Clergy and Lay Transitions
Firing an Employee the Right Way
The Church is a labor-intensive enterprise. At the parish level, in addition to priests, we commonly hire administrative assistants, organists and choir directors, musicians, sextons, youth ministers, communications officers, and a variety of other professional, administrative and technical staff, both on a full and part-time basis. Most of the time, these individuals are great employees who perform their jobs with competence, passion and dedication to the church. Without them, we would be unable to live into our mission and ministry as local faith communities, let alone run the day-to-day operations of our congregations.
There are times, however, when a parish employee is unwilling or unable to do the basic functions of the job on an ongoing basis. And in this context I’m not talking about serious misconduct involving finances, violence or abuse. Those are clear violations that warrant immediate and swift action and often involve the police and other civil authorities. What I’m talking about here is manifested by incomplete or sloppy work, missed deadlines, attendance problems, bad attitude, and/or general poor work performance. Eventually, despite efforts to improve the situation, we need to let the person go.
It’s never easy
Terminating an employee is one of the most difficult things we do in the church, and it is often done poorly. For one thing, the work of the church is to nurture and support people, and employee termination seems inconsistent with this basic premise. Another complicating factor is that under the polity of the Episcopal Church, the rector or priest-in-charge is usually responsible for hiring and firing decisions. And let’s face it, most priests avoid conflict whenever they can and view firing an employee as contrary to their vocation and calling. The reality is, however, that personnel matters are at the heart of who we are and what we do as a church, and like buildings, property, and money, they are an important part of how we live into our stewardship.
Prior to becoming President of the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF), I served as a labor and employment attorney for over twenty years, advising and representing employers in personnel matters including employee terminations. My job was to ensure that when my clients needed to fire somebody, they did so in a fair, equitable, and legal way. Over the years as a practicing lawyer, and even in my current role, I have come to realize that the way an organization terminates an employee reflects its underlying purpose, mission, vision, and even its core values. This also applies to the church.
A common church scenario
Here is a common scenario for a congregation confronted with a problem employee who is not performing and may need to be terminated:
- The rector never evaluates the employee, doesn’t talk with him about his shortcomings, and fails to put anything in writing.
- Because the faith community is ‘just too small’, there is no employee handbook, manual, or any other formal procedures.
- The rector doesn’t involve the wardens or other key lay leaders in personnel matters.
- The rector doesn’t consult the diocese about the situation. Federal, state, and local laws around discrimination, wage and hour, and other employment regulations are disregarded in the belief that they don’t apply to “us.”
- In the end, the rector calls the employee into his office, tells him he’s fired, and instructs him not to tell anybody. If anyone asks about the situation, nothing is said as it’s a personnel matter.
While there may be a bit of hyperbole in this, it’s not far from reality. The situation described above could not only expose the church to legal liability in certain circumstances, it could also be a public relations nightmare. More importantly, botched terminations, especially in smaller congregations, usually have a negative impact on the entire community. Members feel betrayed, lay leaders feel ignored, the terminated employee feels dishonored, and the rector feels isolated. In short, the relationships among and between the entire parish community are breached, sometimes irreparably. I know of several situations where improperly executed terminations have led to irreconcilable conflict that resulted in the involuntary departure of the rector. Clearly, the stakes are high for everyone.
A better way
For the sake of the kingdom we can and must do this better. How can we let someone go with compassion and avoid creating unnecessary conflict?
Here are three things to consider.
- Congregations of all sizes and shapes should have processes and procedures in place that include regular evaluations, ongoing performance feedback loops, and mutual expectations and accountability between the rector and each employee.
- Human resource management ought to be a regular part of vestry training as well as orientation and continuing education for clergy. Congregations need the ability and capacity to make tough employment decisions in a thoughtful, strategic, legal, and pastoral way.
- When faced with the decision to terminate an employee, the rector should consult the wardens and other lay leaders—even the diocese, when needed—to reach a decision that all stakeholders understand and accept.
We live in a complex and changing world and church. With diminishing resources, changing demographics, and new models of local ministry, congregations will need a nimble, flexible, innovative, and probably smaller work force. That means developing and implementing sound practices around the recruitment, hiring, retention and, when necessary, termination of church employees.
Donald Romanik has been President of ECF since 2005. Formerly, he has served as an attorney in both government and private practice and has been active in civic, charitable, and religious organizations. At ECF, Donald has stabilized its infrastructure, led a comprehensive strategic planning process, and developed partnerships and collaborations throughout the Church. He is a proponent of lay leadership and the ministry of all the baptized. His book, Beyond the Baptismal Covenant: Transformational Lay Leadership for the Episcopal Church in the 21st Century, advocates for a new type of entrepreneurial priest and effective clergy+lay partnerships.
- Well done, Good and Faithful Servant by Lisa Meeder Turnbull, ECF Vital Practices Blog, November 24, 2011
- Caring for Clergy and Congregations and ECF webinar presented by Donald Romanik, February 12, 2015
- Wisdom Gathered, Lessons Learned by Loren Mead, Vestry Papers, January 2004