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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Is It Ever the Right Time to Fire Someone?

Many of us have had the experience of working with an employee who, no matter how understanding we are or what we try, continues to be a problem. Sometimes he never gets the work done or clearly isn’t the right fit. Sometimes she upsets others or continues to resist something new she’s been asked to do. Whatever the issue, there is a point, almost always on the other side of training and support, when it is appropriate to terminate someone.

I’ve already written about how to fire someone. But how do you know when it’s time to let someone go?It may be the right time to fire someone if:

The employee isn’t doing the job

In this case, the first obligation is yours as an employer. You have to have been clear about what the job is. It’s not fair, for example, to include “congregational visitation” in a long list of ministerial tasks at the time of a call and then expect your pastor to intuit that of course what you really meant was that she should visit each of the congregation’s 15 shut-ins once a week. If that’s what you meant, you have an obligation to have said it.
In addition, you have to give the person the training and time to learn a new skill or step up to a new responsibility, especially if you were aware at hiring that he didn’t have the skill, if you’ve discovered that his skill level isn’t as advanced as you need, or if you’ve added a new function or competency to a job description.
However, if the job is doable, if you’ve been clear about it, and if you’ve supported skill acquisition, and still the person is not complying, then it’s time to end the relationship. This is especially true if not doing the job is costing you not only dollars but also the achievement of your mission goals.

The employee is violating written policies

Some violations of written policy can be straightforward and should lead to immediate termination. For example, if you have a written policy of “no threats or acts of violence in the workplace,” and an employee hits or threatens to hit someone, she has clearly violated the policy and should be fired. But when policy language is less clear, many of us are tempted to allow unprofessional behavior, especially if the employee in question is “just like that” or is “going through a difficult time.” If, for example, you have a non-specific policy of “serving with respect and courtesy “ and an employee who is always rude to other members of the staff or yells at volunteers, and if you’ve spoken with the person repeatedly or tried progressive discipline without bringing about a change in her behavior, that person should probably be let go.

The employee is insubordinate

This is different from not fulfilling an essential function of the job description. In this case, an employee is refusing a direct order or is acting defiant even though what you have asked him to do is something that is aligned with the job description and is in keeping with the congregation’s personnel policies and values. For example, if you have asked a youth director to report weekly on the number of students participating in off-site youth programming and the youth director routinely “forgets” or simply refuses, this is insubordination and should not be tolerated. It is also insubordination if the employee yells at you in the process of refusing to do something. Whenever an employee repeatedly refuses a request over a period of months or always refuses to perform any new task asked of him, even after you have worked with him to achieve agreement about the task(s), you should consider termination.

The employee negatively affects the performance of others

Again, sometimes this is easy to determine. If an employee spends a substantial amount of her work time talking to another employee and is keeping that employee from meeting his deadlines, a negative effect is clear. However, negative effect is not always so clear. In general, if an employee is openly and consistently judgmental regarding the ideas of other employees to the extent that they are now afraid to try anything new, or if an employee is constantly critical and backbiting about the performance of a supervisor to the extent that others are encouraged to be insubordinate, or if an employee persistently undermines the work of the team with whom she is expected to collaborate, and if you have talked with her repeatedly in an effort to correct her behavior with no visible effect, she should probably be helped to find other employment.

The employee refuses to adapt or to consider changes to the programming for which he or she is responsible

There is no question that congregational life is changing and that programming needs are not the same as they were a decade ago. For example, many congregations are facing the need to dramatically rethink Sunday School because there are not enough children present on Sunday morning to reach critical mass or because not enough adults have the time to volunteer. Staff have an obligation to stay up-to-date with changing congregational realities and with emerging trends in their field. Those who are unable or unwilling to do so even after you have provided training, time, and support, may well be costing the congregation critical opportunities for growth and should probably be replaced. In these kinds of cases, outplacement services and generous severance should be seriously considered.

None of us wants to fire someone. But if, after many attempts at corrective action, there is no possibility of progress, it is appropriate, even in the church, to begin the process of termination.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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