Difficult decisions: Firing a staff person

By Bob Bickford

One of the joys in serving as a pastor is working with great people. One of the most difficult aspects of leading ministry is working with challenging people. That problem is made more difficult still when you must determine when it is time to let a staff member go.

If you are serving as a replanter or revitalizer, you’ll likely find yourself working with staff who were at the church long before you arrived. Some staff are a blessing. Their faithful service and history with the congregation are to be honored and appreciated. Staff like this often are allies in helping to lead the church forward.

In some cases, however, existing staff members can present great challenges. Some staff members benefit from vision, encouragement and coaching. They are responsive and can be developed into great team members. But if a staff member lacks character, acts as the protector and preserver of the past, or if they operate as a political insider, consolidating power for themselves, you have a problem.

When we replanted our church, I encountered the latter – and I learned five important lessons along the way.

1. Consider their story

Our background and our experiences – past and present – influence how we respond and react to people, circumstances and opportunities. Every staff member, from the exceptional to the problematic, has a story and that story is worth learning. All people – whether hurt and wounded or healthy and stable – respond out of their history. You may remind them of someone they loved or of someone they feared. The change you are suggesting may seem either amazing or threatening. You need to learn their story to find out why they are responding as they are.

2. Coach, develop and disciple

As leaders, we want everyone on the team to function and perform at the highest levels of competency and effectiveness. Peak performance and excellence only come through coaching, encouragement and development. Each of these takes time. Invest in the staff you have, instead of scanning the horizon for the staff you want. Find out if your current staff can be developed. Spend time discipling them in Christ, praying with them, challenging them and helping them grow.

3. Gather your committee

Sometimes your encouragement and investments are met with resistance or rejection. At other times perhaps a staff person has reached their full potential and more encouragement is needed. Yet occasions do arise when character issues may require a transition. In situations like this, it  is imperative that you work with a personnel committee or similar group in your congregation. Best practices involve such a group in evaluating staff regularly and often, not simply when there is a problem. As a sounding board for you and representatives to the congregation, these groups can join you in making helpful recommendations and difficult decisions. It is wise not to “hire” or “fire” alone.

4. Communicate graciously

When a transition is necessary, it is important to communicate clearly, graciously and confidentially. Some of the most difficult transitions require confidentiality, and we are bound to follow applicable employment laws. Some will be satisfied; others will not. Erring on the side of caution and graciousness is best.

5. Grieve the loss

The impact of a difficult staff transition cannot be overlooked. The initial sense of relief from releasing a difficult staff member often is overshadowed by the grief that accompanies making a tough decision. The pain of seeing people hurt is part of a leader’s burden. Take time to recover through prayer, reflection and time with God.

In replanting and revitalizing a church, you’ll have to make difficult calls on staff members. Do not be afraid; rather, be wise, gracious and prepared.

Published April 8, 2022

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Bob Bickford

Bob Bickford is a Replant Pastor in suburban St. Louis, serves as the Associate Director of Replant for the North American Mission Board and is the co-author of Am I a Replanter,  Pathways to Partnership and the Associational Replanting Guide. Follow Bob on twitter @bobick