s a way for congregational-model churches to make sure the balance of power still lies with the laity rather than the clergy. Without tenure, the clergy are very aware that they are there to serve the congregations and must empower the congregations to make the right choices. Democracy isn’t perfect, but it’s a good system when we know that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
  • It gives the pastor a chance to re-examine his calling to that particular ministry every few years without leaving the congregation with the uncertainty that he will just up and leave with 3 months notice. Contracts cut both ways. The pastor is forced to re-think whether God wants him to stay in his particular church after a contractual term expires. It’s always a good thing for pastors to think about getting radical rather than comfortable, and this may be a good mechanism for reflection.

Cons

  • The ‘automatic mechanism for review’ doesn’t work very well in actuality. Most church boards will rely on the automatic mechanism to relieve the pastor of his duties rather than actually face the pastor and do a brotherly and detailed review. It becomes a ‘cop-out’ way of terminating a pastor’s call without actually ‘speaking the truth in love’. Furthermore, by the time his contract has expired, usually the level of dissatisfaction in a church board has already risen to boiling point because an issue that should have been resolved earlier has been left to simmer. It’s easy just to think: ‘Let’s all save ourselves the trouble and save him face by just not renewing his contract in a year or two’s time.’ This isn’t how a church should operate.
  • The contract renewal can be used as blackmail and control. I know of pastors who have essentially been asked to ‘tow the line’ on a non-doctrinal or Biblical issue or else his contract will not be up for renewal. That’s pretty despicable but yes, it does happen!
  • In actual fact the congregational nature of the church gets eroded though the system is supposed to protect it. The reason is because most churches with contract terms put the renewal of contracts in the hands of the board, rather than the congregation. In other words, if the board decides the pastor shouldn’t be up for renewal, the congregations can’t really do anything about it short of sacking the board by a big majority vote. So even though the congregations have to vote to approve a pastor’s renewal of contract, the actual motion to renew lies in the hands of a few, not the many. Ironically what is supposed to protect congregational power actually undermines it.
  • The pastor can be encouraged to be a people-pleaser every time his contract is up for renewal. In an ideal world pastors don’t have to ever bow to the pressure of people. In reality the longer a pastor has been in ministry, the less likely he is able to find secular work and the more likely he has a family to support. Furthermore the older he becomes, he is also less likely to have other churches knocking on his door offering him a job. This can create a situation whereby the pastor will decide to compromise rather than fight in order to retain his job. So churches have to really ask the question: do you want a pastor who is potentially going to be a people-pleaser every time renewal comes around?

Solutions?

Given that there are pros and cons, what may be the solution for independent churches who don’t have to lean one way or another on the issue of tenure?

One solution is this: offer tenure to the most senior pastoral leadership but not all pastoral workers. In other words, lead pastors and associate pastors can have tenure, while fresh-out-of-college graduates and others can be on a contract basis with a view to becoming an associate with tenure at a later date. This creates a balance whereby the ones who are required to really lead and guide the church can have security in doing so, even at the expense of popularity. Jonathan Edwards’ example shows us that some difficult decisions that are vastly unpopular were in fact the right ones. It’s a pity for a pastor to be easily ‘sacked’ over any decision that can be unpopular in the here-and-now.

However if any pastor is given tenure, then the process leading to his appointment must be given due care. It can’t be easy to ‘hire’ a pastor just on the decisions of a few. It should be a process that involves the whole leadership and the whole congregation, with lots of time for examination and prayer. The flip side is also true. If a pastor is found to be unsatisfactory on grounds other than doctrine or personal morality, then it should be equally ‘difficult’ to get rid of him. Again, the mechanisms must be in place to be able to take these issues to the congregation for careful examination and prayer.

What about accountability then? In order to safeguard accountability (and with it, doctrine and practices), the church should have in place a good policy of periodic review of each pastor’s personal life and performance. This means that he is given a brotherly examination by the board and other lay (and staff) leaders whether there is a ‘problem’ or not, and this must happen periodically (at least annually). In this way, he knows if he is under-performing in some way when measured against the (written) expectations of his calling when he was called. It also means that neither the congregation or the pastor can use the contract as a ‘cop-out’ so that no contentious issues have to be really dealt with because the contract is coming to an end soon anyway.

As I said, I haven’t worked all of this out. I would be interested in your thoughts and opinions on this matter. As you can tell, I have assumed that there is no particular Biblical mandate for either tenure nor contract when it comes to the appointment and calling of full-time church-funded workers of the gospel (thus you might have noticed the utter absence of Bible-references in this post). You might think differently on that and if so, I’m happy to consider your arguments as well.

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About Pete

I am a child of God, a husband, a father of four children, a pastor, and a church planter. I live in Sydney Australia and live to see Jesus made famous in this city and be the only God people worship.

Posted on January 23, 2012, in Church, Ministry. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Good thoughts. This is something I’ve been thinking through lately as well.

    It seems to me that the solution to the third con is easy (i.e. don’t delegate the decision to a board; make it a congregational vote every time). Am I missing some reason why this is not practical?

    Thanks for the post.

    • HI Jason, thanks for responding. I’ve been thinking a little about this suggestion, and while it seems like it solves one problem, it potentially poses a bigger one. In a church of more than a one congregation, it is unlikely that a majority of members will all know a particular pastor well enough to make a sound judgement like that. It is difficult enough to get church members who don’t sit under a pastor’s regular ministry to vote in order to renew his contract, it’s even more difficult if the nomination process itself is in the hands of the members. It also removes the assessment and review process from the hands of the leadership, who really should be the ones making a judgement like that. I reckon that if a church is going to have contract renewal, the nomination for renewal still ought to be the prerogative of the board (in spite of the potential problems).

      • Pete I agree totally with all that you have said here. The congregation on a whole gives over the right to the LBA (Board) to make decisions on behalf of the congregation therefore on a serious matter like this it is best left to the LBA.

  2. 3-5 year contracts sound pretty good. I had a friend who was in a church where deacons decided each week whether the minister was to return the following week. And what eventually happened was the ‘tow the line’ attitude.

  3. To everything there is a season. Both employment types can be valid to the pastorate, but it really depends on the maturity and nature of the church as to which one is appropriate.

  4. Hey Pete, great thoughts!

    I agree with your alternative approach… I think it comes down to the theological understanding and practical application about the role and responsibilities of a pastor (or type of pastor). I personally believe that the Senior Minister or Lead Pastor (whatever you want to call him) should be charged with the responsibility of setting and leading the vision and direction of the church. For such a minister to be able to effectively fulfill such a role, their position ought to be under a tenure, where the Board of Elders or whoever, collectively agree that the church wants to follow and submit prayerfully under the headship and leadership of the Senior Minister’s vision and direction. He should then be given all authority necessary to implement and pursue this vision with the full support and backing of the church, and without the uncertainty of whether his job is secure or not. Accountability remains with reporting to the Board/Session and the greater church, and obviously if the direction the Senior Minister is leading the church is contrary to sound doctrine then his position would become untenable and his tenure can be suspended or revoked under extenuating circumstances by the Board. But this should only be a last resort measure. If anyone within the church disagrees with the Senior Minister’s vision and direction, then they should be free to leave and join another community.

    Further, as you mention, subsequent appointments of other pastors and ministers can be considered on a contractual basis. Particularly when a pastor/minister is employed to serve a particular ministry or fill a particular pastoral skill gap. Eg. Missions, counseling, etc… Not all pastors are blessed with the full spectrum of pastoral gifts, and it may be necessary to identify strengths in other pastors to fill gaps and meet the needs of the church. These pastors would be employed to do a “job” so to speak (not to lessen the importance of this work). This is in contrast to the Senior Minister/Lead Pastor who is employed to be the church visionary and main driver.

    I’m of the opinion that the wider church body should never be charged with the responsibility or authority to vote and choose over such decisions. The wider body is never in the best position to make an objective assessment and decision. It will always be an emotional, self-serving decision. The Board of Elders/Session is appointed by God through the church to take on the responsibility of making such decisions, so the wider church should prayerfully support and submit to their authority and decision. How this is done is a reflection of the church’s understanding and application of Biblical leadership and submission (or lack thereof)

    Apologies for the long-worded rambling response.

  5. Hi Pete

    thank you for your insightful approach which is quite timely for me. while i agree with your approach, i have to also agree with paul. since the bible teaches plurality of leadership or co-equals, i believe it should be the board that should be charged with the responsibility of electing, and keeping the pulpit pastor. of course this is also predicated on a mature board. the problem is which comes first ?

    jeff

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