When a friend heard of my husband’s abrupt job termination through no fault of his own, she immediately responded, “You don’t have to tell me, but have they done this before?” And then she proceeded to tell me about another Christian organization with a history of abrupt and painful terminations. The stories she shared were from another community and another denomination, yet they sounded sadly familiar.
The latest issue of the Canadian Mennonite relates more stories of painful job terminations in When Your Services Are No Longer Required by Henry Neufeld. The article suggests that these painful situations stem from “corporate personnel strategies” that have been inappropriately applied in Christian organizations. Yet as noted in the comments, many so-called secular corporations act more responsibly and respectfully in such personnel matters. What’s more, the “better way” suggested in the article itself comes from the Harvard Business Review which is squarely in the corporate sector.
Shortly before Henry’s article was published, the managing editor for the Canadian Mennonite contacted me for permission to print an edited version of one of my articles as a sidebar. I originally wrote How to Get Over a Painful Termination–or Can You? to share the most helpful advice and practices distilled in the aftermath of my husband’s job termination. As a sidebar in the Canadian Mennonite, it was renamed Advice for Those ‘No Longer Required’, and I was glad to contribute.
At the same time, sharp-eyed readers might notice as I did that two points in my original article were edited out of the Canadian Mennonite version, and both relate directly to advocating for justice and organizational change. I understand those edits in the context of the Canadian Mennonite given the space constraints for a sidebar and since the main article points toward a better way.
And yet I don’t want to leave the impression in anything I write, that the burden of a painful termination rests solely on the individual (former) employee to make the best of a bad situation. By God’s grace, those who have lost their jobs do need to find a way forward. But I believe that our leaders also bear responsibility–that is, after all, what leadership is–and when it comes to church organizations, we as a church bear a corporate responsibility. We are quick to own the good work of our organizations, to take credit by association, so we also share in the mis-steps and bad behaviour and need to take steps to correct these.
What then shall we do? This is what I’ve gleaned from my reading and from many who have shared their experiences with me.
Take time to do it right. In the Canadian Mennonite, Henry refers to an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) that says “letting an employee go should be the last step in a careful, fair and transparent process that starts long before the actual firing.” Ron Ashkenas, who is an internationally recognized consultant in organizational transformation, and who wrote the HBR article, explains this further in The Conference Board:
In other words, if the dismissal is for poor performance, then it should occur after a series of performance discussions, plans, and documented actions. If it’s due to reorganization or job elimination, it also should follow conversations, announcements, and a reasonable “fair warning.” The key is that, if possible, firing should not come as a surprise.
Be human. While you are terminating someone’s job, you’ll still have yours, so have some humility, be sensitive, exercise compassion (Society for Human Resource Management). This corporate advice is consistent with Jesus’ golden rule:
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. – Matthew 7:12
Speak and act with respect. If you are terminating someone’s employment without cause, express appreciation for their work, don’t pressure them into signing away any legal rights, give time to let the news sink in, advocate for generous severance, don’t call it a “retirement” or other misleading euphemism. If the termination is for cause, make sure there has been appropriate documentation and opportunity for improvement.
Strive to remain on good terms. Even if the employment relationship needs to change, remember that you are still brothers and sisters in the same church. So if a terminated employee asks to meet to reconcile your personal relationship, don’t ignore the request, don’t hide behind legal considerations when you already have a signed agreement or the statute of limitations on wrongful dismissal has already run out. If you’re enough of a leader to be part of the termination decision, then be enough of a leader to listen.
Make personal amends. Severance above what is required by law is one way that organizations can acknowledge the pain of a job termination. But for many terminated employees, the sense of betrayal is more personal–like the pastor terminated by the council chair who he thought was his friend, or the employee terminated without cause by her supervisor when both are members of the same small congregation. In these situations, some look for an apology; others want to talk over coffee; personally, I like getting flowers; but any kind of personal gesture can be a step toward reconciliation.
Follow through with appropriate policy and organizational changes. Consider what changes your organization needs so that personnel matters are handled with respect and consideration. Add a policy prohibiting job terminations during the Christmas season. Clarify expectations between your executive staff and board. Is your organization part of the Catch 22 described in Henry’s article where no one seems to be accountable? What will you do to ensure “a careful, fair, and transparent process” as described above?
Count the cost of doing it wrong. Everyone suffers from a poorly handled termination. Most obviously, the employee suffers the loss of meaningful work, the opportunity to contribute and use their gifts, the employment income and benefits, work colleagues and related relationships. As mentioned in an earlier article, some abruptly terminated employees say that they have had to change churches or denominations, or left ministry all together. Some have been close to suicide and struggle with depression and anxiety even years later. All of this impacts a spouse and any children whose lives are also disrupted.
At the same time, the organization and its leaders may suffer too:
- a loss of confidence in leadership;
- a loss of morale among those employees left on staff who worry they will be next;
- a loss in credibility and relationship with partner organizations as the staff they relate to are suddenly gone without warning;
- a loss of reputation in the wider community;
- a decrease in participation and/or giving as people shift their attention and donated dollars elsewhere.
As I say on my home page, I decided to start this website not because I’m an expert, but because I want to share what I’m learning and to keep learning from others. Not because I’ve always handled employment situations well–I know from experience that leadership is hard, and even well-meaning leaders make mistakes. But I hope we can do better for all of our sakes–as brothers and sisters in Christ, in keeping with God’s call to live with integrity and justice, loving God and loving one another.
So I welcome your response. Is there a better way to terminate a church employee? Do we need to hold one another accountable, and how can we do that? Is there anything in this article that you especially agree or disagree with? As always, given the sensitive nature of personnel matters, all comments will be moderated, and you’re also welcome to send me a confidential message using my contact form.
Next Up: My review of Doing Good Better: How to Be an Effective Board Member of a NonProfit Organization by Edgar Stoesz (Skyhorse Publishing, 2015). I haven’t actually received the book yet since it’s still in transit, but I think it may well relate to this topic of terminations and more broadly to serving as an effective board member of nonprofit organizations including church agencies and local congregations. If you’d like me to send my review to you when it’s ready, please sign up for my free email updates–I’ve recently revamped my subscription process to eliminate the two-step “confirm humanity” page, so if you’ve had trouble with that, I hope you’ll try again. Thanks for reading!