Removal of church leaders should involve due process of our own hearts

When I recently read Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese's NCR piece about firing bishops, my memory took me back to the mid-1980s.

The man who was our pastor then was out of sync with our associate pastor. The pastor was young and a bit impetuous. The associate pastor was considerably older, more reserved and not a self-starter.

So the pastor asked if I (a member of the personnel committee) would do him the favor of arranging to have some conversations with the associate about the latter's future. The pastor's hope was that I'd convince him to resign and move on.

In Presbyterian polity, pastors and associate pastors are called by a vote of the congregation -- and the call must be confirmed by the presbytery, which is the governing body of the Presbyterian churches in each region. So pastors do not hire associates directly.

It was an awkward situation for me to be in. Nonetheless, I had several conversations with the associate pastor and helped him assess his situation. The result was that eventually he was called to a different church in a different state. And before much time had passed, the pastor himself felt called to a larger congregation with a bigger salary in another state. (It wasn't his only career error.)

So just as Reese described due process for removing bishops in the Catholic church, there is also a due process for removing pastors and associate pastors in the Presbyterian church. In both traditions, however, there are informal ways of influencing the process.

The difference is that in Presbyterian (and many other Protestant) churches, people in the pews have some kind of voice in the selection and removal of their ordained professionals, whereas such matters generally are outside the control of the Catholic laity.

There are certain advantages to the Catholic system, but (no surprise) I think the Presbyterian system, with its shadings of representative democracy, has more to recommend it.

We Presbyterians rarely wind up feeling as helpless about leadership options as, say, many members of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., Catholic diocese have felt about having no influence on whether Bishop Robert Finn would stay despite being convicted of a misdemeanor crime of failing to report suspected child abuse to legal authorities.

The systems of accountability built into Protestant governance give people at least some sense of having a meaningful say in how their churches are led.

But what that also leads to is, at times, the kind of back-door influence over a pastor or associate pastor's career path that I was briefly and reluctantly part of in the 1980s. Worse, it also leads to something that I find more prevalent in Protestant than in Catholic congregations -- the myopic tendency to join or leave a congregation based on who is pastor.

Don't like his or her preaching? Leave and join the church down the street. Disappointed by a pastor's style when visiting those in the hospital? You don't have to put up with such an outrage. Dump your church and move on.

I know some Catholics have been parish-jumpers, too, in part because of their attraction to or repulsion by this or that priest. But in my experience, Catholics often have a deeper understanding that they are the church. Which means they should not behave like members of a country club that hires and fires its general manager.

Protestant polity, by contrast, can tend to lead some people to think that their pastors are just their employees and can be treated the way one might treat the executive director of a charitable board on which they serve -- which is to say, to hold that person's career in one's hands.

In the end, when we think of removing Catholic bishops or priests or Protestant pastors, our task should be to employ due process not strictly of church law, but of our own hearts.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at]

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