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Exploring the lived experience of forced termination among southern baptist clergy couples: a retrospective study.

In the past, clergy were respected and valued members of the community as well as their parishes. Newman (n.d.) noted that during the Middle Ages, clergy were important and influential; they had political influence and were exempt from paying taxes because of the spiritual care they provided to parishioners. Times have changed, and clergy are often treated with less respect and face increased challenges, to include forced termination, which has been described in different terms. Barfoot, Winston, and Wickman (2005) described it as a process when "A pastor may abdicate his post due to the constant negativity found in personal attacks and criticism from a small faction within the congregation from whom the minister feels psychologically pressured to step down from his or her service of ministry" (p. 2). Tanner, Wherry, and Zvonkovic (2013) further defined forced termination as "the result of a process of involuntary removal of paid and non-paid clergy-persons that results from a period of traumatic and demeaning psychological and emotional abuse" (p. 14). Each of these definitions describes the essence of those identified as participants in the current study; that is, some voluntarily resigned because of pressure whereas others were involuntarily removed. However, in each situation, the clergy experienced constant and critical emotional and psychological pressure from congregants that eventually resulted in dismissal from their places of ministry.

The issue of clergy forced termination has been an ongoing problem. Crowell (1992) noted that research regarding this issue was initiated in the early 1930s, yet little appears to have been done to halt this growing phenomenon. One in four pastors from evangelical churches will experience forced termination in their ministerial career, and will face significant challenges (Barfoot et al., 2005).

To date, researchers have focused on topics such as high-risk congregations, church conflicts, causes of forced termination, stress and burnout, well-being outcomes of clergy, and forced termination, yet missing is a study into the retrospective experiences of clergy and spouses related to forced termination. The long-term influence of forced termination on the clergy and spouse has not been determined. Though the existing literature revealed painful and difficult experiences of clergy related to forced termination, missing is an awareness of how such experiences change or influence clergy and their spouses at least three or more years following the incident. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to document such experiences. The following focuses on challenges related to clergy, congregations, and those experiencing forced termination.

Literature Review

Though the literature points to the qualities and characteristics of healthy and unhealthy congregations as well as effective and ineffective clergy, it remains difficult to determine which clergyperson will experience forced termination. However, it is seldom the result of one incident or quality. Sheffield (2008) posited that ministers' poor people skills and strong leadership styles, or dictatorial styles of leadership, are among the top five reasons for the forced termination of Southern Baptist clergy. Furthermore, congregational systems embroiled in conflict, distrust, dishonesty, and fractured relationships with a few controlling and mean-spirited persons have been identified as factors that help set the stage for forced termination (Beebe, 2007; Greenfield, 2001; Sheffield, 2008).

LaRue (1996) surveyed pastors and discovered that 35% acknowledged communication, leadership, and relational difficulties had severely hurt their ministry. Breen (2008) confirmed that conflict marked by "authoritarianism, control issues, and theological and ideological differences" (p. 265) was detrimental to the relationship between clergy and congregations. Additional factors leading to forced termination include conflicting visions for congregations (Barfoot et al., 2005; Breen, 2008), personality conflicts (Barfoot et al., 2005; Breen, 2008; Hall, 2004; Tanner & Zvonkovic, 2011), leadership problems (Barfoot et al., 2005; Briggs, 2012), and even moral failures (Grenz & Bell, 2001; Powell, 2008). Barfoot et al. (2005) noted that among the various factors identified, conflicting visions for the church and personality conflicts with church leaders are the most significant sources of tension that lead to forced termination.

Challenges of Ministry

One of the challenges facing many evangelical faith groups is the autonomous and self-governing structure. in such structures clergy are often left without support and resources to assist them during crises such as a forced termination. in fact, few faith groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) nor its entities, provide a safe haven or place for clergy and their spouses to heal and recover from the painful experience (Hicks, 2010). Although a few independent ministries and churches have sought to address the needs of clergy facing such a crisis, the lack of financial resources, feelings of shame, embarrassment, and uncertainty about the future present as barriers for those who experience forced termination (Doubleday, 2013; Greenfield, 2001).

Greenfield (2001) posited that clergy experiencing forced termination will also be the recipients of collateral damage. His research indicated that it is not uncommon for what was once a stable marriage to falter under the pressures of such an event. Unfortunately, Greenfield observed that the negative effects are not limited to spouses, as children are also caught up in the emotional frenzy. By "watching their father and mother being abused by callous and cruel lay leaders, minister's children will usually become cynical about the church" (Greenfield, 2001, p. 101). The literature has also revealed that clergy who are forcibly terminated will oftentimes experience an erosion of personal confidence, a challenge to their faith, burnout, physical health problems, and a plethora of emotional problems (Barfoot et al., 2005). Clergy and spouses often suffer from depression, anxiety, anger, and disillusionment as a result of forced termination (Barfoot et al., 2005; Briggs, 2012; Greenfield, 2001; Hall, 2004).

Demands of Ministry

Ministry is a demanding profession. Morris and Blanton (1994) asserted that clergy families will experience a minimum of five external factors within their ministry: "mobility, financial compensation, expectations and time demands, intrusions of family boundaries, and social support" (p. 189). In addition, clergy and their spouses will face disappointment, disillusionment, and a variety of stressors.

Expectations and disillusionment. Clergy begin ministry with high ideals and expectations that they will make a difference, although these ideals are often challenged (Grosch & olsen, 2000). Spencer, Winston, and Bocarnea (2012) concluded that disparity exists between the illusions of ministry expectations and expected outcomes. Because of the noted disparity, ministers often experience a vision conflict, or a growing level of discontentment and disillusionment with ministry. Barfoot et al. (2005) noted that 43.37% of the 108 ministers they surveyed identified unrealistic expectations as their number one source of tension.

Dittes (1979) posited that following theological education and their first ministry assignment, many ministers become disillusioned. Their sense of call is questioned, and the passion that initially led them into ministry gives way to disillusionment and despair (Dittes, 1979, p. 7; Grosch & Olsen, 2000). Additionally, Lee and Iverson-Gilbert (2003) noted that clergy will oftentimes experience "unrealistic and intrusive expectations" (p. 249) passed along by their congregations.

Stressors in ministry. Vision conflict and compassion fatigue represent only a few of the challenges and stressors facing clergy (Spencer et al., 2012). Breen (2008) discovered that conflict is paramount in many churches, and where it exists, relationships are affected. Tanner and Zvonkovic (2011) surveyed 227 Assemblies of God ministers who experienced forced termination and discovered increased health problems and reduced well-being among the ministers and their family members. Clergy also experience additional stressors such as low incomes, limited retirement options, unrealistic expectations from others, and long hours (Grosch & Olsen, 2000; Lee & Iverson-Gilbert, 2003; McMinn, Kerrick, Duma, Campbell, & Jung, 2008).

McMinn et al. (2008) observed that clergy families will experience substantial stress. Life in a fishbowl is a phrase that is often used to describe how clergy and their families view life as they are scrutinized by parishioners and those within the community. Ministers' wives have additional expectations placed upon them by congregations and sometimes by other minister wives (patterson, 2002). They are expected to participate in church functions, provide leadership to women's organizations, and function as a supreme host (Frame & Shehan, 1994). They are not afforded the same level of privacy that other families may experience, and must be willing to share their spouse or husband with parishioners, which includes subordinating their needs to those of others (Cooper, 2013). Frequent moves can have a negative impact on the lives of clergy children as well as the spouse and her career aspirations. Finally, it is not uncommon for clergy spouses to experience emotional problems and challenges, which can result in depression and anxiety (Brackin, 2001; Speight, 2005).

Consequences of Forced Termination

Clergy who are forced from their places of service, either voluntarily or involuntarily, often face overwhelming odds. For example, they may experience similar consequences as those experienced by persons who lose their jobs in the secular realm. Job loss has been cited as having a variety of negative effects on persons who experience unemployment. Evidence suggests that unemployed persons are at-risk for experiencing a decline in their emotional and physical health as well as an increased incidence of suicide (Wanberg, 2012). Vensel (2012) added that persons experiencing involuntary or forced termination as a result of workplace mobbing will experience increased relational problems, reduced well-being, suicidal behaviors, and in the most severe situations even posttraumatic stress disorder. Vensel described mobbing as the intentional or prolonged harassment by members of an organization in order to secure the removal of the leadership, which is what occurs in both secular and religious settings (p. 1).

Financial Strain

Barfoot et al.'s (2005) survey of 108 ministers revealed financial strain and stability as the second most affected area of forced termination. Willis (2001) asserted that only 35.2% of those who experienced forced termination received a severance package, and Barfoot et al. posited that 75% of pastors would not be able to survive financially 4 months after forced termination. Given the financial challenges of unemployment, clergy often experience additional stress as they are not eligible for unemployment benefits (Gallagher, 2009; D. Lohrey, personal communication, June 8, 2015).

Call and Confidence Questioned

Questioning one's call to ministry, the erosion of personal confidence, and the awareness of improper motives for ministry are also consequences of forced termination (Hall, 2004). Spencer et al. (2012) asserted that clergy who fail to examine their call to ministry and the challenges it offers will fold under pressure. Because clergy are often described as driven persons (Greenfield, 2001; Mcintosh & Rima, 2007; Witt, 2011), their personal confidence is often thwarted as a result of forced termination. Barfoot et al. (2005) estimated that between 58% and 59% of pastors experience a significant drop in self-confidence following forced termination.

Increased Health Problems

Significant health problems have been associated with persons who have been involuntarily terminated from their employment. Burgard, Brand, and House (2007) revealed that persons who are involuntary terminated from secular employment experienced increased health problems, including depressive symptoms, even when accounting for a variety of potentially confounding factors. Forcibly terminated clergy have also been identified as experiencing significantly poorer health than clergy not subjected to involuntary termination (Tanner et al., 2013; Tanner & Zvonkovic, 2011). In fact, Proeschold-Bell et al. (2013) associated depression and anxiety as significant challenges among clergy regardless of whether they were terminated because of the demands of ministry, "job stress, life unpredictability intrinsic demands, guilt about not doing enough work and doubting one's call to ministry" (p. 439).

Increased Systemic and Relational Challenges

Systemic and relational problems are also associated with forced termination. LaRue (1996) reported that 64% of clergy spouses would experience job change and nearly 66% of the children would be forced to change schools. Moreover, forced termination experiences can lead to a variety of additional problems for clergy families, such as difficulty trusting congregations and distancing themselves from relationships (Spencer et al., 2012). The matter of trust is of significant concern; Barfoot et al. (2005) indicated that 71% of clergy families had difficulty trusting anyone following forced termination.

A review of the current literature revealed similarities in the types of problems experienced by healthy and unhealthy congregations, congregational leaders, and the qualities of effective and ineffective clergy. in addition, the consequences of forced termination were somewhat consistent among the various studies reviewed. However, what is missing in the research, and was the intention of these researchers in conducting the current study, is an exploration of the lived experiences of forced termination among clergy and spouses a minimum of three years since the incident.

Research Methodology

Method and Design

This qualitative research study involved an exploration of forced termination among Southern Baptist clergy couples to gain insight into their lived experiences. Furthermore, the phenomenological approach was selected for this research study due to its focus on the study of phenomena or the notion of experience (Cerbone, 2006; Creswell, 2014; Moustakas, 1994). Firmly rooted in a strong philosophical component and drawing on the writings of Husserl, Heidegger, Sarter, and Merleua-Ponty, phenomenology is intentionally focused on the lived experiences of individuals, with a subjective view of how individuals experienced the phenomenon and an objective view as to what they have in common with other people having experienced the phenomenon (Creswell, 2014). Husserl (1991), the first to use the phenomenological tradition, observed that it was primarily meant to study how individuals describe and experience matters through their senses, or as Patton (2002) suggested, the phenomenological tradition provides the opportunity for one to describe, elucidate, and interpret one's experiences.

Drawing on heuristic inquiry, a phenomenological study involves two primary elements. First, the participants must share the experience of the phenomenon being studied (Douglass & Moustakas, 1985; Moustakas, 1994; Patton, 2002). Second, the researchers must share a personal experience with and be intensely involved in the phenomenon under study.

For this study, the researchers had experienced forced termination nearly thirty years prior, and were sensitive to Patton's (2002) assertion that the "researcher is the instrument" (p. 14) in qualitative inquiry. Thus, the quality of the research hinges on the ability of the researchers to conduct fieldwork as well as any distraction that might occur in the life of the researchers. Creswell (2014) posited that the axiological assumption is one of the four philosophical assumptions researchers undertake when conducting qualitative research. The axiological assumption suggests that researchers make known their values and biases, and the interpretation is closely related to the interpretations of the participants (Creswell, 2014).

Therefore, the researchers were careful to acknowledge personal values and biases as they conducted separate individual interviews with the spouses and the clergy. Together, they interviewed the participants in a focus group. Though researchers have examined the more immediate consequences of forced termination for clergy, these researchers sought to provide a rich and well-rounded description of the long-term lived experiences of clergy and their spouses by seeking to address the central question: What are the lived experiences of Southern Baptist clergy couples having experienced forced termination?


Purposeful criteria sampling is a common sampling strategy in qualitative research and was used to gather participants for the current study (Patton, 2002). it is the practice of intentionally selecting subjects based on predefined criteria, and is designed for use with smaller samples. Ten clergy couples, ages 21 and above, who met the following criteria were recruited for participation in this phenomenological study. The first criterion for participants in this study was that the couple be heterosexual. The second criterion was that the clergy person served as a senior pastor or as a staff minister in a Southern Baptist church. The third criterion was that the pastor or staff member experienced forced termination. The fourth criterion was that the forced termination occurred at least three years prior to this study. The fifth and final criterion was that the clergy were not terminated for misconduct or a moral failure.

The clergy couples selected for this study were recruited from the researchers' personal contacts. However, because of the uniqueness of this group of candidates and the fact that no official records are kept among Southern Baptists as to the identities of these individuals, Hennink, Hutter, and Bailey (2011) recommended the snowball technique, which was useful for identifying participants within the same social network. Denominational leadership among Southern Baptist and personal contacts were also utilized to assist in identifying clergy who met the established criteria.

Data Collection

Qualitative data provide descriptions or accounts of how individuals experience certain phenomena (Moustakas, 1994; Polkinghorne, 2005). The researchers collected data in three ways: individual interviews, a focus group, and artifacts. A series of semi-structured interview questions were designed to elicit the views, lived experiences, and opinions of the participants in both the individual interviews and focus group (Creswell, 2014). Russell and Ryan (2009) also suggested the use of artifacts or physical representations of individuals' thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are another way of capturing the essence of their lived experiences, and in this study, participants were asked to bring an artifact such as favorite Scripture verses, a book, recording, or other meaningful items that helped them when going through the experience of forced termination. Participants were also asked to complete a seven-day journal and e-mail a copy to the researchers prior to the time of the individual and focus groups interviews.

Procedures for Data Collection

The qualitative phenomenological research methodology used to conduct this study involved several methods for the collection of data. The participants in this study participated in either a 60-minute individual interview or a 90-minute focus group interview to solicit the essence of their lived experiences of forced termination. The participants were informed that the study would include two interview processes and given the option as to which one they preferred, or they could participate in both processes. Factors that facilitated the selection of participants for the two interview processes included their preference and scheduling.

Data were collected through a series of interviews, both individual and a focus group, and through seven-day journals, artifacts, and field notes. Interviews were videotaped using Zoom and audiotaped using TranscribeMe. The interviews were then transcribed using TranscribeMe.

Data Analysis and Results

Data analysis is a complex and mysterious process, yet one of the most important aspects of qualitative research (Leech & Onwuegbuzie, 2007; Thorne, 2000). In this research study, data gathered from individual and focus group interviews were transcribed to identify emerging themes, patterns, and relationships. To promote rigor, credibility, and trustworthiness of the research findings, a peer reviewer was enlisted as well as the findings deduced from NVivo10.

Study Participants

Utilizing purposive sampling, the researchers gathered a sample of 10 Southern Baptist clergy couples who had experienced forced termination from one or more Southern Baptist congregations as a senior pastor (Patton, 2002; Suri, 2011). The span of time since experiencing the forced termination was from 3 to 22 years. The sample consisted of all Caucasian couples having served in full-time vocational ministry from 7 to 31 years. All clergy couples held some advanced education: clergy educational backgrounds included two bachelor's degrees, six master's degrees, and two doctoral degrees; and clergy spouses' educational backgrounds included 1 year of college, three associate's degrees, three bachelor's degrees, and three master's degrees. Several of the individuals were currently enrolled in additional degree programs. Among the 10 clergy, only three remain in a church staff position, two as senior pastors and one as an associate pastor. The remainder serve in positions outside the local church.


Results of the research study were focused around the key research questions, which revealed several key themes. For example, an analysis of the content reveals 137 coded themes in five categories in response to the question: What were the most difficult experiences faced following forced termination?

Overall Themes Identified

Five overall themes were identified: trust, abandonment and ambivalence, shock and disbelief, anger, as well as relief and peace. The frequency of each theme as well as the percentage of all events devoted to each theme are identified in Table 1.

Trust. The issue of trust was by far the most significant and emotional reaction to the forced termination experience. For example, one of the clergy participants stated, "As far as trust that was a big issue with me personally. Can I ever trust people who are part of an organized congregation?" Others shared similar responses as follows:
   I don't think I would ever, ever be
   back to the point to where I trust anybody
   like that again, other than my
   wife, and maybe one or two extremely,
   extremely close friends that I have.

   It's the trust that is broken between
   people. The church is where you
   think you can trust people, and that
   was broken. That's the hardest part.
   I guess, I've built a wall over the
   years of--I'm very standoffish when
   it comes to people since that. So
   that's probably the biggest thing that
   I--I have a guarded heart because
   of it.

For others, the issue of trust was challenged by their relationship with God. Was God someone they could depend on to keep His word? Had He led them astray? Many wrestled with these types of questions. A spouse commented, "We didn't trust God. We did not trust Him and I was angry." Another spouse observed, "It made me examine my life with Christ, my prayer life, my trust factor with Him."

Abandonment and Ambivalence. Others struggled with emotions of abandonment and ambivalence. Several of the participants voiced feelings of being abandoned by God, fellow ministers, and friends during this difficult period. Others noted ambivalence toward God and the church. One clergy shared how he felt abandoned by the church and at the same time experienced ambivalent feelings toward God: "The hardest thing was I felt like God had abandoned me. This was the deepest, darkest feeling that led to depression." Similarly, another clergy noted that he experienced a "downward trajectory" in his spiritual life and felt abandoned by God. He also voiced ambivalence: "At the end of the day all I had was faith that somehow God was going to get me through this."

Shock, Disbelief and Anger. Others expressed emotions of shock, disbelief, anger and even relief. Several of the participants articulated that the moment of forced termination came when they least expected it. In the case of one clergy couple, his wife was away at the time caring for her ill mother when he received a call to meet with the deacons. Without recourse, he was asked to resign.

Another clergy member observed:
   Today I thought about some of the
   hard experiences. Deacons meetings
   that were held behind my back at
   one of the deacon's homes, then they
   would call me to come to the home
   so they could tell me what they had
   decided. Lies being told about me to
   other people in the community by
   people in my own church. Having
   to confront a deacon for being hateful
   to my son who was only 5 years
   old. And of course, being too immature
   at the time to really know how
   to properly deal with all of this.

The participants voiced anger at several sources, including the church, God, and Southern Baptists. One of the clergy noted, "I experienced classic signs of grief during this time: disbelief, anger, and depression." Like this clergyperson, several experienced anger because of how the experience affected their lives and ministries, but also related to how the experience influenced their children. One participant stated, "My oldest daughter carried more scars from the termination than the other two children. The youngest children proved to be more resilient and were able to move beyond the experience with less difficulty." Other comments related to the forced termination experience and the church:
   It wasn't like I made a conscious
   decision. It's just, who wants to go
   back to that? Who wants to go and
   kicked in the stomach again? Who
   wants to meet with people that could
   be planning your demise? It's been
   really tough. It has not made me a
   better person; a kinder person; a
   sweeter person. I'm hardened and
   probably a little bitter. I don't want to
   be that way, but that's just kind of
   where I'm at. My family; my children;
   they've attempted--my oldest
   daughter for instance she's attempted--her
   and her family--to go to
   church, and they go one, maybe two
   Sundays and they see some of the
   same things that we were seeing.

A reoccurring theme that seemed to foster anger and angst, particularly among the clergy, was the lack of support or intervention by Southern Baptists. One of the clergy offered these comments:
   As far as relationships with the
   church--I'll focus on the denomination,
   because I did call the denomination
   after this occurred. At the
   local level, at the association, initially
   they were very supportive, even
   helped negotiate what would be a
   severance package which was very
   fair. The church didn't keep their
   part of what they said they were
   going to do, but at that level, they
   were very fair. But as far as when I
   tried to call upper levels in the
   denomination and tell them, "Okay,
   this is what happened. This is
   wrong," the response that I got back
   was, "We understand that, but we
   have to protect our churches."

Relief and Peace. Finally, themes of relief and peace were also noted. The participants noted that they felt like Joseph, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Genesis 50:20, New International Version). Another participant stated, "the biggest thing that it has made me is a more compassionate person towards people that are hurting."

Other Significant Findings

Spiritual growth and Self-Reflection. Spiritual growth and time for self-reflection were identified as other key themes. One spouse captured the essence of the spiritual condition for many of the participants: "I feel like my spiritual life is like a heartbeat, it is up and down." Another participant shared, "There is hope. God does restore. It's been 5 years since all of this happened and everything that took place ... It's still not great, but it's better."

In reflecting upon the experience, one of the clergy agreed that Southern Baptists have a responsibility to their churches, but they also have a responsibility to the leaders they train. He posited:
   I got saved as a lost man through
   expository preaching and then Jesus
   called me into the ministry. I went
   to seminary. The cooperative program
   paid for 50% of my tuition and
   then Baptist grants paid for the other
   50%, so I got a full ride. I come out
   and in the first 2 years of me being a
   senior pastor, I'm forcibly terminated:
   (a) spiritually, that's a bad deal,
   and (b) financially, that's a horrible
   return on your investment. Nobody
   could stay in business if they were
   investing $40,000 over 4 years and
   in a year-and-a-half, that stock or
   that hedge fund is gone. That's a
   horrible investment.

Establishing Protective Walls and Positive Refraining. Many of the clergy couples were forthright in establishing emotional walls and boundaries around their relationships, be it with the local church or the denomination. One clergy stated it succinctly: "Forced termination kills relationship." Another participant articulated an awareness that seemed true of others. He observed, "For the church, I'm more cautious because I feel like I've kind of peeked behind the curtain of what's really going on in churches. I find myself being quite judgmental of the process of the business end of the church." Whereas, one of the spouses' identified that many of her relationships had been "toxic;" therefore, she was intentional in establishing healthier boundaries.

For some it was the recognition that the forced termination experience was extremely painful for themselves and their families, yet it resulted in a move to more meaningful ministry. Three of the clergy ended up in chaplaincy ministry and as one of the participants stated, "it's probably that much of my life God had been preparing me to do, military ministry. And I didn't even know it and, probably, had it not been for that, I would have never even given that a second thought." For others it assisted in creating a deeper, more meaningful and personal relationship in their faith. "it created within me just a greater faithfulness, a greater humility in myself, really more on Christ and myself."

Coping Strategies. in response to coping strategies, many expressed unhelpful strategies as the lack of support and understanding from family, friends, fellow clergy and the denomination. Whereas, helpful strategies were identified as becoming involved in practical activities such as gardening, and spending time with supportive family and friends. Others acknowledged personal counseling as well as supportive resources offered at the time through denominational, church and community ministries.

Lessons Learned. in response to what one has learned through the experience and would benefit others, two key themes emerged: gain perspective and be prepared. The participants acknowledged that forced termination occurred at critical times in their lives and ministries, and they were often the focus of lies and innuendoes. Therefore, they felt it prudent to remind those who are called into ministry and serve on a church staff that it is important to gain perspective. A clergy participant gave this reminder: "The first thing is that Satan had me convinced that I was the only pastor that was going through this and nobody else would understand." A spouse shared a similar reminder: "Satan attacks when you are already low --spiritually, emotionally, financially and physically."

In addition, a repeated theme was the need for proper training and preparation. Many felt their seminary education did not adequately prepare them, especially in managing conflict. A spouse posited, "I wish we had been better at managing conflict. I wish the church has been better at managing conflict." Similarly, a clergy participant echoed the following reminder:
   Seminary really left me unprepared
   to deal with conflict. it's one of the
   things that they could do less of the
   extreme biblical qualifications and
   stuff. Now not that it's not important,
   but I did so much of that and so little
   of the practical.


Forced termination among clergy is a prevalent and a life-changing experience, yet has received little scholarly attention. Even among the scholarly works addressing this topic, the long-term effects of forced termination among clergy have not been adequately investigated. Although scholarly work on the long-term effects have received little or no attention, previous work on the topic of clergy forced termination warranted such a study.

This pilot study, with a narrow sample, demonstrated consistent results from the literature considering the span of time that passed from the point of termination, which was 3 to 22 years. The participants revealed feelings of abandonment, ambivalence, anger, betrayal, disbelief, shock, and broken trust (Barfoot et al., 2005; Greenfield, 2001; Hall, 2004; Hicks, 2010; McKee-Ryan, Virick, Prussia, Harvey, & Lilly, 2009; Morcos, 2009; Pratt, 2011; Yeager & Roberts, 2015). Two significant, yet unexpected findings emerged from this study. First, the fact that the participants were unwilling to fully trust congregations, even after experiencing forgiveness and the passage of time. Second, a number of the clergy persons in this study felt called to serve in ministries outside the local church following their forced termination experience.

The mistrust of congregations, persons of faith, and some religious institutions surface a matter of great concern for clergy and families. Bligh (2017) posited that trust is a dynamic force that exists among persons and has significant implications for the workplace. She further defined trust as "an expectation or belief that one can rely on another person's actions and words and that the person has good intentions to carry out their promises" (p. 22). These assertions beg an important question: How is it possible to fully function in a position when the fear of experiencing forced termination is looming in the background?

Broken trust can have a significant impact on individuals and organizations for many years as suggested in the literature (Brouwer, 2014; Greenfield, 2001; Kets de Vries & Balazs, 1997). Results of broken trust might present as feelings of disloyalty, diminished job security, and decreased productivity, particularly within the context of business organizations (Colquitt, Scott, & LePine, 2007; Kim & Choi, 2010). It is within this context that ideas have been presented to re-establish or repair trust.

Studies conducted to study the rebuilding or repairing of trust within business organizations and institutions have continued to emerge in the last 10 years, and though approaches may vary, there seems to be a consistency of ideas. ideas include leadership in various capacities offering apologies to the offended, reestablishment of personal relationships, implementation of sound structural policies to protect all, and the creation of an ethical work environment (Bachmann, Gillespie & Priem, 2015; Dirks, Lewiski, & Zaheer, 2009; Pate, Morgan-Thomas, & Beaumont, 2012).

Though congregational polity differs among faith groups and little scholarly attention has been given regarding how to repair or reestablish trust, the ideas suggested in the business literature may provide a step forward for helping to rebuild broken trust between congregations and the leadership. A plan could include congregational leadership offering an apology to the offended, the establishment of a healthy emotional and spiritual work and ministry environment, and the formation of safe and secure structural processes designed to protect all. The dearth of literature regarding this need, as it applies to faith communities, implies the need for further research to be conducted.

The second unexpected result from the study was the number of clergy who chose or felt called to serve in ministries outside the local congregation following their forced termination experience. This beckons several questions for further study. First, did the clergy who experienced forced termination misunderstand their initial call? Second, were the clergy better suited for a ministry outside the pastorate or church staff position and misinterpreted their call experience? Third, are seminaries and faith groups adequately preparing clergy and spouses for ministry?

This research study highlighted significant findings experienced by clergy and spouses' years after a forced termination experience. However, a limitation of this study was the narrow and specific sample group. Therefore, further study needs to be conducted among other faith groups to validate the findings of this research. Additionally, studies are warranted in areas of rebuilding or repairing broken trust among the faith community and its leadership following a forced termination. Finally, further studies are needed among faith groups and seminaries to determine whether clergy are being adequately prepared for ministry.


Clergy forced termination is a life-changing experience as demonstrated by the data collected in this study. The participants in this study had experienced forced termination from a congregation anywhere from 3 to 22 years prior, and the majority reported difficulty trusting as a result of their experiences. Although the forced termination experience was difficult and life-changing, many expressed relief in no longer having to serve in very difficult places of ministry. in addition to experiencing relief, many also divulged that their spiritual life deepened as did their compassion for others.

What might alter such events from occurring in the future is yet to be determined. However, faith groups, be it at the national, state, or local level, have an opportunity to study this matter further and develop a strategy to address it from several aspects, including education, intervention, and support.


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Dallas E. Speight, Sheila W. Speight

Liberty University

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Dallas E. Speight, Ed.D., P.O. Box 9166, Fleming Island, FL 32006;

Dallas E. Speight (Ed.D.; Counseling Psychology) is a retired Army Chaplain who is a licensed counselor and currently serves as an adjunct professor with Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA in the Department of Community Care and Counseling: School of Behavioral Sciences.

Sheila W. Speight (PhD.; Counseling Psychology) is a licensed counselor in Florida and Tennessee, yet spends most of her time serving as an Assistant Professor/Instructional Mentor with Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA in the Department of Community Care and Counseling: School of Behavioral Sciences.
Table 1

Overall Research Themes Coded by Categories

Category              Coded Events   % of Total Events

Trust                      45               33%
Abandonment and            26               19%
Shock and Disbelief        26               19%
Anger                      23               17%
Relief and Peace           17               12%
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Author:Speight, Dallas E.; Speight, Sheila W.
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Christianity
Article Type:Report
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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