the shape of leadership

What Every Pastor Should Know About Terminating Staff

Four essential components for managing staff terminations

Ken Loss on January 25, 2019

Firing a staff member is never easy, but sometimes it’s an unavoidable part of leading an organization into greater health.

In his book, Good to Great, business consultant Jim Collins uses the analogy of a bus: “If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.”

There are four components to the difficult process of letting a staff person go. Keep in mind that I’m not talking about an individual who has sinned sexually, embezzled church funds, or engaged in other inappropriate or illegal behavior that would necessitate immediate disciplinary action.

I’m referring to situations in which a staff member is just not working out. Even after ample training, mentoring and communication, it becomes increasingly, painfully apparent that this person is not a good fit for your team. Any number of potential issues could lead you to this conclusion. The question is: What do you do next?

First, consider whether there is a genuine conviction that a change needs to take place. A conviction is simply a fixed or firm belief. Before moving ahead, you should firmly believe that a change is necessary. However, if you are the only person on the team who feels this way, it may be best to wait.

Leadership expert John Kotter warns that a fragmented management team is ineffective, regardless of the strength of the individual members. It’s important to take into account what those around you are saying.

Be patient with the process, and allow the consensus to build — or let the Holy Spirit show you where you may be wrong on the issue. Spend time in prayer at every step, and make sure you’re hearing from God. After all, no good leader wants to see a team member fail. Part of your job is to equip your staff for success.

However, it’s possible that even after a time of prayer and reflection, you will feel convinced that a staff member should go. In such situations, it’s vital that you communicate; that’s the second component. Talk with your leadership team (e.g., church board, staff members, etc.) to help them understand the necessity for the proposed change.

Without communication, the process of change may leave people feeling ambushed.

In my 16 years as the lead pastor at our church, I have only had to do this twice. In both cases, I communicated with the board. I wanted to know whether what I was sensing resonated with them. I wanted to know their feelings on the issue. After communicating with them, I approached the staff member who needed to go.

I entered these exchanges with the conviction that their transition away from our team was what needed to happen for the ministry to proceed as God desired. As difficult as it was, I had to communicate.

If we fail to communicate, we will fail others. Our congregations pay the price. Our leadership teams pay the price. Ultimately, we pay the price in relational collateral. Without communication, the process of change may leave people feeling ambushed. We can help take the sting out of the proposed change by committing ourselves to high levels of clear communication.

Third, use the calendar. Putting objective time frames on staff terminations can help you avoid potentially awkward and embarrassing moments. A date on the calendar holds everyone, including the leadership team, accountable. It may also help with casting vision and projecting optimism about what is coming.

Finally, the previous steps are not possible without courage. When churches release staff members, or ask for resignations, it takes courage. Courage is about facing your fears and doing the right thing.

We all forge relationships with staff members over time. The deeper the relationship, the more difficult it is to tell someone of your conviction that he or she needs to go. I was talking with a business owner recently about this issue. He said it is easier for him to fire someone because his level of relationship with his employees is not the same as mine is within the context of a church staff.

In spite of such difficulties, we must operate with courage. We cannot let our personal relationships with staff members get in the way of what God wants to do in moving our congregations forward. Consider the matter from a stewardship perspective. Mark Rutland, director of the National Institute of Christian Leadership, notes that giving ministry funds to people who are not doing their jobs is a violation of fiduciary responsibility to members and donors.

While the process can take time, the above steps can help you successfully manage staff terminations in your church and provide the best chance of future success for everyone involved.

When you manage these changes well, the results are often refreshing, bringing a sense of security to our congregations, demonstrating competence within the leadership, and inspiring the church to embrace the change, believing that the best is yet to come.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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