My most sleepless nights as a pastor were when I had to release a staff member. I would lay awake agonizing over the decision, even when I knew it was right. In cases of moral failures or character issues, the course of action is usually clear. Those situations are extremely painful, but not difficult. The more difficult decision are when there is no moral failure or lapse in integrity. What do you do when someone is consistently underperforming or has an attitude or demeanor that simply isn’t helpful? Here are a few guidelines to help you know when it’s time to move on from a staff person and how to best navigate the process.
How do you know?
Unfortunately, there’s no formula. It involves a lot of prayer, the counsel of wise and trusted church leaders, and looking at what (and who) is required to accomplish the vision and mission of the church. You’re dealing with the jobs of coworkers (and usually friends) on one side, and the purpose of your church on the other side. These issues are delicate and important!
Here is a good question to ask: If you were hiring for that position today, would you rehire the same person?
If the answer is a quick and emphatic “No!” then you have your answer. Now you just need to think through how to gracefully take steps toward a conversation.
Communicating it to the staff member
The number one rule: Err on the side of grace. Make the decisions you need to make, but move forward with respect and love. This will be a frustrating and emotional time for everyone involved, and you will have to manage the tension. How the staff member responds is not in your control. What is in your control is the dignity you afford them. Remember, they are a part of your church and a part of the body of Christ. They should be treated as such. I’d always rather have people in the church accusing me of being too nice to the departing staff member, rather than concerned that we were too harsh.
Communicating It to your church
Remember this: The scope of responsibility dictates the scope of communication. If the individual was responsible for a small number of people, you don’t need to say something to the whole church. If, however, they led the entire church in worship every week--you need to say something to the entire church. The key is communicating the right amount. Excessive communication can lead to drama that damages the unity of your church. Under-communication can lead to confusion. Every situation is different, but the goal is always the same: keep your congregation’s eyes on Jesus and the mission of your church.
How to figure out the practicals
At the outset of the discussion, I like to have a “High Road/Low Road” conversation with the staff person. I let them know that there are a couple ways we can look at this:
We can agree to take the High Road, which means that no one is going to say anything negative about one another or discuss any specifics about the departure to anyone outside of the situation. The church leadership will maintain the outgoing staff member’s credibility, write references for them, and extend as much grace as possible. In turn, the outgoing staff member agrees to take the high road and abstain from talking negatively about the church or its leadership. The church leadership can provide a severance package if everyone agrees to take the high road.
The Low Road is when the outgoing staff member or family members spread negative things about the church and the church leadership. If that happens, then the church leadership cannot continue with the severance. Obviously, the low road isn’t ideal, but having this frank conversation at the outset of the discussion protects your church and leadership.
It’s important to establish the High Road/Low Road scenario in a grace-filled way, but also include a staff release agreement that further defines it. I’ve found that because we’ve had this conversation, the outgoing staff member always chooses the high road. I’ve never had to actually stop paying a severance. A few times I did go back to the former employee and have to remind them about our agreement because of something they or their spouse said.
The only thing consistent every time you let a staff member go is this--it is messy! Emotions run high, so walk in grace, make decisions with the unity of your leadership team, and keep the mission and purpose of your church clearly in your view the whole time.