The Decision That Keeps You Awake At Night

Tears were shed as we sat in his office... I just told him that we would have to make a change and he would no longer be on the staff team. This was a long and difficult process. He, let's call him Ed, was a good and spiritual man who had faithfully served God for many years. Ed had a family with kids in high school and bills to pay like the rest of us. I liked Ed and we had been together for several years on the pastoral staff team. Ed's wife was heavily involved in church ministries and his kids loved the youth ministry. The challenge was that the church had "outgrown" him and his ministry passion no longer lined up with the direction of the church. It sounds ugly to say that a church has outgrown someone. What about a loving and redemptive community? How can a "family" outgrow someone?! But when it comes to staff, they must be able to help the church advance the Kingdom in a measurable way or we are, as Fred Smith says, "embezzling God's money."

Firing an employee, even when done the right way, is one of the most difficult responsibilities of a leader in any organization. It is even more complicated within the context of a redemptive, caring community of believers that possesses family-like qualities - the local church. Nonetheless, if you have staff, this tough call is inevitable.

The purpose of this issue of "The Pastor's Coach" is not to describe how to fire someone the right way. That topic is for the next edition. This material is focused on helping you make the tough decision. I want to help you answer the haunting question, "Do I let him/her go or not?"

First, ask the right questions.

Few things are better than good questions. The following set of questions, if answered honestly and thoughtfully, will give you tremendous insight. It is important to write your answers.

* Will the church be hurt more by keeping than releasing the staff member?

* How difficult will it be to replace this person?

* If you could do it over today, would you hire this pastor again?

* Can the pastor do the job; will the pastor do the job?

* What is preventing you from releasing the pastor?

* Does the pastor "fit" on the team?

* Would you miss this staff member if he/she were gone?

* What does God say? (Pray and ask Him!)

Second, don't attempt to dodge the bullet.

Don't pass the decision off to a committee or allow the "political" temperature to influence your choice. Dodging the bullet may keep the boat from rocking temporarily, but eventually you must face the music. Long delays will place two issues on your plate instead of one. First, the original issue of the staff problem, and second, the issue of your leadership, namely, why you didn't release the staff member when you should have.

I know some of you have committees you must work with; that's fine. But be the lead influencer on the committee. Don't wash your hands of it all - stay intimately involved if you are the direct overseer of the team member in question.

Third, make sure you are crystal clear about why you want release the staff member.

Perhaps it's a moral or ethical issue or insubordination or unsatisfactory performance or significant philosophical differences or a total lack of teamwork and a terrible attitude. Any of these are categories within which dozens of possible scenarios exist. If your reason is clear, you'll have the confidence to make this difficult decision. If you aren't sure, you'll waver and those who oppose your decision will have you for lunch.

Fourth, be prepared that your decision will not be popular with everyone.

You may not win the "leader of the year" award for this decision, but if it needs to be made, make it anyway. If you are not prepared for resistance, two things will likely happen. Your decision will subconsciously be swayed when the heat is on, and you may even be talked out of your decision. Determine within yourself that it's not about you - it's for the good of the church. Do not allow popularity or people-pleasing tendencies to color your decision. Focus on what is right.

Fifth, seek wise counsel.

This may be your personnel committee, or a few close and trusted confidants. Either way, don't make the decision in a vacuum. Get the input of other spiritual and wise leaders in your church.

Sixth, make sure the timing is right.

The right decision at the wrong time equals disaster. As I have stated, long delays will cause you trouble, but a short delay may be necessary. Perhaps you are in the middle of a stewardship campaign, or the congregation has just experienced an emotional crisis such as the death of a child. Wait, just a little, until the climate is right.

Last, embrace the fact that there is no perfect or painless decision.

I have consulted with several pastors who tried desperately to find a way to make the decision foolproof and without heartache. There is no such decision. People will be hurt and upset. No one wants this, but it can't be avoided. Your responsibility is to be lovingly responsible for the progress of the church. And there comes a point in time when you have processed all of the information at hand, you have prayed and sought God, and you have received wise counsel. It's time to make the decision. Trust God, and try to get some sleep.

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter 'The Pastor's Coach' available at