Letting a Staff Person Go

by Dick Hardy

I groan when I think about needing to let somebody go. Don’t you? You think of the spouse and the kids. Then the sympathy pangs start. Maybe he isn’t as bad as my mind has made him out to be. After all, the guy I hire to replace him could be as bad or worse.

An initial assumption. I assume you did what is necessary to be a good leader. You have communicated expectations. You provided an adequate job description. You genuinely reached out to this employee. You do not run a grind-them-in-the-ground factory. You are generally sensitive relative to your employees and their families. You want to get along with your coworkers, and you want to get things done.

Think about this. Regardless of what went wrong or why, you now feel you need to release an employee, maybe a staff pastor or support staff member. It is never fun, no matter how bad the employee is and how terrible his offense.

Have all your bases covered. You should have had multiple conversations with this employee to make sure he clearly understood what you expected of him. Here is one place where a pastor often makes a misstep. He tells the employee what he did wrong. Then he tells the employee how he wanted it to be done correctly. After that he tells the employee what will be the consequences of that continued errant behavior. Finally he asks, “Do you understand what I just said to you?”

The employee responds, “Yes, I understand.”

Then the pastor says, “Good.”

The end. Wrong.

“Wrong” is an understatement. The end occurs when the pastor asks the employee to recite back what the pastor just told him including the consequences of the errant behavior. The pastor, doing the talking and explaining, is doing nothing to ensure the employee hears and properly understands. The employee must recite back the actions and the consequences. Then document.

Document everything. Write the results of each meeting including what you told the employee about his actions and the potential consequences of continuing that errant behavior. You are dealing with one of two types of employees.

1. One who hears what you say, repeats it back to you, and then does it. In this case you ultimately will not need the documentation and can leave it in his file.

2. One who hears what you say, repeats it back to you, and then does not do it. In this case you will need all of your documentation.

This is getting serious. It may be appropriate that — in your last meeting before the I hope-it-doesn’t-happen dismissal meeting — you bring another leader with you. This helps solidify the seriousness of the issue and provides verification of the actions you have taken to bring this employee back in line with the conduct you expect of him.

How many times do I have to warn an employee before I release him? That is a judgment call, but my experience has been to talk to him minimally three times before dismissal. In each case, you need to raise the ante on the seriousness of the infraction and the reality of the consequences. Do not change consequences as you go along. The consequences of errant behavior do not change simply because you gradually become more ticked off. Set the consequences and stick with them. Document.

Finally, when dismissal is the only answer, do the following:

  • Be sure you have consulted your legal counsel.
  • Call him to your office; do not go to his.
  • Have another leader with you.
  • Notify him why he is there within the first 30-60 seconds. This meeting is to talk about your need to make the change and transition him out of the organization. You are not meeting to negotiate the employee’s behavior and continued employment. It is over.
  • Do not be harsh. Be direct. Have your documentation ready, if needed.
  • Override your emotions and sympathy. The employee made the choice with repeated violations of what you asked of him.
  • This meeting can last 3 to 5 minutes. Doing the actual dismissal meeting quickly with a follow-up meeting to iron out transition details makes some sense.
  • If you have followed all the steps above, including documentation, then your decision is final. Any negotiation the employee wants to do at this point is for naught. He should have done this after meetings number one, two, or three. But he didn’t.

Exit Strategy/Severance. After the decision to dismiss a staff member is final, it is time to direct the transition. Some employees will be disgruntled at their dismissal. Others will not. Your job is to tell the difference.

If the dismissed employee is not inclined to do harm to you or the mission of the church, allow him to resign to save face. This course of action is most desirable. However, the terminated employee must understand that any negative speech or behavior during the 2-week transition period will result in immediate termination and loss of severance pay.

If the person is inclined to do harm, put together an exit strategy that looks something like this.

  • Communicate the need for a swift physical departure.
  • The dismissed employee must understand the importance of not talking negatively or behaving badly toward the pastor or church at any time during or after his departure.
  • The severance package (if one is to be included) should be accelerated with the smaller payments coming first and then accelerating. The largest check is at the end. The key is acceleration. A disgruntled employee is less likely to bad mouth the pastor or church after his departure if he knows he risks losing his severance pay.
  • If there is a breach of the agreement, immediately discontinue payments.
  • Health insurance coverage should continue for a set period of time after his departure.
  • Have him leave that day.
  • Be cautious to not create much drama by escorting him to the door or to his car. At the same time, be careful he leaves in an orderly manner.
  • Setting the amount of the severance package should depend upon length of service. Payouts can extend from 2 weeks to 5 months.

Remember, as senior pastor, your primary obligation is to the church, not to a friendship. Many times those we dismiss are our friends on the team. However, the overall church mission and your responsibility to protect that mission and move it forward requires their dismissal. Do not communicate private personnel issues to the church body. People will ask why the staff person was let go, but you must not deride a former employee who failed to do his job. You will take undeserved heat, but that is a price of leadership.

You can choose to ignore these suggestions. However, in doing so you will accept the time loss that results from you continuing to fret over what has become an issue with you and this employee.

These decisions are not always black and white. It hurts every time I dismiss an employee. But these decisions come with leadership, and the stakes are high when a pastor has to make the call to advance the Kingdom by releasing a person who failed to respond to corrective action.

Make the call, and the Kingdom and that person will be better for it.

(Note: This article is not intended nor purports to serve as legal advice or counsel. Consult your attorney when questions arise regarding termination.)