Terminating a staff member is difficult under the best of circumstances. When the congregation gets reactive in response to the termination, leadership becomes especially tricky.
Not all staff terminations provoke a strong reaction. If the staff member hasn’t been with you very long, congregants may not be attached enough to react. Sometimes a staff member’s ineffectiveness is so evident to everyone, people are relieved when the relationship comes to an end.
Most staff members, though, are loved by at least a few congregants, who may worry that the termination is unfair or blame the supervisor. Reactions may include complaints, triangulated communication (gossip), reduced giving or attendance, or outright attacks on the supervisor’s integrity.
What’s a supervisor to do? Five guiding principles can help you navigate the turbulence that follows the dismissal of a staff member. Honoring these principles won’t ensure a non-reactive congregation. However, they should help you minimize reactivity and restore equilibrium.
1. Involve an Appropriate Group of Lay Leaders
Seek the counsel of a small group of trusted advisors who can offer skills and wisdom, sound guidance, and an informed perspective. You’ll want people in this group who can remain non-anxious and help you to communicate a clear, consistent message about the firing. Your advisors must understand and honor confidentiality.
In many congregations, the personnel committee exists for this very purpose. In others, a few board leaders might be a better choice. Occasionally, it makes sense to include one or more persons who can bring an insider’s perspective. For example, a trusted choir leader might be brought into the conversation in anticipation of the termination of the choir director. This individual can help the supervisor to anticipate the choir’s reaction and negotiate it afterward.
2. Give a Head’s Up
If you have reason to believe that congregants will be reactive, communicate proactively with your middle judicatory official, as reactive congregants are likely to reach out to their bishop, district superintendent, presbyter, or executive minister.
Assume that your denominational executive wants to support you and your supervisory efforts. Give her information before she gets complaints from others, so she can stand with you while you manage the anxiety of others. If the executive hears from congregants about a situation she knows nothing about, she is more likely to side with the congregant than if she gets essential information from you directly.
3. Orchestrate Communication
Do not let the news of the termination unfold naturally in the life of the congregation. Instead, manage it proactively. Consider who needs to hear about the situation first, second and third. From whom, in each case, should the information come?
Work with your designated group of insiders to clarify your message. What information must we share? What won’t we say? What are the most likely responses, and how might we respond to them? Encourage your leaders to stick with the message and avoid going “off script.”
Some facts are confidential. Members of the congregation do not have a right to know what the employee did that led to the termination. But we can reassure them that all policies were followed to protect the congregation and the rights of its employees. We can say who was involved in the decision. And we can emphasize the values governing the congregation’s dealings with its staff: “We strive to honor fairness, accountability, justice and mercy with all of our employees.”
Never underestimate the power and speed of the grapevine. Don’t let your leaders be caught off-guard, hearing information from a nonlegitimate source first. One pastor fired the church administrator at 4:00 pm before a 6:00 board meeting. At 5:50, twelve angry board members marched into the meeting room. Each had already received phone complaints from congregants who had heard from the fired employee. Some of the angry board members were upset about the firing. All of them were unhappy that they were not told the firing was imminent or offered a communication plan. In their embarrassment at being blindsided, they turned on the pastor.
4. Consider the Impact of the Fired Employee’s Presence
In many industries, terminated employees are escorted from the workplace as quickly as possible, locks and passcodes are changed, and the person is warned not to return. Sometimes congregations can and should do likewise. But where the safety of staff, constituents or assets is not at issue, consider whether immediate removal is warranted. Congregations generally don’t respond well to stories of beloved staff members being forcibly ejected from the building!
If the terminated employee is willing and able to participate in a healthy departure, allow them to craft part of their own termination story. Consider what is important to them about the communication and the order in which people will be told. Consider letting them tell certain people themselves, before the information goes public. Consider whether a good-bye celebration is appropriate. Again, this is recommended only if the employee is a healthy player who can be counted on to exit well.
Termination should occur as quickly as possible after the decision has been made. An employee fired due to inappropriate behavior isn’t suddenly going to behave well. In fact, things are likely to get worse, not better. Even employees who’ve always behaved admirably are likely to sour in the relationship once the termination decision has been made. Negotiate your way to an exit sooner rather than later.
5. Let Others Defend You
If congregants begin to question, challenge or attack your leadership, don’t invest energy in defending yourself. Let your trusted group of leaders attend to those people and address any inappropriate behavior. Once you adopt a defensive posture it is difficult to stop being defensive.
Your job is to remain non-anxious, to execute the agreed communication strategy, and to continue leading the church in pursuit of its mission. Answer questions appropriately and truthfully. Be clear about the boundaries of confidentiality. Recognize that it’s okay if congregants don’t like you right now. Acknowledge their frustration and grief. Keep doing the right thing and taking the high road. Don’t take the reactivity of the congregation personally. It may be focused on you, but it generally is not about you.
We have all heard of pastors whose callings or appointments ended as the result of a staff termination. Some of us have lived through those excruciating chapters. You might do everything “by the book” as you fire an employee, and the church can still react badly. You can’t control how the employee chooses to exit, or how the congregation chooses to behave. You can only control your own strategy. Nothing makes a termination fun, but by keeping your reactiveness in check and honoring the five principles above, you can reduce harm to congregation, to the person being terminated, to the congregation, and to yourself and other leaders.