In a recent conversation, a pastor whose father was also a pastor related to me this interesting observation. The elder pastor said, “In my generation, if you could really hang your hat on one or two aspects of ministry, you could be weak in some other areas, and people would give you grace. If your pastoral care was superb, people would cut you some slack for not being a great preacher. But now, if you’re not good at all of it, folks will come at you really hard. And you may get fired for having a gap in one area.”
That insight put a finger on my frustration at (another) recent pastoral termination. My friend was uber-good at many things — not only preaching and pastoral care, but also as a thinker, connector and coach. He just was not a quick turnaround specialist, and when the congregation decided that was what they needed, boom — that was the end of his tenure.
This, of course, is not limited to congregational life. “You’re fired!” is part of the lexicon of organizations across the United States. But amid talk of accountability and results-oriented leadership, is the trigger-happy firing approach working?
If the NFL provides any insight, then perhaps not. According to Sports Illustrated, “Black Monday” — the day at the end of the regular season when non-playoff teams annually fire coaches — has produced less-than-stellar results. Usually the firings are popularly applauded, as fans and owners talk of fresh energy, a clean slate, culture change and a new direction.
But the data’s dirty secret tells a different story. In a Middle Tennessee State sports economics study, NFL teams that fire their coaches can expect their win total to drop by at least 10 percent and odds of making the playoffs to drop by 12 percent. Of five first-year coaches in 2015, only one made the playoffs (Denver). And maybe having Peyton Manning as a quarterback helped there.
So why do football teams — and congregations — keep firing their leaders? The main reason is “action bias.” In SI’s words, “In stressful situations, people choose action over inaction. We sell stocks, drop college classes, and fire CEOs sooner than we should. Retaining the coach doesn’t quiet the fans. The best move is often no move. Put it like this: Don’t just do something, stand there.”
I’m not saying there are never causes for pastoral termination. I’m just hoping for a countercultural trend against inappropriately itchy trigger fingers in congregations.