Tips on Terminating Staff in a Church Setting
It doesn’t matter if you have a staff of one or, like we have at Lakeside, a staff of 25 full and part-time employees; there may come a time when you have to terminate someone. I’ve worked in the marketplace for 17 years and I have been in ministry for 17 years and I have had to do this probably a dozen or more times. I’ve never enjoyed it and would avoid it if I could, but when you are a senior leader in any organization, this painful task sometimes falls on your desk.
In ministry, when I have had to terminate a staff person, I had a single goal in mind— do whatever it takes to minimize the negative consequences. I would negotiate long and more-than-fair severances. I would let them work for a few weeks before they had to leave. I would let the “terminee” have a say in almost everything. The announcement to the church community would be as upbeat and positive as it could be, using words like “mutual” and “agreed upon.” We would have a farewell lunch for the staff person. In an attempt to minimize the negative consequences I’ve followed the same process over and over. But here is what I discovered: sometimes the consequences were minimized, but most often they were not. Even when I was trying to be as “fair” as I possibly could. Time and time again, after going overboard in severance and saying goodbye, I still got the blame and the consequences were not all that positive.
After learning a few things along the way, I compiled this list.
Dave’s Top Ten list for staff termination in a church setting:
1. Hire well. If you get this one right the rest of what I am about to share won’t matter.
2. Deal with performance issues promptly and professionally. Don’t let them linger. Don’t avoid them hoping they will go away. They won’t.
3. Be truthful about why this termination needs to happen but do it with grace. If it is a performance or personality issue, communicate it to the entire church community. If you don’t tell the whole truth then people will make it up.
4. Determine a severance ahead of time and refuse to significantly negotiate.
5. Have the person leave as soon as possible. The longer they linger the more opportunity for negative talk to happen – especially with other staff.
6. Balance the “family/body” aspects of the church with the “business/organizational” aspects and don’t lean too far to one extreme.
7. Set up a personnel team so the burden and blame do not belong to you alone as the senior leader. You will get enough of it already.
8. Always follow the legal requirements on termination and in some cases get legal advice about how to handle it. If a person leaves poorly they will be getting their own legal advice.
9. If it was the right thing to do, others on staff or in the church knew it long before you did and have been waiting for you to take leadership on this for a while. The longer you wait, the more they might question your credibility.
10. Be prepared for negative consequences from “loyal fans” of the person that is leaving. No matter how you handle it, this will always be the reality.
Do I do this well yet? No, but I am learning as I go, and am simply sharing the lessons with you that I have painfully learned over the last 17 years. I hope they help. If you have a difficult situation right now, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will be glad to share my experience and maybe save you many of the mistakes I have already made.
Dave Ralph is the Lead Pastor at Lakeside Church in Guelph, ON and also a VMC Board member. Before entering full-time ministry, Dave was a funeral director for 10 years and VP for a financial institution. He and his wife Susan have been ministering at Lakeside since 1999.