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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

Letting Staff Go with Integrity

In the next year it is likely that your congregation will have to fire someone. As we come out of the pandemic, every congregation will have to reevaluate its staffing structure. Do you have the right people with the right skills to lead your congregation through the next chapter? Some new hires may be needed, requiring painful terminations to free up precious payroll dollars. Acting with integrity as you fire people can make all the difference in helping your congregation cope with difficult transitions.

A Painful Termination at First Church

First Church recently made the decision to terminate Melanie, the director of children’s ministries. The congregation was experiencing some budgetary stress due to the pandemic, which invited a reevaluation of the staffing structure.

As part of this evaluation, the senior pastor and Personnel Committee decided to let Melanie go. She had been actively undermining the pastor’s leadership and feeding complaints about his leadership into the gossip grapevine in the church. Although many in the church love Melanie and she is brilliant at parts of her job, she is largely responsible for a toxic culture on the staff team and in Children’s Ministry. Firing her will address two problems at the same time—budget and team culture.

The senior pastor and Personnel Committee decided to craft a simple message to communicate the termination to Melanie and the church. Her position would be eliminated due to budget constraints. It seemed easier than addressing the more complicated set of issues surrounding her behavior.

Unfortunately, though, the untold part of Melanie’s story created trouble.

Melanie was offered a termination package with a clause that linked severance pay to a peaceful exit. She was prohibited from communicating with any member of the congregation or staff team. Immediately following the termination conversation, the Personnel Committee chairperson escorted Melanie to her office, stayed with her while she cleaned out her desk, escorted her out of the building and confiscated her key.

The Personnel Committee carefully considered these actions and deemed them appropriate because of Melanie’s past behavior patterns. Personnel Committee members did not want Melanie spreading vitriol among members of the congregation on her way out the door.

End of story? Not by a long shot. Word got out that a “gag order” had been placed on Melanie and that she had been unceremoniously locked out of the church. These actions did not seem consistent with a termination due to budgetary constraints. “Where was the farewell celebration? Why didn’t we get to say our goodbyes? Something doesn’t smell right!”

The congregation’s reaction began with a letter writing campaign to the pastor and governing board. An article in the local newspaper followed, wondering why a church would treat a beloved employee in such an uncaring manner. The entire mess culminated in five families with young children resigning from the church.

Integrity in Termination

Integrity is a state of being whole and undivided: Walk matches talk. Actions taken correspond with the message delivered. Actions and message resonate with the core values of the congregation. Employees are treated with respect and in a manner that appears fair and consistent with previous practices.

Was the Personnel Committee at First Church wrong in how they handled Melanie’s last day? Not necessarily. They believed they were protecting the wellbeing of the congregation from an employee with a history of bad behavior. However, their communication strategy did not reflect the actual reason for Melanie’s termination. Inadvertently, they created a climate of mistrust when the actions they took and the message they communicated were incongruent.

Five Kinds of Termination

Most employee terminations happen for one of five general reasons. Each of the five is described below along with employer actions typically associated with it:

  1. Serious Infractions. Often referred to as a dismissal for cause (e.g., theft, child abuse or endangerment, deliberate damage to church property, threatened or actual physical assault, falsification of payroll or other financial records, or other illegal or dangerous activity.) The employee is often dismissed immediately without severance pay and immediately escorted from the building. You should always seek legal assistance and the help of denominational staff when dealing with a serious infraction. Special help is needed in dealing with potential unidentified victims.
  2. Behaviors incompatible with the teachings or values of your church. This category includes things like substance abuse, pornography addiction, marital affairs, etc. A defined process of pastoral counseling may be offered prior to termination, allowing for the possibility of a commitment to change in behavior. The employee may be put on extended personal leave for a time before the actual termination takes place. Again, your middle judicatory leaders can provide helpful guidance.
  3. Inadequate job performance. When performance fails to measure up to documented standards, a performance improvement plan is designed and reviewed with the employee, providing measurable targets for improvement. If poor performance continues, a multi-step process of verbal and written warnings is followed, eventually leading to probation and dismissal. In these situations, severance is sometimes offered to long time employees and tied to a healthy departure on the part of the employee.
  4. Reductions in staff for financial reasons. This occurs when budget reductions make it impossible to support the current staffing structure. The employee is typically offered a severance package and a reasonable amount of time to wrap up loose ends. The employee is offered good references and a celebration is planned in the congregation to honor the employee’s contributions to the ministry of the church.
  5. Changing needs in the organization. Congregations’ staffing needs are always changing. An employee whose skills matched one season of ministry or one size congregation may not be gifted to serve in another season or in a larger congregation. When this happens, it is typically not the employee’s “fault,” but if the employee is unable or unwilling to learn the required skills, it is necessary for their employment to end. These terminations are handled much like reductions for financial reasons. Long-time employees are generally celebrated and given positive references. Some severance is typically provided.

Framing the Message

The message to the congregation should match the nature of the termination. When the termination is due to changing organizational needs or budgetary restrictions, the message is straightforward: “We can no longer afford this position.” “The needs of our congregation have changed, and we require different skill sets moving forward. We celebrate _____ and have taken steps to support him/her financially as they transition into a new chapter.”

When the termination is due to inappropriate behavior or poor performance, the message to the congregation requires nuance. Congregants expect and deserve honesty from their leaders, but not complete transparency. Many would love to know all the juicy details of what transpired, but that would be unfair to the employee and risk adverse consequences for the church. Most will be satisfied with the following messaging—so long as what is offered feels authentic and congruent with lived experience.

Melanie’s last day of employment with the church will be on ______. The details of an employment relationship are held in confidence between the employee, her supervisor, and the Personnel Committee. Legally, we cannot share those details with you. However, you may rest assured that your senior pastor and all members of the Personnel Committee (who are appointed by your governing board) have acted jointly on your behalf. They are in full agreement about decisions made.

You should know that we have an employment policy manual at this church (which you are welcome to review) and that every policy outlined within our handbook has been honored in the handling of this situation. In our employment decisions we seek to balance fairness to the employee with accountability to the mission and ministry of our congregation. We know that you will join us in wishing Melanie well in her next endeavor.

Terminations are hard. You cannot fire people and have all involved parties feel good about the outcome. However, you can mitigate reactivity in the congregation by being as forthright as possible about the reasons for the termination, within the confines of appropriate confidentiality. Integrity requires matching your actions and the messaging with the real circumstances.

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Susan Beaumont is a consultant, coach and spiritual director. Susan is a practical contemplative. She works at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual guidance. Specializing in the unique dynamics of large congregations, Susan’s work focuses on staff team dynamics, board development and leadership in times of transition. Rev. Beaumont is the author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going and Inside the Large Congregation and co-author of When Moses Meets Aaron.

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