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:
- 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.
- 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?
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.