You're Fired! Advice for Dismissing Church Staff, by Josh Whitehead

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josh-whitehead.jpgA serious conflict is recorded in the last part of Acts 15 as Paul and Barnabas were heading out to begin another segment of their missionary journeys. It was staff hiring time, and both Paul and Barnabas had different perspectives of who should be on the team. Remember the story? Barnabas wanted to take John Mark, the guy who was not a performer and ultimately left the ministry during an earlier journey. Because of John Mark's failure, Paul had no confidence that the same thing wouldn't happen this time around and sharply disagreed with Barnabas' choice.

In the end, each went his own way - Paul took Silas while Barnabas took John Mark. Throughout the rest of Paul's writings, we never see these two reunite in ministry again. Obviously the scar of that conflict was carried with each of them throughout their ministries (although Paul does compliment Barnabas in 1 Corinthians, and John Mark becomes a help to him).

When it comes to staffing, significant conflicts often arise when the team is being developed. Whether you started the church and chose all of the staff, or you inherited the church and staff, you will have staffing issues. Let's define the term "issues" - at some point, you will have to let someone go. There, I said it. At some point in your ministry, you are going to have to let someone go. ("Letting someone go" is the Christian way to say that you fired them.)

I write that statement with ease, but just a moment ago, my stomach began to hurt as I relived days and nights when I didn't sleep or eat. I was sick over the decision I knew had to be made. Firing someone should be the hardest decision that you will ever make. My wife and I love to watch "The Apprentice," the NBC reality television show featuring Donald Trump. Have you ever noticed the difficulty he has saying the two words, "You're fired"? They debate and argue, but ultimately, he says the words. Often during the show, you get to see Trump speaking to his son and daughter after the firing, and he always says something like, "I hate it, but I didn't see any way around it." These people are his friends. He likes them, but he has to let them go.

The same thing happens in ministry. I've had to let people go that I really liked. There are people I've let go who have families that I care for, people who love Jesus with all of their heart, and people who have a potential future in ministry - just not our ministry. Bottom line: There is no perfect situation to fire someone.

So, let's evaluate some issues surrounding firing someone.

The right staff is about good stewardship.

Most people believe that because we are the Church, we can never fire anyone. Yet, at the same time, those people will criticize the Church for wasting money purchasing new carpet or replacing old fixtures, never realizing that staff is typically the most significant cost that churches incur each year. Consider this: a staff member with a base pay of $50,000 likely costs the church around $65,000 per year with benefits, retirement, operating expenses, etc (and that's a conservative estimate). Over a 10-year period, the church has invested $650,000 in that staff person.

With staff costs generally making up 48 percent to 52 percent of a church's budget, staffing is a significant issue (or should I say that having the right staff is a significant issue). For a church desiring to be a good steward of God's resources, keeping the wrong staff is a terrible decision.

Here's the problem: Making a good stewardship decision with staff involves family, friendships and quite possibly, people leaving your church. Each of those things is very difficult, but they will all be replaced in the future with the right person, new friendships and new people in your church.

I have never met anyone who believed they should be fired.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who has been fired - whether secular or ministry-related? Ask them if they believe the right decision was made. I have never met anyone who believed that his or her dismissal was valid.

In walking through staff departures, it's exactly the same; I've never met anyone who believed they should be fired. Let me be very clear here - it doesn't matter what the Employee Handbook says or what the situation was - people in ministry just do not get fired (at least that's what people believe).

I used to believe this would change. Certainly someone will see this from my perspective, look me in the face and say, "You're right. I should be fired." If this ever happens, I may pass out! In all seriousness, people have different perspectives. Often, letting someone go is about my perspective. The person making the decision gets to have the perspective, no matter what the other person thinks.

It is not always spiritual (but sometimes it is).

There are obviously spiritual reasons that staff members have to be fired. We've dealt with moral issues and integrity issues. Thankfully, these issues are not the most prominent. Many times, churches change pastors, grow past the leadership ability of staff, or enter a new season of ministry for the church that requires a different team.

Although church members have grown accustomed to staff members being "called" to another church, most cannot accept that a staff person has been "fired" by the church. It's easy when staff members leave for another ministry position, but for some reason, it appears the ones we often want to leave are never "called" away. Even though it can be spiritual, it is not always that easy.

Differing preferences, ministry strategies or visions can be cause for someone to leave your ministry or be fired. Who should "win" in these situations? Here are two thoughts:

The pastor should get to choose the staff.

That's right (and no, I am not the pastor of our church). A pastor is hired to be the visionary of the church. His primary job is to teach and lead the church to accomplish God's purpose and plans - on some level, he is the "oracle" from God. Can others hear from God? Of course! But the pastor is responsible for the church, and if he's the person leading the church, shouldn't he be able to decide on the staff? (I'm not going to talk about how pastors often lose respect by not stepping up to lead and how that allows the church to question whether he hears from God or not.)

The staff should love the church enough to leave (quietly).

The church is bigger than a staff person. I am unaware (although I am sure that it has happened) of a church that has ceased to exist because a staff person left or was let go. Yet, I have seen staff members fight and cause splits in the churches they are asked to leave. Honestly, if you knew that your pastor did not want you to be on staff, why would you want to stay?

Many times staff people desire to stay because they struggle to believe that God will take care of them - that he will provide for their families and that eternity really is what matters. Our pride steps in and we believe that we have to prove something to save our character or change what people think about us. Isn't that God's job anyway?

Four times a year, I ask my pastor if I am still the guy for my job. I ask because I do not want to be the one holding back the entire ministry from accomplishing what God wants. One day, his answer may well be that it's time to start looking at what God is doing around me - and that I should consider going there! I pray regularly that if that day comes, I will leave respecting God, my pastor and my church.

End the relationship immediately.

We have tried over and over to "redeem" a situation by allowing someone time to find another ministry position, job, etc. For the sake of complete transparency and honesty, that just does not work. When someone is fired, the initial reaction is shock. Then they move through the stages of grief - ultimately ending up frustrated about the entire situation. Even worse, the spouse is normally angry as well. Now, you have two angry people impacting your ministry. That just makes a bad situation that much worse.

Give a generous severance.

We have given anywhere from one month to six months, depending on the position, as a severance. Again, the thing to remember here is that no matter what you do, it probably will not be viewed as enough. However, be generous. That is not a term that most churches understand. How do you know if it's generous? We know because when we tell the leadership, they often respond by saying, "Really? Is there any way that you would hire me and let me go?" We have agreed to pay for counseling in certain situations, as well. Seriously, be generous.

Consult a human resources attorney.

Even though you are a church, every state has laws about firing, severances, etc. If you are wise, you will pay someone to write the "legalese" for you, thereby avoiding any serious issues. It is costly, but it will be worth it for the knowledge you gain, even for future situations.

Find community for them.

Unfortunately when we fire someone, things have to become very businesslike to protect all of the parties involved. The person being fired does not want me to walk them through the situation spiritually, emotionally, etc. Often I will ask someone on our staff (or a very mature church member or board member) to reach out to that person and minister to them. We have also contacted other pastors in our area and asked that they reach out to a staff member and their family.

One of the most difficult things that I do in ministry is ending relationships with staff. I have talked to a lot of people about this and they agree - firing staff is a very difficult thing. Bottom line: It is rarely a clean, clear-cut issue. There are many different emotions for everyone involved. And to make it all worse, there are hundreds or thousands of people watching who attend your church and live in your community.

When you walk through these times, navigate with humility, generosity and the love of Christ. It's always difficult, and it always makes my stomach hurt. My reality check is that I am dealing with someone's life, and I should be careful.

Since 2005, Josh Whitehead ( has been the executive pastor at Faith Promise Church ( in Knoxville, Tenn. During this time, weekly attendance and the number of staff have almost doubled, and Whitehead has implemented comprehensive hiring, coaching, development and evaluation plans. His goal is to lead by implementing the vision and values of the church through the staff and ministries.


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