If you are a church leader for long enough, you will have to fire someone. That reality is outside your control. (Here are six questions to ask before firing church staff). What you can control is how you fire the person: is it done in a way that is honoring to them, to the church, and to God? Or is it a confusing, murky process that exponentially increases the damage? The key to firing well can be boiled down to one word: “clarity.” When leaders fail to be clear at every step of the firing process, they create room for suspicion, confusion, gossip, and lies - all spiritual cancers that destroy relationships and organizations from within.
Leaders who fire well are leaders that bring astonishing amounts of clarity to six areas of the firing process. This won’t make the process easy, but it will set up all parties involved to move as quickly as possible toward health and restoration.
1. The History
Unless a staff member has committed an obvious, unacceptable moral failing that requires immediate action (committing a crime, for instance), there should be at least 6 months of documentation leading up to the firing. If a staff member’s performance is unacceptable, you owe them clarity about their shortcomings, a path toward fixing them, and a timeline to accomplish this.
In these conversations, make sure the employee understands exactly what is being asked of them and document these conversations. Then, if the issue is still unresolved, the employee cannot claim they are surprised, you’ll know you gave them the chance to improve, and the church will be legally covered if the employee contests the firing.
2. The Decision
Some leaders are wired for conflict-avoidance, and that isn’t inherently a bad thing! Some of the best pastors in the world are so deeply built for grace and compassion that they struggle deeply with combative conversations. At their least effective, these leaders become very vague during tough conversations, often fearing hurting the staff member’s feelings or (if they are honest) being perceived as a harsh, overbearing leader. Statements like “it just isn’t working” or “this isn’t a good fit” or “we feel called to move on” are not only unhelpful, they’re dishonest. Behind every firing should be a concrete set of reasons for it. Step 1 should be the process that clarifies these for all involved, which makes the moment of firing very clear in its communication: “we asked you to do ‘x,’ here’s how ‘x’ hasn’t happened, and because of that we’ve sadly decided your time here as an employee needs to be done.”
During the firing, be painfully clear as to the “why.” Explain how they haven’t met their job expectations. Remind them of the previous conversations you’ve had. Be gracious and gentle, but direct and unwavering.
3. The Compensation
Hopefully, your church already has a set policy regarding severance packages. If not, create one immediately. No matter the circumstances, losing a job is a terrifying reality. The more generous your church can be in the aftermath, the better. This isn’t about what’s normal in the secular market, or what the person deserves, it’s about showing them an extravagant mercy through your severance package that communicates “no matter why you were fired, God’s grace and kindness are still with you, and this package is one way of experiencing that.”
When you fire a staff member, be ready to explain to them the specifics of what comes next for them. How long will they still be paid? How long will their health insurance be extended? Are they eligible for COBRA? There’s a good chance the staff member won’t remember these conversations, so have the information printed out for them to take home and look at later.
4. The Communication
Be ready to explain exactly how the firing will be communicated to the church, and - when possible - let the staff member speak into that process. Can you give the person the option of choosing whether they have been fired, or they are resigning? Can the staff member write a letter to be read to the church? Can they tell the church members they are close to themselves? Each of these questions is dependent on the circumstances behind the firing, the size of the church, how trustworthy the person being fired is, etc. In other words, there’s not a right or wrong answer to these questions, but they do need to be thought through.
This same principle applies to communication to the church body. On one hand there may be specific details the entire congregation doesn’t need to know as a way of protecting the fired staff member or others involved. On the other hand, many leaders use this as an excuse to protect the church’s reputation, or to avoid accountability for their decision-making process. All this will do is create rumors and suspicion. Sin thrives in confusion and fuzziness, but God’s grace and healing triumph when we bring everything to the light. Be as honest and specific as you can be when communicating the news to your church body.
5. The Relationship
One of the most overlooked areas of the firing process is what the relationship looks like between you, the leader, the person who has been fired, and the church as a whole. When a staff member is fired, they don’t just lose a job, they feel ostracized from their church family. In some cases it might be necessary for the staff member to no longer attend the church, and in many cases, they won’t want to. But if the situation allows it, let the fired staff member know your church can still be their church. If God’s grace is for everyone, and if the church is a place of healing no matter the failure, then it can be for a former staff person too.
No matter what, make sure the staff person knows that even though they’re fired, you are still personally for them. Make yourself available to them in the aftermath. Send them a personal gift from your own resources with a note that says “I know this is hard, but I want this to be a small way of saying I’m still here for you relationally.”
Is all of this ludicrously counterintuitive? YES! But in God’s kingdom, we’re free to treat each other outside the rules of what’s “normal.” God’s grace can, and should, triumph - even during a firing.
6. The Lessons Learned
Finally, great leaders use the past to bring clarity to the future. Was there anything as a leader you could have handled better? Was this person a bad fit for the job from the beginning? Develop a better job description/set of expectations that are clear during the hiring process. Did you let a messy situation go on too long? Journal reasons for why you did that, and a list of things you’ll do differently next time. Were other leaders involved in this decision? Sit down with them and ask “okay, what did we learn?” and listen to their feedback.
It’s easy to see firings entirely in the negative - and honestly, much of it is! - but there’s also an amazing opportunity for growth for you as a leader, for your staff team, and the church as a whole. Great leaders bring clarity to every stage of the firing process, and God never wastes a teaching opportunity. So before you move on to the next leadership task, ask what God might be teaching you through this moment.
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