Can A Parishioner Be Fired?

Is there such a thing as an abusive parishioner?  Recently I got involved in a conversation about abusive patients and whether a doctor could, or should, fire them. About the same time a young colleague in his first solo pastorate brought up the question of when and how it’s time to tell a parishioner that he “is a jerk” and to knock it off because he is making worship and congregational life unpleasant for others. 

The church is working hard these days to learn how to break down barriers, be more extravagantly welcoming to all, and to reach out to those who have been marginalized by society in order to proclaim the good news of God in Christ and invite them into the fellowship of the body of Christ.  That puts a pretty heavy burden on pastors, and it calls into question the exact role of boundaries. In the days of Christian Europe, and to some extent in the more imaginary Christian America, persons who were known to be “notorious sinners” were excommunicated with the intention that they might be led to penitence and reconciliation.  Vestiges of that kind of congregational discipline continued well into the last century.  But today, with a few exceptions, that kind of boundary enforcement is not only unknown but even abhorrent to some.

So what are the proper boundaries?  Who should be the judge and enforcer?  Can a pastor “fire” a parishioner?  In my lifetime I’ve heard of it happening only twice, at least in any public way.  What is the right way to do it?  How about the chicken’s way out?  Before my retirement, and in the recent upheavals in the Episcopal and Catholic Churches, several of “my” parishioners started attending a local Catholic Church while several of theirs were showing up in our place on Sunday mornings.  We two pastors talked it over and toyed with the idea of a prisoner exchange except that we each got to choose the ones we didn’t want back. 

8 thoughts on “Can A Parishioner Be Fired?”

  1. A very interesting question. Mt. 18:12-20 seems to indicate some process of judgement in hope of reconciliation exists in the life of the Church. It begins with the lost sheep deal, which I think is often reduced to meaningless sentimentality and misapplied. Reconciliation is a two way street. The Church is required to be persistent in proclaiming the Gospel of reconciliation, but the offer, once extended has to be accepted…I think. I don\’t mean in a propositional way or like a transaction, but in spirit/Spirit.Bad behavior exists in the Church, because many, who act out in unproductive ways, would never dream of doing so anywhere else. They know there would be consequences. In the Church, we often dance around the sinful behavior in our midst, because the \”cultural gospel\” says, \”sweet Jesus says be nice.\” Wouldn\’t it be refreshing if a congregation acknowledged sin and sought reconciliation in genuine and meaningful ways? I guess it is the execution that would be so difficult. We interpret concern, so often, as an attack. When the light is turned on, we tend to smash the bulb. Jesus\’ words about the lost sheep and answer to Peter\’s question about a forgiveness requirement, I think, presuppose genuine grace and hope. That is certainly the place to start. But, I don\’t think Jesus means to let the destructive, well…destroy. The \”how\” is tough.As an aside:I know a priest long past that would just transfer you out of the parish. \”Mrs. Jones, I understand you and so-and-so are having a tiff, but shouldn\’t you speak with your priest about this…No, Mrs. Jones you are not a member of this parish. You were transferred to St. Swithun\’s. I suggest you contact Fr. Smith.\” 🙂

  2. ugh…i don\’t want to follow the philosophy of \”sweet Jesus says be nice\”, but this post left me feeling kind of bad for the \”prisoners who were being exchanged.\”when i started reading the post, my initial response is of course there are abusive parishioners. they are, after all, human. my line of thought continued along with sometimes the kindest thing to do for someone is point out that their fly is open, so-to-speak. it is then up to them to decide whether or not to zip up their pants. if they insist on leaving it open for all the world to see, they may have then crossed a boundary that needs further attention.i must say i do cringe at words like \”judge and enforce; firing; doing \”it\” the right way and prisoner exchange.\” realizing some of this may be tongue in cheek, it still feels icky to me. (not very scholarly, i know, but feelings cannot be justified by thinking them through.) and so i come back to where i started…ugh.

  3. Lucy,Some of it is tongue in cheek, maybe a bit of clergy black humor. Sorry about that. On the other hand, the question of boundaries is an important one and, I think, very touchy, if not itchy. Who knows where the boundary is or what to do if it\’s crossed? I\’m not sure I know, although I think I\’d know it if I saw it. This morning I was involved in another conversation about the need for \”extravagant hospitality.\” How does that fit in with the question of boundaries?CP

  4. CP,I think that is where it often breaks down. In the Church, we often wind up being judges, rather than reconcilers. I guess it is bound up in the motivation. There are certainly those that use the scriptures in a legalistic fashion. It would be ideal if we were seeking to create an context of grace. In your example of the using Mt 18 as a weapon, that would be the behavior that might need addressing more.Provocative post.BTW, I sent you an email last week. Did you receive it?Peace,Chris+

  5. I\’ve been in one of those church where people purported to use Matthew 18 to deal with situations that arose, but what actually happened was that pastor hid behind his titled leaders when it came to dishing out church discipline, the discipline was not warranted, and was actually an attempt to rid the church of people who were not deemed \’submissive\’ to the leadership, even suspected of harboring the Jezebel spirit.Curiously, the leaders used to dish out discipline actually had no delegated authority, because the church was in fact run by an elite inner circle who claimed to be in submission to authority but were actually motivated by selfish ambition … a most interesting situation to observe, horrible to experience.When the church finally came crashing down, many people were so damaged that some of them have never returned to church at all. What really happened in this church was that hurting people were spiritually abused.Of course, pastors and clergy can also be abused by the sheep, too.

  6. I believe that all of these kinds of situations can be handled prayerfully, in humility and love, with kindness. Sometimes they have to be confronted, sometimes they don\’t. We need wisdom to know how to respond, and God will give it to us, if we ask.

Leave a Reply