Abolish “released to do ministry”

I would like to call for the phrase “released to do ministry” to be abolished. Not just from our conversations, but somehow magically abolished from the universe.

I know of provosts, department chairs, professors, pastors, administrative aides and ministry directors who have heard this phrase used of them as they were being let go from their position. This phrase is often used not to “free them up to serve in their gifting” as we are meant to believe. It is a euphemism for “fired” or “contract will not be renewed,” and it is used in order to allow someone with more power to do what he or she wanted, and attempt to appear kind and polite while doing so.

This is not about people who were doing their jobs or ministries poorly. In fact, these have often been people with a long and positive track record! What they were doing was in line with the mission of the institution that they had served well. The real reasons why this happens often are not disclosed. Once in awhile, an insider might reveal that the person was just collateral damage to some other political move or that the supervisor’s ego couldn’t handle someone doing so well under their leadership.

Regardless of why it happens, the phrase puts the one being let go into a corner. It does not allows the person being “released” to prepare, to grow or to be righteously angry. (How awkward would it be to be let go and be upset about it, while everyone was told that you were “released to do ministry”? Everyone would wonder why you were upset at the opportunity to go do ministry. Yes?)

But, sometimes the phrase comes…out of the blue and it tosses you around like a strong wave on the ocean causing you to lose all propriosense. Released to do ministry? What the heck does that mean? What happens when the person is and has been doing ministry? The phrase is wrong and it needs to stop. If the ministry or organizations wants to make a change, fine. But don’t veil it in this phrase that protects the ones who get to remain securely in place and further damages the one being let go.

This phrase has been used for a long time, but is rearing its ugly head with increasing frequency. In the las six months, I’ve heard of no less than a dozen people who were told this or something similar.

Long ago I was in conversation with a church about coming as the youth pastor. I had volunteered there in the past, helped with a great deal of weekly ministry, events and trainings. I had moved to the community of this church having been told the plan was to hire me but that the history of the church was to hire from within. I simply needed to re-establish my residency, so to speak. Due to a prior commitment, I went to camp for two weeks that summer. Upon my return I read in the bulletin the announcement of the new youth pastor! I was stunned that they were announcing this upon my return…until I saw that the name announced was not mine. I was approached right after service and told that they would like for me to oversee the ministry, mentor and train the new youth pastor as he had little experience and no training and that I had been “released to do ministry” in a way that would impact more youth than had I been hired.

After I caught my breath, I did point out that they were asking me to do more than if they had actually hired me…only with no pay. I pointed out that I had turned down another wonderful position at their promise and had moved my life from another state to be with them. I was hurt, frustrated, angry and felt betrayed by the church and abandoned by God. When I mentioned this, the response I received still upsets me deeply. I was told “it wasn’t about what we did or did not do to you, your response to the situation is a reflection of your spirituality.” On one hand, OK. But really what this says is that we can do whatever we want to you, we can disrespect you, lie to you, mislead you and abuse you but we have no culpability. It’s all about how you respond.

I believe so much in the church and those who make it up that I believe we can do better. Somehow we have found this phrase and this course of action to be acceptable. It’s not. It’s deceptive. It benefits those in power and places the blame on those whose lives are damaged or destroyed. If change needs to happen, let there be a process that does not chip away at the faith of those who are serving. Let the conversations be honest, even if those conversations are hard. Own up to what is really happening. Let someone know if a budget didn’t make or if you overstepped your bounds and can’t deliver on a promise or whatever the real reason is.

The church is supposed to be better. Not just appear nicer. We are supposed to deal honestly and justly with one another, even when it is difficult to do so. The phrase “released to do ministry” is neither honest nor just.

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About Amy Jacober

Amy Jacober (PhD, Fuller Seminary) is a youth ministry veteran with ministry and teaching experience. She focuses on practical theology, urban ministry, theology & disability, and marginalized communities. She is a volunteer youth worker in her church and community, lead consultant with Youth Ministry Architects and serves on the Young Life Capernaum national board. In her free time she can be found playing with her three young children, husband, and oversized dog.