Over the past year, I have had nearly a dozen friends who joined the honored list of those terminated by their church or ministry organization. These terminations were not the result of moral failure. These were all good, godly men and women. For some it was due to economics, but for most it was much more complicated. For all of them, the termination was devastating to them and their family, particularly in this economically difficult time. In church lingo, we say that men and women are “called” to a ministry; not hired. But when things go south, every one of them is fired. Like others terminated from the workforce, the “let go” lose more than just their income. They lose their church family, their colleagues, their self-esteem, their sense of worth, confidence, and sense of calling. For some, they lose their faith in the goodness of the church. In extreme cases, they lose their faith in God. They feel rejected, beat-up, and discouraged. It affects the spouse and their children, who bear the emotional scars for years. The loss of income can lead to the loss of their house, and financial ruin. For each of my friends, they felt called to that church or ministry and still believed that calling was on their life. They are now told they are unable to continue in that calling and they cry out, “Where is God in all of this?”
Staff members and their families are not the only ones affected. A termination has rippling effects though out that individual’s ministry and church. In many cases, the individual was terminated without any opportunity for closure with church friends and fellow staff members. These staff members were surprised when they received the news of the termination. Church members closest to the staff member are also shocked and grieve the loss. In one larger church, the dismissal was conducted by someone in Human Resources, rather than a pastoral staff member. In most cases, the churches behaved less “Christian” than secular businesses. A termination, particularly if it is wrongful, will impact the leadership of those who remain.
Because of the expense of hiring new personnel, secular businesses go to great lengths to find the best prospects, train them, and keep them. When employees do not work out in secular organizations, they have specific procedures for trying to rectify the problem, provide notice of what will occur if improvements are not observed; a process that is clearly articulated over a course of six months to a year. In other words, there should be no surprises.
Some individuals are asked to resign (rather than be fired) and they must sign non-disclosure statements or they will forfeit any severance. A stigma is attached to staff members who are terminated, making it longer for them to secure another ministry position in a church or ministry. That’s why I recommend that a staff member stay in a difficult situation until they are called to another church. Churches take months to “call” ministers. The autonomous nature of many evangelical churches makes it difficult to get a resume before a church and it is a laborious process. It is often not what you know, but who you know.
The purpose of the blog is not to question the decision by a pastor or personnel committee to terminate a church staff member. Sometimes a staff member is not a good fit, or they are not on the same page as to mission or strategy, or they are ineffective in their ministry. Paul and Barnabas parted ways at one point in their ministry. I understand that. My question is not about why, but how. An African proverb says, “It is not only what you do, but how you do it that matters.” I lament for my friends and their losses.
Should churches and non-profit organizations approach hiring and firing differently than secular businesses? How much severance is appropriate? What responsibility does the pastor and church have in shepherding those who are released from the flock? I’d love to hear your thoughts, stories, and faith journeys. Respond on this blog or email me at email@example.com. Your name will not be shared with anyone.