Thoughts on Firing People in Ministry

Unemployment

This is a difficult post. About a difficult issue. One we don’t necessarily like to talk about. But sometimes we must.

I came out of a business background, so some things that are done in ministry are different for me. And, frankly, many should be. Ministry isn’t business…it’s ministry. At the same time, we should never use “ministry” as an excuse to waste Kingdom dollars. We need good practices of financial accountability. Just as the business world has to have in place simply to stay in business…we need them in ministry so that we stay in ministry. What we do is too important not to consider every dollar.

And, also frankly speaking, that hasn’t always been my experience in ministry.

One prime example is in the area of staffing…people who are paid by the church. I’ve seen and encountered numerous times where staff people were allowed to continue drawing salaries from a church when their effectiveness is in serious question. Everyone knows something needs to be done, but no one is willing to make the hard decision.

One of the hardest decisions any leader ever makes is to release someone from their employment. It should never be taken lightly. It always hurts. It is never easy. It wasn’t in business and it isn’t in ministry. But, sometimes it’s the right thing to do. And, it seems in ministry we are often much slower…if ever…to get there.

I was talking with a pastor recently who knows he needs to make a hard decision regarding a member of his staff, but he simply hasn’t been able to garner the support or gumption to do it. This person isn’t productive (and isn’t trying to be), has a damaging personality on the team, and continues to work against the pastor’s leadership. The pastor has counseled with the person, has agreement from elders that something needs to be done, but no one has been willing to make the hard decision. And, this has been the case for years…not months…years. In the meantime, Kingdom dollars are admittedly being wasted. (I have had that same conversation numerous times with other pastors.)

Many times, in my experience, churches haven’t made the decision because of fear and they use ministry simply as an excuse. After having this discussion countless times with church leaders, I felt the need to address it. (Please know, I’m talking strictly about poor performance, not about those who lose their jobs because of tightening budgets. That’s a growing issue, but not one I’m addressing here.)

Here are some of the objections I’ve encountered:

We love the person – Of course. We love everyone. It’s what we are called to do. Is that a good reason to empower bad behavior or to waste Kingdom dollars?

We don’t want to hurt their family – Of course not. And we should be gracious and generous in the exit strategy, and be willing to walk with the person through the recovery process as much as is reasonable and welcomed by the released person. But are we not hurting families who sacrifice and give to the church by misusing their resources on an ineffective staff member?

We are afraid we haven’t extended enough grace – I understand. We are to extend grace, but hasn’t there been a lot of grace given to allow the person to stay this long? When does truth come into play?

We are afraid of the ripple effects – That’s understandable. You should always consider how decisions will impact others. Yet the reality is you probably have ripple effects now anyway. You are injuring other ministries and jeopardizing future progress by delaying what you know you need to do. It will only get more difficult with time. At some point you may have to cut your losses.

Leaders have to make hard decisions. We should first do everything within our power to redeem the person’s job. (We did that in business too. It’s much more efficient to retain an existing employee than to hire a new one.) But, protecting the vision for all may involve tough love for others. Many times when we delay decisions like this we delay the healing that needs to occur and the benefits of making the right (and difficult) decision. Also, we send a dangerous message that it’s acceptable to do whatever this person isn’t doing or is doing that merits being let go.

Notice I didn’t say this was easy. But genuine leadership never is easy. Don’t use ministry as an excuse. Pray about the matter diligently. Do everything in your power to redeem the person. Work through due process. Get wise advice from others before you make the decision. But, when the answer is clear what you need to do…do it.

Let me close with a word to those who have lost or may some day lose your job because of poor performance. I am not insensitive to your plight. In fact, I’ve helped numerous people pick up the pieces and begin again. I’ve hired people who were fired from a job and some of them made the best team members.

Sometimes being let go allows God an opportunity to do something new in your life…even something better. If you made mistakes, own them and learn from them. There is grace to begin again. Sometimes it was a matter of fit more than anything else, but whatever the reason, grow from it and let God restore the broken pieces. He specializes in restoration.

Okay, I’ve opened a can of worms. Please know I’m not trying to add insult to injury. These are difficult issues and should be prayerfully considered. They certainly, however, shouldn’t be ignored.

Would a post on some thoughts on how to do this gracefully help?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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26 thoughts on “Thoughts on Firing People in Ministry

  1. That includes church boards who don't fire pastors. A former pastor at a church I once attended, in response to the question "Why should we keep you here?" could only respond, "I need to support my family." I used to teach career education to high school and that's the first answer I told them NEVER to give in response to the question "Why do you want this job?"

  2. 'Leaders have to make hard decisions'. That's so true. I am not a pastor but the principles apply in every situation of leadership. I've recently needed to make a very tough decision. I believe it is the right thing to do but most people around me are not in agreement. There are gossips and all that. But I've learnt that people are generally fickle. When the tough, unpopular decision starts to yield fruits, the same people who almost 'beheaded' you will sing your praise.
    Consider Paul in Acts 28:4-6. People called him a murderer only to be called a god some hours later.

  3. Yes, a 'how-to' would be great. I would also add that while you are mainly addressing paid staff and the misuse of church funds, the key principle in this post fully applies to volunteers too! Yes, we can and should fire volunteers if they are leaving a negative imprint on the ministry. Just because someone is volunteering their time does not make them indispensable. Great post!

  4. I come from a different angle, as a friend of several beloved members of church staffs who were relieved of their duties. This happened not because of lack of performance but because they didn't fit the 'new vision' in the 'progress' of the church. These were not voted on dismissals or even discussed openly, which I frankly think is only right. Yes, I agree that sometimes better and new positions open new horizons, however, the questions that are left with the congregations leave scars that can only be soothed by the grace and peace of the Holy Spirit.

    • I understand that. The fact is though that it’s messy and requires grace and healing either way. When things are known rumors still develop. Even when the church votes sides are taken based on relationships, misinformation and personal agendas. There is no easy way in these matters. They are always difficult. We can have intentions of doing the right and best thing in either system and it will still cause friction. As you know, even church splits over issues like this.  And, most times, in my experience, whether the church votes or not the real truth is only known by a few people. Many times that’s grace extended to the person being fired and especially their family by not airing all details in a public setting. I can’t tell you the times I’ve watched a pastor take the heat for making a hard decision simply because he chose not to share all he knows to protect innocent people.  But, again, either way these are never easy issues. Thank you. 

      • Thanks Ron! Very timely via WorshipIdeass today. Have to go with your response to phyllis here. Have been part of the "love covers" end and not sharing details to protect the one who is let go. No way possible for congregational voting to have a good ending. "Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don't try to figure out everything on your own." Proverbs 3, The Message

  5. One if the things that I have seen in ministry is the employing of family. I find that this really complicates things. When a family member isn’t motivated or performing, the leader still has the duty to deal with the issue. But they usually don’t. So the family members stay on staff, drawing a salary and benefits, and often making costly mistakes. Meanwhile, the church struggles, and there’s never enough money to get things done, or employ qualified non-family members who can get things done. It’s frustrating and sad. It makes me want to instead give me tithes and offering to a reputable large ministry that is run well and accomplishing what they have set out to accomplish. Too often, pastors use their churches as a charity job for lazy family members who can’t make it on their own.

  6. Very import post Ron. I have had to participate in a few Ministry firings including my own :) It is tough to do, but we need to be able to do it with confidence. Often moving someone on is the best thing for all parties involved.