Thoughts on Firing People in Ministry—And Some Objections to Doing So

Thoughts on Firing People in Ministry – And Some Objections to Doing So

This is a difficult post—about a difficult issue. It is one we don’t necessarily like to talk about in the church, 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. Let me say it again. Ministry isn’t business—it’s ministry.

Some of the people who think I don’t understand this need to read it one more time. Ministry isn’t business—it’s ministry.

At the same time, we should never hide in the label of ministry or use it as an excuse to waste Kingdom dollars. We need good practices of financial and people accountability. Just as the business world has to have healthy employment practices in place simply to stay in business—we need them in ministry. What we do is too important not to consider every dollar.

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

I struggle being the bad guy, for example, about our utility bills. Some people are terrible about wasting electricity—especially not turning out lights. But, when your utility bill is larger than any one ministry budget you have to consider how you spend it.

Another example is in the area of staffing—people 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—or they aren’t even doing their job anymore. Everyone may know 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 wasn’t easy 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 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. Though the person is hugely popular with the right crowd on Sunday, he has a damaging personality on the team during the week. He continually works against the pastor’s leadership—undermining him to other staff and lay leadership. The pastor has counseled with the person, has agreement from elders 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; and with more than one pastor. In the meantime, Kingdom dollars are admittedly being wasted. (I have had this same conversation numerous times with other pastors.)

Many times, in my experience, churches haven’t made the decision because of fear of how others will respond and they use “ministry” simply as an excuse. Again, many times the business world would have already made the obvious decision. After having this discussion countless times with church leaders, I often feel 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. This, too, is a growing issue, but not one I’m addressing here.)

Here are some of the objections I’ve encountered and a few counter thoughts to consider:

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

We don’t want to hurt their family – Of course not, again. 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 also hurting other 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 – And it’s understandable you would be. 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 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 which needs to occur and the benefits of making the right (and difficult) decision. Also, we send a dangerous message it’s acceptable to do whatever this person isn’t doing or is doing which 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—even from an attorney if needed. 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.

OK, 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.

In my next post I will share some thoughts on how to do this gracefully.

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Ron Edmondson
Ron Edmondson is a pastor and church leader passionate about planting churches, helping established churches thrive, and assisting pastors and those in ministry think through leadership, strategy and life. Ron has over 20 years business experience, mostly as a self-employed business owner, and he's been helping churches grow vocationally for over 10 years.