Opinion: Who Can Fire the Pastor?

por Barry Bowen
fire pastor
Church governance models, determined in part by bylaws, determine whether church “members” or board members can remove a pastor.(Photo: Shutterstock)

Who can fire the pastor? It’s a key question to ask when investigating the power structure of churches and ministries as a growing number of pastors adopt barriers to accountability which prevent them from being fired.

Sometimes corrupt pastors are protected by family members and yes men serving on church boards or corporation documents providing dictatorial powers.

Church articles of incorporation and church bylaws determine if church attendees can be members and if they are allowed to vote on church business.

In 2011, televangelist Eddie Long settled lawsuits with five men accusing him of sexual assault. Long did not disclose how much New Birth Missionary Baptist Church (NBMBC) spent to resolve the litigation. Concerned church attendees lacked the ability to remove the pastor from the pulpit.

NBMBC was founded in 1974. The original articles of incorporation stated, “The membership of the corporation shall be known as the ‘congregation’ …”

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In 1997 the church articles of incorporation were re-stated and church membership was eliminated: “The Corporation hereby elects to have no members. Any action which would otherwise require a vote of members shall require only a vote of the members of the Board of Directors, and no meeting or vote of members shall be required for this Corporation …” (Emphasis added.)

The board of NBMBC, which may have been the pastor’s only form of accountability, either refused to remove Pastor Long or they were legally prevented from doing so by church bylaws.

It is quite common for megachurches and televangelist ministries to eliminate member voting rights and restrict key business decisions to the board of directors. As another example, Benny Hinn’s World Healing Center Church changed its articles of incorporation to give complete financial control to the board of directors.

Secret Church Bylaws Include Veto Powers for Pastors

In some churches the pastor cannot be fired. The churches of televangelists Kenneth Copeland and Paula White adopted church bylaws giving pastors veto power over their board of directors.

Unlike articles of incorporation, church bylaws are difficult to obtain as few churches post them online. Occasionally these documents are submitted to government agencies and can be obtained via Open Records Requests or litigation.

Trinity Foundation obtained bylaws of Paula White’s church by going to court to unseal financial documents submitted by White during a court battle.

Amid bank statements for Paula’s New Destiny Christian Center Church appeared eleven pages of church bylaws stamped, “CONFIDENTIAL!”

Section 5b stated, “The Pastor-President shall serve as President and a member of the Board of Directors of the Church until her death or resignation, and without need of election or appointment. She shall not be subject to removal.” (Emphasis added.)

Paula White
Pastor Paula White leads a prayer in Washington, at the “Save America” rally in support of President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021. called the “Save America Rally.” (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Meanwhile, the bylaws of Copeland’s Eagle Mountain International Church require the president’s signature to remove an officer. Because Copeland is president of the church, he can prevent his removal by not signing a removal order.

There have been no criminal charges brought against Copeland or White, but if they were charged and convicted of fraud, tax evasion or other crimes, they could continue serving as pastor unless a government agency would take over the church and appoint new leadership. This process of putting a church in receivership is rarely, if ever, used.

In 2019, televangelist William Todd Coontz was convicted of tax evasion. His appeals to the United States Supreme Court failed and Coontz began serving a five-year prison sentence in 2021. Meanwhile, Coontz remains on the board of Rockwealth Ministries, the organization he used as a vehicle for tax evasion. He was never fired.

Meanwhile, as he sits in prison his website is still raising money from unsuspecting donors and his “About Todd Coontz” page makes no mention of his conviction.  His “Speaking Schedule” page states, “NEW MEETINGS DATES POSTED FREQUENTLY. Please bookmark this page and check back for a meeting in your area.”

Headship and The Moses Model

Various church leaders have attempted to defend minimal oversight by appealing to scripture.

The Association of Related Churches (ARC), for example, teaches that the head pastor should be like Moses–receiving vision from God, while the elders and congregation rally around him.

This model is also common in Calvary Chapels, and has been blamed for numerous scandals because it essentially removes the pastor from any accountability. The model also ignores that under the New Covenant, all believers have equal access to the Holy Spirit and don’t need a leader or prophet to receive direction from God.

driscoll
marca driscoll

Another apparent proponent of the “Moses model” is disgraced pastor, Mark Driscoll, who argued several months ago in a Video de Youtube that churches with large boards of directors are inefficient.

Driscoll also claimed pastors should oversee the church like a father oversees his family. “And so governance in the church should follow the governance of the kingdom and of the home, singular headship, plural leadership.”

Last year the governing body at Driscoll’s church in Arizona dramatically changed. Three of four board members for The Trinity Church left the board. Driscoll, the only remaining board member, was joined by one new addition as a church employee was added.

There is no independent oversight for Driscoll as he can fire Brandon Anderson, the employee serving on the board.

In Driscoll’s church, attendees are unable to vote on important business as such functions are completely controlled by the church’s two board members.

Perhaps, Driscoll’s opposition to strong church boards is based on his experience at a previous megachurch.

Driscoll co-founded Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Under his charismatic leadership, Mars Hill became a massive megachurch with more than 14,000 members.

Driscoll’s aggressive self-promotion and authoritarian leadership style led to his downfall.

Driscoll’s book Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together appeared for one week on The New York Times Best Seller list after Driscoll’s church partnered with a marketing company to purchase 11,000 copies of the book.

Journalist Warren Cole Smith of revista mundial discovered that $210,000 was spent buying copies of the book to place it on best seller lists. News of the book buying scheme harmed the church’s reputation.

Driscoll also removed pastors that questioned and criticized his decisions.

The church collapsed like a deck of cards after Driscoll resigned in 2014. Then Driscoll relocated to Arizona and launched la iglesia de la trinidad.

Chuck Smith, the founder of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, embraced the Moses Model, a church governance model whereby the pastor ruled the congregation.

In the handbook Calvary Distinctives, Smith explained, “Let’s look at an example of theocracy in which God was ruling. Under God there was a man called Moses. Moses went to God for guidance and direction. Moses was the earthly leader who was recognized as receiving from God the guidance, direction, laws, and rules for the nation.”

Smith further elaborated, “I believe that God’s model is that the pastor is ruled over by the Lord and recognized by the congregation as God’s anointed instrument to lead the church, with the Board guiding and directing.”

According to Smith, church board members held an important role in solving problems in the church by providing support rather than oversight:   “Now, real elders aren’t a bunch of ‘yes’ men, but they are men yielded to the Holy Spirit. They’re a real buffer and protection for me. Their job is to interface with the congregation. The congregation brings any problems that they see to them.”

The Need for Independent Oversight

In the late 1970s several religious financial scandals occurred, resulting in congressmen considering legislation to regulate churches. A group of religious organizations pooled resources and established the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) as an alternative to stricter government oversight of religion.

ECFA created a set of standards for its member organizations to follow. Standard #2 addresses church governance:

“Every organization shall be governed by a responsible board of not less than five individuals, a majority of whom shall be independent, who shall meet at least semiannually to establish policy and review its accomplishments.”

Independent board members do not work for the church or ministry and are not family members of board members.

Independent boards are so important the IRS asks non-profit organizations to list the total number of board members and independent board members on page one of the Form 990, a financial disclosure document non-profit organizations are required to file. (Churches, synagogues and mosques are exempted.)

fire pastor board
Trinity Broadcasting of Texas, the new parent organization of Trinity Broadcasting Network, has three voting board members of which none are independent. (Image: Screenshot of public filing)

Board independence is especially critical when a non-profit provides excessive compensation (payments exceeding $1 million) to board members.

fire pastor board TBN
Schedule J of Trinity Broadcasting of Texas reveals that board members approve each other’s compensation. (Image: Screenshot of public filings)

If Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the world’s largest religious TV network,  began providing multimillion dollar compensation packages to each of its board members, the IRS would likely ask for board minutes during an audit to learn about the approval of excessive compensation.

TBN has operated like a family business for decades. Most of the non-profit organization’s officers have been family members. Currently, two of the network’s directors are Matthew and Laurie Crouch who are husband and wife.

If the Crouches were to be charged with criminal misconduct, who could fire  them? Like many religious broadcasters, TBN claims to be a church.

TBN
Headquartered in Costa Mesa, California, Trinity Broadcasting Network is the world’s largest religious television network (TBN)

Donor Responsibility

Donors to churches and ministries should check out the organizations they financially support. When an organization fails to include independent board members or provide oversight to its leadership, donors should proceed with caution.

When a pastor is not removed from leadership after participating in a scandal, donors should ask why. If church leadership refuses to answer questions, a cover-up may be in progress.

Our witness to others about the virtue, force, and effectiveness of Christ is harmed when Christians excuse corrupt pastors.  An unholy church does not honor a holy God. By holding pastors and priests accountable, Christians protect the moral character and reputation of the Church.

Julie Roys contributed to the report. A version of this article was originally published by Fundación Trinidad.

Barry Bowen is a staff member of Fundación Trinidad, una organización pública sin fines de lucro con sede en Dallas, Texas, que ha estado rastreando el fraude religioso y ayudando a las víctimas durante más de 30 años. 

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19 pensamientos sobre “Opinion: Who Can Fire the Pastor?”

  1. It’s crazy that anyone would think it is a good idea to give that much power and autonomy to one person in any context, much less in a ministry.

    1. Even if they are not given any decisionmaking or voting capabilities, there are two ways members / parishioners / attendees can and do vote: they vote with their feet and vote with their dollars.

      1. Linda, most of the,time that are the only two things a church attendee can do. 😥

        “For we are not like so many others, hucksters who peddle the word of God for profit, but we are speaking in Christ before God as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God.” (2Cor 2:17, NETfree)

        Pilot To Black Panther To Pastor Calls For Financial Transparency In Churches

        https://yourtaxmatterspartner.com/pilot-to-black-panther-to-pastor-calls-for-financial-transparency-in-churches/

        ….
        Pastor Jones believes that exposing the large salaries and tax-free housing allowances might help people see through the prosperity preachers.

        “The government has established legislative safeguards in many areas of finances in an effort to protect the American people from fraud and deception. Now it is time to establish some legislative safeguards that will force the Laodicean prosperity preachers to pay their fair share of taxes and to stop them from misleading and exploiting the poor.

        “I find it strange and appalling that the salary of the president of the United States is made public; the salaries of the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives are made public; the salaries of every state governor are made public; but the salaries of pastors and church employees are kept confidential and top secret. [(!)]

        “Requiring churches and religious organizations to file an IRS form 990 would in no way impede the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion, but it would help to expose those greedy preachers who are using the constitution to conceal their improper accumulation of wealth at the expense of American citizens.”…

      2. Marcos Gunderson

        In heavily 9-Marks influenced churches, where member covenants and church discipline are emphasized, you can be disciplined for improperly leaving. They will not revoke your membership when you resign if they do not like the reason or you don’t immediately join a similar church. Then they tell all your friends and family still attending to shun you.

        That may sound extreme but there are quite a few churches where this is common. This just came up in a Wartburg Watch post last week.

    2. These mega churches about making money!!! Even Franklin Graham pays him self an outlandish salary even tho he’s already rich. The government really needs to define nonprofit!!!!!

  2. Marcos Gunderson

    When I was struggling church leadership issues, a friend provided this insight, “The problem with church polity is most of the time it doesn’t matter. Until it really matters.”

    With all due respect to Papa Chuck, the most trustworthy leadership demands transparency and oversight.

  3. my fellow Christians can be very annoying at times. I attended a church that was obviously run like a fiefdom and too many YES men protecting the King. Err I mean the pastor. You know how to solve that problem? do what I did. FIND ANOTHER CHURCH. see. Quit feeding the beast and the beast will go away or get the message. To many Christians actually believe these are “men of God” and have power over us and how dare we peasants dare to revolt. HOW to fix the problem? by following scripture and God vs man. See wasn’t that simple and I didn’t even need to have to do a special tithe, so I can buy an airplane.

  4. Let’s go a little bit further….

    “Who can fire the pastor?” is a good and necessary question. Here are some more: 1) what are the pastor’s written job requirements and the standards to which he/she must meet those requirements?
    2) who regularly evaluates the pastor according to these requirements?
    3) who regularly encourages the pastor in his/her strengths and provides help to shore up weaknesses?
    4) who promotes, disciplines, or fires the pastor?

    My hypothesis is that the vast majority of people in independent (e.g. nondenominational churches) churches answer these questions in this way:
    1) we have none
    2) nobody or the pastor’s handpicked elder team
    3) nobody
    4) nobody or the pastor’s handpicked elder team

    This is not healthy for anyone involved.

  5. Colin McKay Miller

    There’s also the other side of the coin: Where board members, former pastors still in the church, etc. can fire a pastor without process.

    It’s tough to realize that there’s always a power grab in church, and the best we can do is put structures in place to help keep people accountable. Even then, those aren’t 100%, and the power grab occurs by people who think they’re doing what God wants.

  6. The Moses Model is an attempt to impose a structure on a new covenant church that is extracted from a story God wrote in another time. Moses looked forward to Christ; Christ has come and He changed everything. We don’t need Moses in our day; we have Christ.

    “But as for you, do not be called Rabbi; for only One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for only One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for only One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest of you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23).

    1. Very true, Helen! 🙂

      Who in their right mind would merely embrace a person’s picture (or shadow…MoMo) when that person (Jesus the Christ) is alive and present in their midst?

      I personally don’t dig the question of “firing” “the” “pastor”, especially if church ain’t a corporation structure, but rather a simple gathering of members of the True Fam.

      Makes no sense Ma or Pa could’ve been hired and fired, or even big bro or sis.

      Of course I read they did fire poor John Huss in 1415 after he said the Pope doesn’t stand in between man and God. Fired him up real good. 🙂

    2. Calvary Chapels do not know the first thing about Moses. He lorded his authority over no one. He was selected because he was the most humble man God could find. This is revisionist history on the part of Chuck. Just another excuse to disobey a direct command by Jesus Christ. They have “conveniently” forgotten about humility.

  7. It’s not only pastors that can be abusive, church boards can be very evil and abusive towards pastors who have NOT failed in integrity or morality. Pastors can be fired without cause and their lives are devastated.
    It sure would be nice to have coverage from that angle as well. To my knowledge there hasn’t been any coverage of this subject.

  8. Warwick Thorpe

    In case people have missed it, God who said “nothing hidden that will not be exposed” is the agent at work bringing all of this disgrace that slanders him in the hearts of the victims, kicking and screaming into the light. These are old wineskins usually so befuddled by years of apostasy in the leadership that I sincerely believe replace is required not repair ( as the Potter was doing in front of Jeremiah) … God put a door on these places. If they imagine they have you trapped by clever documents that seal themselves in… fire them from your life by using that door and leaving taking as many who love the Lord with you and start again. Otherwise you will be guilty of perpetuating what is wicked to the harm of his flock. Warwick Thorpe ( A Pastor in New Zealand)

  9. Matthew Poronto

    For the association of related churches I’ve been through their training numerous times being part of a resource organization for churches. My understanding is that they have the pastor the elders and the overseer‘s and no one entity can fire anyone in the other ones it Has to be two of the three that have to agree. So if a church wants to get rid of the pastor it’s through the elders and the overseers together working and they have the power to release a pastor. And if they have an elder they want to get rid of it Has to be the pastor and the overseer‘s. I hope that makes sense.

    But this does come down to the integrity of the pastor and the way that they pick elders and the overseers. If they are all Yesmen then there is no accountability. I have seen it done really well. And I have seen it done horribly where the pastor picks people that will support him no matter what and he has become a tyrant and a bully. So I guess it does on some level come down to individual integrity

    1. Marcos Gunderson

      So in the ARC model the pastor has veto power over the removal of any elder or overseer?

      What exactly is difference between elders and overseers in this arrangement? Who selects them?

  10. I think it is important to shine a light on this issue as this article does. I suspect that many if not most of those attending these churches have no idea of these governance issues. Once the congregation is educated about these problems then it is up to them to either stay at that church or walk away. I realize that some situations are more obvious than others. How anyone could possible support someone like a Kenneth Copeland really blows my mind.

  11. As others have noted, everyone can fire their pastor by showing up on Sunday as an empty pew or chair. In that way, all church government really boils down to congregational polity, even if official authority is carried by a panel of elders or even bishops. The key is to have the official authority match the de facto authority, and make sure that the congregants have a voice. A horrendous picture of this is the state funded churches of Europe, which are beautiful physically, but dead as a doornail spiritually because the congregants have little to do with running the place.

    Really, to attempt to isolate pastors from accountability this way is to assign them apostolic or prophetic authority that they simply don’t have, and it thus tends to end up enabling wannabe dictators with all the disasters inherent when a dictator runs any institution. Even board members of churches should run away from this in terror because of the problems it tends to cause.

  12. Steven Simony-Gindele

    The Bible is the only authority that Christians have for knowing how to govern themselves in a local church. Most of the organizations in the article are not “churches” according to the Bible. They are man made religious organizations claiming to be churches and falsely using the Bible to support their false teachings. The local church is a New Testament revelation. Using Old Testament models “Moses Model” is false teaching and heretical. Moral purity for pastors, elders and deacons is mandated in 1 Timothy 3:2-7..

    Obeying God and His revealed Word in the Bible is not optional. God does not compromise. Those who are abusing people under a religious guise in any way are warned by the Lord Jesus Christ: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! (Matthew 18:6-7). No palaces, no jet planes, no massage parlors in hell.

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