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From Belonging to Becoming: What if we put belonging first like Jesus did?

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Staff Terminations - Ending the Employment Without Ruining the Relationship

Wed, 14 Apr 2010 - 4:09 PM CST


When churches terminate staff, the resulting implications can be both spiritual and legal . As Christians, we have an obligation to support and encourage our brothers and sisters. We should not leave them in despair simply because their employment did not work out as hoped. Even when an employee’s conduct is unacceptable, our task is restoration, not demolition. In order to achieve these spiritual goals, the starting point is the termination process. Although termination decisions are often challenged, the termination process itself seldom causes legal liability. Instead, litigation often results if the termination process is handled poorly and does not defuse the situation. The termination process most often affects the individual’s decision to sue, not the basis for suit.

Terminations are uncomfortable—they should be. Nevertheless, churches should not wait for problem employees to leave on their own, nor subtly encourage resignation. People are resources—like the talent a man was given (see Matthew 25:18). If a resource is not being used, it is being wasted. Human resources need to be developed and used; otherwise, they must be released to be useful elsewhere.

As strange as it sounds, the termination process begins before the hiring process starts. One of the principle reasons for termination is the employee’s failure to meet expectations. However, for expectations to be met, they must be identified and then communicated. Too often, churches hire someone without a clear understanding of their role as employers. There will always be surprises, but they will be less disruptive when the expectations are clear at the outset.

Communicating expectations does not stop at the point of hiring. Expectations sometimes change because of new circumstances or because the employee has become more competent. Just as it is frustrating for the pastor to find things not done as expected, it is frustrating for staff members to be criticized for not doing something they did not realize should have been done.

Letting employees know how they are performing is important. All too often, employment relationships break down because the employees’ inadequate performance does not improve. Although communicating performance deficiencies is no guarantee, improvement is unlikely without it. As always, Jesus is our example. He was just as apt to chastise wrongs as He was to praise accomplishments.

Communicating performance issues ensures that the subordinate understands the concern and provides the chance to learn from it. The idea is not simply to complain about the employee’s behavior; the idea is to explain how to do better.

The key to communication is making sure the recipient understands the message. Too often, disciplinary conversations end prematurely. The pastor believes that the message was given, but the subordinate does not understand the message or does not understand the seriousness of the issue. The net result is worse than if nothing is said at all. The senior pastor will believe wrongly that future poor performance is a sign of disobedience or disrespect.

The message must be understood. If it is a serious issue, the best way to guarantee understanding is to document the oral conversation. This does not need to be a formal written warning. It may be a simple note confirming expectations, a list of resources to help improve, or a periodic performance evaluation. The key is the effect. People are affected more by the written word than by the spoken word. Employees must understand that documenting performance issues is not automatically a prelude to termination—it is one of the best methods for correcting performance and thereby eliminating the need for termination. Written documentation helps focus both parties’ attention on the same goal—correction.

Documentation is also helpful in the termination process. Losing a job is never fun, but it does not have to be devastating. It can force a person to grow personally or spiritually, or it may open up new opportunities. Each of these are hindered if the individual harbors resentment.

Having documentation makes certain that the basis for the decision to terminate is clear and understood. For example, consider a termination meeting where part of the decisional basis is an undocumented warning months before. It is not uncommon for the subordinate to disagree, either because the individual did not remember the incident, remembered it differently, or did not understand that the pastor’s "casual" comment was a warning. Documentation resolves this problem. It is hard to disagree about being late if a list of specific dates is provided. Memories alone are seldom good enough to argue against specifics. The goal is not for the individual to agree that the conduct merited discharge, only that the conduct underlying the decision actually occurred.

In planning the termination, consider these factors:

  1. Make sure that the decisional basis is proper in your jurisdiction and that any specific procedural requirements (i.e., final wages, unpaid vacation, continuing health insurance, etc.) are met.

  2. Conduct the termination meeting away from other people but not at a place that encourages free discussion.

  3. Communicate the decision to terminate only if you are the person responsible for the decision.

  4. Have a witness who is supportive of the decision, respected by the person being terminated, and who will remain silent during the meeting.

  5. Communicate the decision without any suggestion of disagreement or disapproval.

  6. To minimize embarrassment and disruption, plan the meeting for a time when few others are present.

  7. Outline the meeting in advance and retain the notes to make sure each point is covered.

  8. Limit conversation to include the decision, the reason for the decision (including details and documentation), an explanation of the actual termination and separation process, and what will be said to others.

  9. Explain the benefits that will be provided. The primary concern for someone who loses a job is getting another job. A willingness to help is often more important and less costly than typical termination benefits. The more inventive and personalized the approach, the better.

Working for a church is more than just a job—it is a calling. Nevertheless, it is still employment with all the practical ramifications of employment. One of those ramifications is that jobs end. As a religious employer, the goal is to end the job, but only the job. To keep the individual moving forward spiritually, employers must be sure their conduct does not cause terminated employees to keep looking backward. Employers must help employees see their termination as a new beginning to their life and not as an epilogue.

Jeffrey S. Fowler, J.D., is a labor and employment attorney with a Chicago law firm. He and his family attend Bethel Assembly of God, Elmhurst, Illinois.