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Too Toxic to Keep, Too Popular to Fire: What to Do About That Difficult Staff Member

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“Shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). What happens when a staff member isn’t living up to this verse?

I once asked a pastor friend, “Are you afraid of (a certain staff member who was causing him grief)?”  He said, “No, I’m not afraid of him.  But I fear  the damage he could do if I were to fire him.”

Therein lies the dilemma:  What to do about a team member too powerful to fire but too difficult to keep.

Read on.

I’ve been reading H. W. Brands’ The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War. Dr. Brands is a highly respected professor of history at the University of Texas. Back when Brands taught at Texas A&M, Stephen Ambrose brought him to New Orleans for the 1998 conference on the Spanish-American War. My son Neil and I took in the conference and have been big fans of Professor Brands ever since.

The Hardest Staff Member to Fire

In April 1951, Truman fired the most popular general in American history, becoming in one act the most reviled President in memory. During this period of his presidency, historians agree that Truman had become one of the most unpopular presidents in history.  Interestingly, however, history vindicates Truman in his decision to dismiss the egotistical and out of control general.  You will search long and hard to find a military historian who thinks that MacArthur should not have been fired.

Someone asked Dwight D. Eisenhower once, “Didn’t you serve under General MacArthur?” (Ike had been his right-hand man in the Philippines in the 1930s.)  He answered, “I studied dramatics under him for eight years.” He is quoted as saying, “MacArthur could never see another sun, or even a moon for that matter, as long as he was the sun.”

The U.S. Constitution posits the ultimate military authority of this country in the hands of the President as Commander-in-Chief.  Generals take orders from the President. General MacArthur made little secret, however, of his contempt for the system, his disdain for the politicians in Washington, and his conviction that he alone knew best how to contain the Communist menace in Asia and win the Korean War.  The record is well-documented that he ignored some of the presidential directives, was a law to himself in his conduct of the war, and deserved his dismissal.

The nation’s military leaders at the time agreed that anyone other than MacArthur would have been dismissed long before. The problem was MacArthur’s huge popularity.  The American people, never known to follow the subtleties of politics, the complexities of the constitution, and relationships of national leaders with one another, deified the man.

In April 1951, I was a child of 11 and well remember the furor that erupted from Truman’s sacking of MacArthur.

When Truman decided to dismiss MacArthur and replace him with General Matthew Ridgway, he had the complete support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and every other key leader in the know.  But he made it clear: the decision was his and his alone.  Charged with the duty by the Constitution, Truman made the decision and took the flack, which was considerable.

And that’s the point for pastors—or any kind of boss—who has to deal with an incorrigible underling too toxic to keep but too popular to dismiss:  Get your leadership on board. When the firestorm begins to rage, they will be asked what they knew and given a chance to speak up.  They should be courageous and prompt in defending the pastor’s decision.

Other suggestions…

Do nothing rash.  Take your time.

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Joe McKeever has been a preacher for nearly 60 years, a pastor for 42 years, and a cartoonist/writer for Christian publications all his adult life. He lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi.