Killing the clergy softly: Congregational conflict, job loss and depression

They are called “clergy killers” — congregations where a small group of members are so disruptive that no pastor is able to maintain spiritual leadership for long.

And yet ministers often endure the stresses of these dysfunctional relationships for months, or even years, before eventually being forced out or giving up.

Adding to the strain is the process, which is often shrouded in secrecy. No one – from denominational officials to church members to the clerics themselves – want to acknowledge the failure of a relationship designed to be a sign to the world of mutual love and support.

But new research is providing insights into just how widespread – and damaging – these forced terminations can be to clergy.

An online study published in the March issue of the Review of Religious Research found 28 percent of ministers said they had at one time been forced to leave their jobs due to personal attacks and criticism from a small faction of their congregations.

The researchers from Texas Tech University and Virginia Tech University also found that the clergy who had been forced out were more likely to report lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression, stress and physical health problems.

And too few clergy are getting the help they need, said researcher Marcus Tanner of Texas Tech.

“Everybody knows this is happening, but nobody wants to talk about it,” Tanner said in an interview. “The vast majority of denominations across the country are doing absolutely nothing.”

A secret struggle

The issue of clergy job security will be front and center next month when delegates to the quadrennial General Conference of the

United Methodist Church consider a proposal to end “guaranteed appointments” for elders in good standing. The church’s Study of Ministry Commission says clergy job guarantees cost too much money and can focus more on the clergyperson’s needs rather than the denomination’s mission. On the other side, many clergy express fears that eliminating job security may lead to arbitrary dismissals. A major concern is that clergy will be judged based on their performance at “toxic” congregations, churches with so much internal conflict that it is difficult for any minister to have success.

The clergy have good reason to worry. A small percentage of congregations do seem to be responsible for a large share of congregational conflict.

Seven percent of congregations accounted for more than 35 percent of all the conflict reported in the National Congregations Study. And that conflict often had a high price.

In the 2006-2007 National Congregations Study, 9 percent of congregations reported a conflict in the last two years that led a clergyperson or other religious leader to leave the congregation.

It is difficult to get specific denominational figures, Tanner said. Many churches do not keep records indicating when a pastor was forced out as opposed to leaving voluntarily. And not only is it difficult to get clergy to open up about such painful experiences, many ministers are forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement to receive their severance package.

In their study, Tanner, Anisa Zvonkovic and Charlie Adams recruited respondents through Facebook groups relating to Christian clergy. Four-fifths of the 582 ministers participating — 410 males and 172 females from 39 denominations — ranged in age from 26 to 55.

The participants were asked whether they ever left a job “due to the constant negativity found in personal attacks and criticism from a small faction of the congregation.”

Twenty-eight percent of the respondents said they had been forced from a ministry job. Three-quarters had been forced out once, and 4 percent had been forcibly terminated three or more times, the study found.

Even one time, however, is more than enough.

A heavy toll

Ministers who were forced out of their jobs because of congregational conflict were more likely to experience burnout, depression, lower self-esteem and more physical health problems, the online study found.

In addition, more than four in 10 ministers forced out of their jobs reported seriously considering leaving the ministry.

A separate survey by Texas Tech and Virginia Tech researchers of 55 ministers who were forced out of a pastoral position found a significant link with self-reported measures of post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

“This study shows that not only is forced termination an issue, but a cruel one that has very distressing effects on those who experience it,” Tanner, Zvonkovic and Jeffrey Wherry reported in the current issue of the Journal of Religion and Health. “It is important that Christian organizations recognize the problem and implement steps to increase awareness and solutions.”

Months of suffering traumatic and demeaning psychological and emotional abuse as they are slowly being forced out of their pulpits due to congregational conflict, Tanner said, “is a really, really horrible process.”

What makes it even worse is the complicity of silence that prevents clergy from getting the help they need to go forward.

Explore More Data on Congregations, Conflict, and Religious Leaders Using the National Congregations Study, Faith Communities Today Survey, or the U.S. Religious Congregational Life Surveys.


37 Responses to “Killing the clergy softly: Congregational conflict, job loss and depression”

  1. Norm says:

    Hmmmmmm, I just wonder what role God’s will and direction for each of these congregations plays in the initial hiring, or the decision of a few to stir the pot and get someone fired? After all, Who’s church is it? Was this even a part of any of the surveys?

  2. Please include in the discussion clergy serving out from a local church but not in its employ, who are pressed out of function and place in that church and who ultimately choose to associate personally and ministerially with a different church in order to serve the Lord in peace and in a healthier body of believers.

  3. […] have to live up to the sterotyped image that is so often reported in the media. This article on clergy killing congregations reminds us of a sad but true fact that is too prevalent in the Church. I thank God that Agnes and I […]

  4. […] But new research is providing insights into just how widespread – and damaging – these forced terminations can be to clergy…. Read this in full at… […]

  5. Rebecca says:

    “Twenty-eight percent of the respondents said they had been forced from a ministry job. Three-quarters had been forced out once, and 4 percent had been forcibly terminated three or more times, the study found.”

    This paragraph makes no sense. Please be more careful with how you write statistics into sentence form. We don’t already know what you mean.

    More to the point, the studies don’t seem to address causality. Does experiencing conflict cause low self-esteem, burn-out and depression in pastors? Or could it also be that pastors already struggling with these issues are the ones that end up at toxic congregations? Pastors with more self-confidence are probably better able to get positions in healthier settings, so these are the churches that the struggling pastors have to settle for.

    It seems to me that all of this is evidence that we have to create structures for helping our pastors develop healthy habits right out of the gate and the tools to maintain them. This also involves shifting the culture of collegiality, so that we all understand that we can do this better if we do it together. Isolation is the worst remedy when you’re being abused; it helps you lose perspective.

  6. Member says:

    Hmmm- this happens more than it should, it shouldn’t happen even once! The call to pastor is a demanding job in itself and one that should be respected by all.
    I’d be interested to learn how many times the church conflict is initiated by the pastor? Or – in expecting conflict, creates circumstances that become a sort of “self fullfilling” prophecy! Sadly, I’ve seen this happen myself!

  7. Michael says:

    I would be interested to see statistics for other “non-religious” non-profits. I would not be surprised if the figures are similar.

  8. Dave says:

    The church I attend has just gone through the process of rescinding the memberships of individuals attempting to do the same thing. The Pastor is a wonderful and confessional minister. Kind, dedicated and well prepared for the mission.

    The people who were causing all the trouble diverted the mission for over a year while the complaints were addressed. Finally, the Pastor called for a vote from the congregation as to whether he should stay or go and the majority of members wanted him to stay.

    Since then more trouble brewed until finally the remaining members voted to rescind memberships of those who had been causing the problems. This was done only after lengthy and difficult discussions with those who were causing the trouble. They were given the option of repenting of their actions or being asked to leave and they left.

    In the end, the Pastor — who is as confessional as they get — remains in the pulpit but is still devastated and depressed. The Elder Board has assured him of their support and the congregation has remained intact beyond belief after all of the unrest.

    We continue to pray with and for the Pastor and his family as well as for the church.

    I think the effort to change a church from its traditions in favor of the drumbeat of the more popular forms of worship in order to make the environment “more inviting” to young people is behind much of the unrest. All of it started, in my opinion, with the “Church Growth Movement” many years ago.

    I also believe that evil is at work in the hearts of men and women who deny the power and authority of the church and its divine mission desiring rather to craft a worship devoid of the cross, devoid of the confrontation the cross brings to us in order to save us. Instead, to present a church more welcoming by its lack of that confrontation and its lack of the full Gospel message.

  9. […] Killing the clergy softly: Congregational conflict, job loss, and depression by David Briggs. (Thanks to Scot McKnight.) There is so much truth to this. I have seen it often, particularly in congregations that value peace above anything else. As a result, they allow immature and destructive behavior to continue. […]

  10. Marla Abe says:

    Been there, done that. My husband and I were mainly forced to leave one church when it voted while we were gone to close down. The next church was one that regularly fired clergy. The next church was so supportive. But at, fifteen years into my pastorate, I had to survive a vote of confidence. After 22 years, I felt so much frustration directed my way, that I felt totally betrayed by people for whom I had literally given my life, that I left the ministry for six years.
    But it runs two ways. Some pastors are pretty toxic and can destroy a congregation. Outside authority to step in and asses the situation is very important.

  11. Matt Wade says:

    As one who councils pastor’s an leaders on a continual basis, I find these stats are incredibly accurate. My heart aches for those who have given their lives to help others and yet they get destroyed by the same people who need them most.

    Thanks for sharing these findings.


  12. Michael says:

    Some of these toxic congregations get a pastor with a strong back bone appointed, a pastor who can withstand these often overwhelming storms. This is the pastor who can and will stand up to these “clergy killers” for the sake of the others of the congregation. It is often not very pretty, but it is the responsibility of the DS and the bishop to see to a strong pastoral appointment for the sake of the “weak” among such a congregation. In a perfect world, such “killers” would not exist, but we are talking reality. If a pastor is not up to the task, he or she must be removed for the good of that congregation. We cannot fight every battle in the “world”, but we can and MUST fight these senseless battles in the Church!

    I’m not all for “guaranteed” appointments, but I am not for arbitrary dismissal, either. However, a pastor “in good standing” may be as equally arbitrary. What constitutes “good standing”? I think this question must be asked.

    Being a pastor is not an easy chore, and this article comes near to suggesting our jobs should be easy. I think there is nothing further from the truth! If it IS easy, perhaps we are not doing something right!

  13. Blondie says:

    As a minister’s daughter who has been forced out of a congregation, I can vouch that this is an experience that deeply wounds a minister and his or her family. Although structure differs throughout each denomination, I found in mine that the small portion of the congregation spread like poison throughout the church through the lack
    Of support the higher powers (bishops and superintendents) of the church. Without standing up for what is right, we cannot hope to be compared to the example of Christ.

  14. juaniece says:

    Not disagreeing that there are situations as stated above. These job circumstances occur in other fields also. But, the article seems very one-sided. What about congregations who are told by the appointing authorities,” We just need a church to assign this clergy until they retire in a couple of years. We know you are going to have problems with them, but we really are a Human Resources Dept. (true quote)” Or, “You have a strong laity, so we’re going to place this one with you. We know they are marginal. No, you cannot refuse this assignment. If you do, you may not get anyone assigned to your congregation (another actual quote}”. Congregations can be left feeling bereft, unshepherded and uncared for. God’s will?

    Statistics found on this website indicate that from 1968 to 2007 United Methodist clergy increased from 33, 236 (1968) to 45, 186 (2007). During that same period membership decreased from 10,990,720 (1968) to 7,853, 987 (2007)

    My heart aches for anyone treated unkindly or unfairly. But let us admit that it happens in the pulpit and the pew.

  15. Joe says:

    I know this situation fully. I experienced this at my last two appointments. Each church grew in number of people,financial giving, mission outreach and other ways. But in both it was that little group who without facts or willingness to work things out caused such a turmul that I decided to leave for my benefit and for the good of the church. Unfortunatly no one from the conference came in to try to solve the issues. Those things are “pastor-killers”

  16. Doug says:

    I for one have a problem with the “push” for General Conference to meddle with the guaranteed appointment tradition of U.M.’s. This article helps support my qualms about the whole issue of clergy-congregation issues. I do know that many cabinet members are taking contentious congregant history into consideration these days, but that may be a newer trend, hopefully. We have played into the secular world’s mind-set of competition and “performance” and “production value” so much that this is a hard topic to really apply our spirit-values to.

  17. Craig L Schroeder says:

    It is time that denominations that take seriously God’s intruction to be stewards of the world and each other and to love your God with all your heart, strength, mind and soul. To initiate practices to promote all-around wellness among its clergy. The Church should be in the lead in society in equalizing the importance and reducing the stigma of mental and emotional wellness to the same level as physical health. Are we cheating God to do less?

  18. RIC says:

    Sadly, your point is well made. Since most churches choose non-pastoral leaders from the realms of successful businessmen and assume that they can also successfully run a church – there are many church that lack shepherds, deacons, servers, and true elders that have a heart for the kingdom and a passion for the long term success of the body of Christ. Their appointment is a popularity contest and a token of community prestige. It is also very possible that none of them, if any, have ever genuinely come around their pastoral staff and asked what the real needs and concerns are about the flock.

    AND THAT IS WHY IT IS SO EASY TO ALLOW, CONDONE, PARTICIPATE, OR IGNORE – sheep behaving badly – its easier to ignore it than it is to address it – and that’s when the ‘yeast-like toxic’ begins to spread through out the body.

  19. […] is totally self serving on my part, but keep this in mind the next time you’re mad at your pastor. Share […]

  20. Rob says:

    There are states that have laws about at-will employment. This means that employment can be terminated for the reason for the terminatin does not need to be specified. This can be advantageous to a minister who intends to find another church. An at-will termination often includes severance and a contract in which both parties not to make negative or disparaging remarks about each other.

  21. Cathy says:

    Yikes, I am not even a member of the UMC yet. I wish I had not read this article.

  22. Jerry Eckert says:

    As these comments indicate, the issues surrounding conflict between small groups in a church and the pastor are more fluid and complex than the article itself discusses. While most denominations cull out pastors who are toxic before they have caused much damage, there are few processes that help denominations cull out toxic individuals within local churches or within the administration of the denomination. Pastors who are within the norm for local churches are not usually prepared for positions of power and prestige such as being a bishop or superintendent. In turn, they are not prepared to be effective in helping pastors deal with the power cliques in some churches that may range from dissidents to clergy killers. Few congregations have people committed enough, let alone trained enough, to be able to stand up to the power clique and counter them in ways that preserve the sanity of the pastor and the effectiveness of the congregation.

    So we have denominational leaders who are undertrained, we have congregations with little sense of discipline, and we have pastors expected to handle everything. Despite the trappings of hierarchical structure, most leaders still operate as if the polity is congregational. Despite the call to discipleship, most church members have only modest expectations of their fulfilling that. Despite most clergy in whatever religion expecting to find collegiality, by dint of cars and computers and the culture of individualism, there really is only isolation, especially in times of trouble.

    So if the 28% has some merit as a base line of the number of churches that have small groups that intentionally cause stress, then over a quarter of pastors need support of either conference leaders or local church leaders or both to perform healthy ministry in those churches. Otherwise, we will continue to build a body of folks who become disenchanted with religion, who lose faith in the institution of the religious association. Every pastor whose ministry is devastated by that antagonistic clique has friends and relatives who want less to do with religion. Every local church who is given no help to manage with a mismatched or less than qualified pastor adds to the numbers of unenthusiastic believers.

    When I did some statistical analysis back in the 1980s, I calculated that about one percent of the pastors ran into trouble bad enough to lead to a change. If 28% is the new figure, the religious community has a major problem ahead sorting out the elements of the growing devastation and a much wider front to approach the problems rather than a simple giving more power to bishops to remove pastors at will.

    There are many recommendations that I have made through petitions to the 2012 General Conference to deal with the variety of issues making up this whole slow moving disaster. But even if none are accepted, there is one thing that bishops and superintendents can do that could change everything: be examples for the pastors under them by getting to know each personally and let the rest of their responsibilities take lower priority.

    Once they get to know each pastor they will want to know each church. Once those bonds are made, those leaders will want to help the pastors and the churches to which they send them to succeed together. Once our priorities change and we get face-to-face again, maybe we can change directions.

    Sometimes the biggest problems have the simplest solutions. Consider this one.

  23. Keli Rugenstein says:

    There are many facets to this situation and many players that bring together many ‘perfect storms’ for churches, their pastoral leaders and the denomination itself. I have done formal research into just this issue and work daily with churches in these situations. It doesn’t matter that it’s a church or God’s people, or discernment issues – people are people whether they call themselves Christians or not and are going to make mistakes. It’s how the mistakes are handled that will make all the difference.

  24. Juanita Montemayor says:

    I felt totally betrayed by the people who I thought were my brothers and sisters in Christ. I still love the church and cry because I was not accepted after my pastorate was cancelled. No one came to the rescue except those who I was trying to reach (some 65 of them) but were not listened to only because of one member. May God forgive him. I forgive him too, but, I hope no one else goes through what I did. I think men pastors suffer but women ministers have to be more alert and pray more to avoid these tragic stories. (PLease do not use my name.)

  25. Randy Kanipe says:


    I too, have been a victim of these devils, otherwise known as ‘Clergy Killers.’ There is aa distinct difference between an antagonist and a CK. It is like the difference between a bully and an assassin. Both are problematic and must be stopped. But the assassin is motivated by evil.

    Not to worry – there is a feature length movie coming to theatres across this country in early summer. The movie deals DIRECTLY with the topic of “Clergy Kilers,” and is called ‘Betrayed.’ Watch for it in trailers in the coming weeks. It is a home-run, slam dunk, full blown exposure of this deep dark secret of the church, that has remained in the closet far too long.

    Clergy Kilelrs be warned: Your days of operating in the shadows are coming to an end. Exposure of who and what you are is about to take place. My advice to clergy killers is to cease and desist, or risk being exposed publicly very quickly in the coming months.

    To my clergy colleagues – hang in there. Justisce for you is just around the corner. I’ve seen the film – it is powerful! Hold fast to your faith. Be who God called you to be, and confront the demon when you see it, hear it or feel it. Help is on the way!

  26. Well,
    It is like I learned in AA. I’m not alone it seems. I am one of those 4 in 10 who is not sure I ever want to put myself in that position to be hurt again

  27. Mifflin Dove Jr says:

    I am also a victim of what this article describes. I am now unemployed. I have no income. No unemployment benefits because I was a religious worker. The last church I served was very toxic and had a long history of running off its clergy. It’s horrible.

  28. Nancy Waldo says:

    This is an epidemic, 1600 pastors a MONTH are going through similar situations. Ministering to Ministers provides healing resources, advocacy, and other services to ministers and spouses who are going through or have gone through this kind of conflict or termination.

  29. Diane says:

    My husband and I have just experienced this in the last month. It was a very small group of people who made it happen. Two deacons who up to this point had been close friends of ours, decided they didn’t like the direction we were going. They listened to outside influences who should not have gotten involved, and the next thing we knew, we were forced out. Most of our congregation had no idea why we resigned so suddenly, nor can we tell them because we had to agree not to discuss the matter with anyone in the church; if we did, we would forfeit our severance pay. The congregation had no choice in the matter; it was never brought to a vote. Although in their eyes, we “voluntarily” resigned, this was not the case. We had hoped to continue in this pastorate until we retired. We love the people and the church and know that we must forgive those we feel betrayed us. In the meantime, we are grieving the loss of our livelihood, our friendships, our sense of fulfillment, and so much more. It is such a sad commentary on the church as a whole that this happens so often. My heart breaks for any others who have gone through similar circumstances. We continue to tell ourselves that God is in control and He will take care of us. Sometimes that is very hard to believe.

  30. jmb24 says:

    I seved for 15 years at a Clergy killing church. I stayed because I beleivd God wated me there. I choose to leave and I was appointed to a wonderful church, It was a church that had problems before but I gained experience from my pain.
    My issue is I truly thought I made a difference with the help of God we survived a split. I had a task . But tmy successor is very toxic and I am left with only memories and in essence, the relationships I made there were shallow and it is a toxic place.
    My successor has stirred up hate and the betrayal is real..that is what hurts now.
    God will deal with it all.
    I know God will heal my heart and I just have to realize that some people truly are cruel and fake.
    I pray that others do not have to hold this pain in too and I pray for all who have gone through this,,

  31. jmb24 says:

    I seved for 15 years at a Clergy killing church. I stayed because I believed God wated me there. I choose to leave and I was appointed to a wonderful church, It was a church that had problems before but I gained experience from my pain.
    My issue is I truly thought I made a difference with the help of God we survived a split. I had a task . But my successor is very toxic and I am left with only memories and in essence, the relationships I made there were shallow and it is a toxic place.
    My successor has stirred up hate and the betrayal is real..that is what hurts now.
    God will deal with it all.
    I know God will heal my heart and I just have to realize that some people truly are cruel and fake.
    I pray that others do not have to hold this pain in too and I pray for all who have gone through this,,

  32. M.O.E. says:

    First I would like to point out that a Pastor’s number one qulification is his love for the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. If you love the Lord you have to love his people, some of the same people that are trying to kill you softly. The second qulification is peace maker, trying to keep peace in the church sometimes is a killer. The third qualification is butt kisser, at least politicians get to kiss babies but we Pastors have to kiss butt in order to have a successful ministry. Most churches prefer this third qualification above all else.

    I am speaking as one having thirty five years experience as Pastor and still Pastoring. I know many of you Pastor’s want to say Amen This may sound harsh, and maybe offending but the truth is truth. The Bible certainly don’t mention this third qualification, the fact is people aren’t perfect and a lot of Churches would kick Jesus himself out of their congregation.

    Pastors have to feed some with milk, while feeding some with meat, we have to burp, pamper, and change diapers. We have to satisify their alligator appetites while we are on a hummingbirds salary.

    If every church member could Pastor a church one month,there would probably be no more complaints in any church anywhere. May God bless all the Pastors.

  33. Doug says:

    ROB – I am guessing that you are not a pastor. Nor have you seen someone put out on the butt with NO severance and NO insurance.
    AND that individual at not fault of their own will now be viewed by other congregations as “damaged goods” and will find it VERY VERY hard to find another ministry position quickly….

    Rob says:
    April 1, 2012 at 12:47 am

    There are states that have laws about at-will employment. This means that employment can be terminated for the reason for the terminatin does not need to be specified. This can be advantageous to a minister who intends to find another church. An at-will termination often includes severance and a contract in which both parties not to make negative or disparaging remarks about each other.

  34. bill krill says:

    Most congregations that are sick emulate dysfunctional families, and refuse to get the help that they need from professionals to heal. while the ordained office needs to be respected, ministers are human and also can acquire mental health issues that cause their role and positions to become very ill indeed. A certain percentage are genuinely personality disordered and should not be in ministry, but exist in protected denominational systems for decades.

  35. Tom Slaughter says:

    Everyone is quick to jump on the Social media bandwagon to advertize and get out the word about their church and this is a good thing. However, too few realize power that social media gives to an individual. Social media is a fact everyone uses it. This means that any time someone is unhappy they can tell the world about it. We used to work out our differences face to face but no longer. Now people accuse and point fingers at each other at the drop of a dime. If people would just talk to one another and give each other a chance to correct a mistake or apologize for a bad day much of this would go away.

  36. These “clergy killing” congregations often have deep systems issues that go back generations. Even the strongest, best clergy can’t necessarily change the system while serving the congregation. One of the pastors here talked about doing a good job for more than a decade, but then the next pastor who was called was “dysfunctional”. To experience lasting change, a congregation needs to address long term relational patterns with the help of a congregational counselor from outside the congregation. (Someone who is not part of the system.)

  37. Ex PK says:

    In the 60’s, I was an unwilling PK who saw every unfortunate aspect of church politics–the power brokers,the cliques, the “board of deacon” mentality where hidebound old men thought they ran things. I became an maladjusted, disgruntled teen who couldn’t WAIT to get OUT of any church. We had been sacked by a vengeful power broker who turned on us when Dad preached a sermon on marital fidelity. And suddenly we are persona non grata–including ME, a kid who had nothing to do with all the drama. By age 19 I was on my own. My “church” became the local airport. This man later confronted me that he felt that I should move on.
    Whereupon I challenged him that if he had enough you-know-what on him, why didn’t he MOVE me. He looked at this now 230 lb adult, all 6 feet of me, and decided against it. Never heard from HIM again!!! LOL! Bad attitude? You bet! Lookin’for a fight? You bet! Wanted some church mouse to start something? Oh yeah!
    Took years to get my heart right again. I’ve forgiven, but the hurts from those years did real damage. One vow was, at an early age, I would NEVER allow church people to control my income, nor would I ever consent to church work. While I attend church regularly at a sweet non-political, SMALL evangelical church, I retired from the rail industry, and I play the organ and sing in the choir, and pray that people would let go of the political junk and serve Christ submissively. Sure took me a long time to submit, too!

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