I’ve been asked to resign by friends whose lives I’d deeply influenced. I’ve asked friends to resign for the sake of a ministry, believing fit and competency were glaring issues. I’ve fired people I love because of moral failures then cried with them in their homes.
In Christian ministry, the weighty responsibility of dismissing an employee can be a challenging and delicate task. Dismissal may be necessitated by financial constraints, shifts in organizational needs, ethical or moral misconduct, or a persistent misalignment with the ministry’s mission and core values. These are often painful and complex situations that must be approached with grace, wisdom, and understanding.
Here are steps you should take when firing someone from a Christian ministry for matters apart from gross moral failure and disqualification.
1. Develop an improvement plan.
Much needs to happen before you decide to terminate an employee. It’s crucial to consider whether an improvement plan could help him grow and develop in his role. If you’ve hired a person to do a job, ask yourself if his failure is your fault. Have you given him the resources needed to succeed? Have you equipped him for the work? Have you mentored him like Paul with Timothy (2 Tim. 2:2)? Have you sharpened him as iron sharpens iron (Prov. 27:17)?
In Christian ministry, the weighty responsibility of dismissing an employee can be a challenging and delicate task.
Firing shouldn’t typically come out of the blue. Weaknesses and failures to meet expectations should be documented in annual reviews so the issues aren’t a surprise. If an employee is struggling to do the job you’ve hired her to do, write out an improvement plan and then sit down and talk with her about it. She may even offer you feedback so you can better serve her as her boss. Agree to an improvement plan with measurable goals.
2. Adhere to your organization’s policies and procedures.
To avoid being arbitrary, follow your organization’s policies and procedures for hiring and firing. If these don’t exist, talk to an employment lawyer and put them in place right away.
If you’ve concluded you may need to fire someone, consult with your elders, board, and supervisor and with an attorney to ensure you’re seeing the situation as clearly as possible. Have you been clear in your communication? Are you interacting with the employee in legal ways? Getting counsel will give you clarity. For example, counsel may stop you from evaluating someone for duties outside what’s written in his contract.
3. Communicate honestly and with compassion.
The next step is to schedule a private meeting with the individual. It’s important to have someone with you to observe. This protects you from accusation and provides accountability. Keep the meeting short. Talking too much as you fire someone can add to his pain. It’s better to simply say what you need to say and then to let your brother in Christ talk if he wants to. Be direct and firm without apology. Unless the issue is a disqualifying sin, offer the person an opportunity to resign instead of being fired.
Whether to ask someone to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) is debated within the evangelical world. It’s not simple, and Christian lawyers are divided on the issue. Don’t use an NDA to cover up your sin. But if you’re being unjustly fired, you may ask for an NDA to protect yourself from a ministry that’s attacking you. As the representative of a ministry organization, it can be appropriate to use an NDA to ensure the privacy of the people to whom you are ministering. An NDA can protect sensitive information about church staff and their families, notes from elder discussions about difficult pastoral situations, or pastoral notes from care and counseling sessions with church members.
4. Provide support.
Recognize the emotional and spiritual effect you’ll have on an individual and his or her family. You may be telling a fellow saint he isn’t gifted at a ministry he feels God has called him to. You’re taking away his source of income. You may be removing him from a community of faith he loves.
If possible, provide significant severance pay and paid counseling services. This helps soften the blow on a family. If you’re firing a pastor, it’ll be painful for his wife and children. Do what you can to ease the financial stress. Even if a pastor commits disqualifying sin, take care of his family if you can, and as much as possible, do so without strings attached.
5. Respect confidentiality and privacy.
Respecting the individual’s privacy is crucial during this difficult time. Share the details of the situation only with those who need to know and encourage the rest of the church or ministry staff to extend love and support without judgment. “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret” (Prov. 11:13, NIV).
Recognize the emotional and spiritual effect you’ll have on an individual and his or her family.
I know that keeping confidences may seem like permission to cover up an organization’s wrongdoing, but it’s a leader’s responsibility. While I won’t speak publicly or gossip about someone’s situation, if that person (or one of his friends) has a complaint about my actions, I won’t do anything to prevent or dissuade him from going to another authority to appeal the situation. Depending on the circumstances, he may want to bring a complaint to the church or ministry’s entire board, or he may need to appeal to denominational leadership to get an outside judgment. It’s right and fair that this person should have a hearing if he feels he’s been dealt with unjustly, and I won’t discourage him from doing so.
6. Humbly learn from the experience.
Yes, sometimes a person you’ve dismissed will confuse your accountability with abuse and attack you publicly. Other times, that person’s criticism may ring true (or be partly true) and reveal you need to mature in your leadership.
If someone you’ve let go wants to go online and criticize you publicly (or text accusations against you to your friends), don’t respond or defend yourself but instead choose to listen. Allow those who are in authority over you to read those accusations, to help you evaluate whether there are actions for which you need to repent, and hold you accountable. It may be the person is in the right about ways you’ve wronged him. If so, you must admit your wrong and seek to reconcile. On the other hand, it may be that you simply need to pray that the hurting person will one day understand.
7. As far as it depends on you, pursue peace.
Prior to the social media age, I was asked to resign. I’d heard people were petitioning leadership on my behalf and part of me wanted to jump in, but I declined to do so. I’m not sure I would’ve felt the same if Twitter or Facebook were available.
Years later, I ran into the brother who asked me to resign. I sat next to him, both of us singing our hearts out at church before I preached. We embraced, but neither of us apologized. We both thought we were in the right. But it didn’t matter. God had worked it for good. He placed a redeemed sinner in authority over me who made a decision that altered my life. This man was one for whom Christ died. If the gospel can break the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, certainly it can bind together the two of us.
Dismissing an employee from a Christian ministry is no easy task. You must safeguard the well-being of the ministry entrusted to you while caring for your sister in Christ. Do everything you can to ensure her success. Take responsibility if she fails. If you need to fire her, be direct. If she attacks, don’t retaliate. Show grace, and as far as it depends on you, be at peace.
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