Release Staff The Right Way

You've made the decision. You must fire a staff member. As I wrote in the last edition of "The Pastor's Coach," which was dedicated to helping you make the decision, 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. The reason you need to let someone go is not our focus. My desire is to offer you a simple and practical process by which you can release a staff member in the best way possible. Keep in mind; no method exists by which no one is upset, angry or hurt. But you can do several things to help ensure that it's handled in a manner fitting to a loving and redemptive community of believers.

Let's start with a couple of things not to do. Don't set the "squeeze play" into motion. The squeeze play is when you attempt to make their job so miserable they'll quit. Instead of confronting the youth pastor with the truth in a loving way, you put him in charge of mowing the lawn, recruiting workers for the nursery cry-room, covering for the receptionist two days a week, keeping the church bus in good working order (which even God couldn't do), 24 hour on-call for hospital visitation and, of course, running the bulletin. (Far fetched? Not so. I've seen this many times.) If you've made the decision, then live the decision. It requires a face-to-face and heart-to-heart meeting in which you deal with the real issues.

Another "don't do" is setting the "hurdle jump" into play. This is related to the squeeze play, but where the squeeze play tends toward indirect and disguised motives, the hurdle jump is more up-front. The hurdle jump is where the leader sets up huge, unreasonable, and nearly impossible (if not impossible) goals to be accomplished. The leader then communicates that if the goals are accomplished the staff member can remain on staff. Let's take our same youth pastor, for example. The youth ministry is averaging 20 and you give three hurdles that if jumped in 90 days, he may remain on the team: (1.) Grow the group to 50 people; (2.) Take a short-term missions trip with 12 students to Egypt in search of the Lost Ark; (3.) Help the church raise an additional $20,000 for the new gymnasium through car washes. If the staff member can "jump the high hurdles," he can stay. This is a terrible practice. It is also dangerous. It is dangerous because there is a remote possibility that your staff member will make a super-human effort and accomplish the goals. If he or she does, you are now obligated to keep them on staff or your integrity is suspect.

There are a few assumptions I'm working with. First, you have given clear and written evaluations making the staff member aware that their performance is unsatisfactory. Second, I'm assuming you have invested effort in training the staff member. Third, I'm assuming that the possibility of being fired is not a surprise to your staff member. And fourth, you have assessed the situation as a "non-turnaround" scenario. There are "turnaround" and "non-turnaround" situations in releasing staff. The scenario with turnaround potential is one in which there is a problem, but there is good potential for it to be resolved. (The subject of yet another edition!) The non-turnaround circumstance is the one in which you have concluded that it is simply not going to work. With all of this in mind, let's walk through the process.

1. Gain the wise counsel and support of key leadership.

Be discreet, involve the smallest number of key leaders possible, but never make the decision completely alone. You may be dead right about your decision, but in the local church, if you fire someone at will, you may also be dead gone. This isn't politics - it's wisdom. In the same way that the corporate world must pay close attention to legal issues, we must pay attention to the "family factor." The local church, no matter how large, has an element of family to it. And to add intensity to it, it's the family of God! When you meet with your core leaders, seek God's plan through prayer.

2. Honor the person with compassion and dignity.

Before meeting with the person you must fire, determine that you will treat them with honor, compassion and dignity. They may be upset or angry. Don't battle the anger - minister to it. If they get ugly, end the meeting and resume again after a few hours or the next day.

Communicate without malice. So often, because firing someone is unpleasant, it is procrastinated. Procrastination makes it worse. The delay often causes a build-up of resentment on your part toward the staff member so that by the time you meet to tell them your decision, you nearly explode. Be firm and tough, but don't be mean.

Don't meet with the person alone, particularly if they are of the opposite sex. On the other hand, do not let an entire committee do it. It is overkill and emotionally overwhelming to face such a force of power embodied within some of their friends and colleagues. One or two people with you is plenty.

Be firmly resolved in your decision. This is not a time for negotiation. You made your decision; now you must live your decision. One of my favorite stories is of a loving senior pastor who took his staff member to lunch to tell him he could no longer remain on staff. By the end of the lunch, the staff member was not only still on staff, but the senior pastor had promised him a new cell phone.

3. Employ the 10 second rule.

When you actually begin the meeting, get to the point within 10 seconds. Brevity is much more kind and humane than dragging it out with long explanations and preambles of how much you love and appreciate them. There will be time for that later. Above all, don't say how much this pains you. It's not about you - it's about them. Minister to them. Courage is more loving than sugarcoating the truth to the extent that it's unrecognizable. There are many stories I could share with you that illustrate this point, but here is just one - when the person (being released) walked out the door he was still wondering if he was fired or if the senior pastor just wanted to use him to plant a new church.

Clearly state the reason for the termination. The staff member deserves to know the truth. If handled correctly, in time, this can serve as a point for growth.

4. Explain and offer the choice of the "High Road" or the "Low Road."

This part is delicate and tricky. So I'm offering you a very simple word picture that has worked for me and other pastors many times. You and I both know that pastors can leave on "good" terms and they can leave on "bad" terms. No one wins when they leave on bad terms, so we obviously want them to leave in the most redemptive manner possible.

It's best to be up-front with the two options we all know exist. Tell them they can choose the high road or the low road. The choice of the high road is one that offers a resignation, no pouting or causing trouble, and an agreement to put the good of the church as the highest agenda. The high road also promises from you, as the leader, a supportive send off, generous severance, honor and appreciation for the good they have accomplished, a farewell party (if appropriate) and a gift. The low road is the opposite. The low road is the scenario in which the pastor fights the termination, gains allies, causes trouble, and flat out makes it very difficult. In return, your support is low, severance modest, and candidly, everyone loses - but the staff member loses the most. Help them understand that.

5. End responsibilities quickly.

Rarely, if ever, have I seen a church where there was any benefit to allowing the staff pastor to remain after the decision was known. I recommend that a brief amount of time is taken to wrap things up, maybe a week or two tops, then they need to be out of the office. This is the purpose of a severance. The severance provides them the opportunity to take care of their family while focusing their full-time effort on locating a new ministry. The truth is, as soon as the decision has been made, they are done anyway. That's not a slam on the person being released; it's human nature. It's just too difficult on everyone involved to have the staff member still involved and physically present. This is not banishment, but an experience that supports the fact that when it's time to move on, it's time to move on.

6. Follow up.

Too often, because the situation was understandably difficult, no contact is made after it's "all over." This is a mistake. Contact the pastor in a couple weeks, and then again in a couple of months. The point is not to relieve guilt, nor to become best buddies. The goal is simply to communicate care and value for them as a person.

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