Hiring and Firing in the Church

The process of hiring and firing in a church context is not as simple as some may assume.  In fact I would argue that hiring and firing in a church is far more complex and carries great risk. First, the church faces many of the same legal risks as any other businesses, but adds the challenge of volunteer workers.  Second, the church is primarily a volunteer organization where those who work get no compensation.  Both leaders and volunteers often do not see this as an employer/employee relationship.  Third, the church faces the unique risk that a bad hire or a messy fire can have a significant impact on the congregation; potentially causing members or attenders of that church to leave or be disgruntled.

Let’s take a look at this one at a time.

  I.          Legal Concerns: Most churches are not aware of the potential legal quagmire they face both in hiring and firing an employee.  Most states recognize the “Employment at will” doctrine which allows an employer to both hire and fire at any time for any reason without notice.  Despite that protection it offers, church leaders must be cautious as it could easily fall apart in court.  Firing or terminating an employee is risky!  Here are couple things to keep in mind:
A.    Hiring:
1.     Have a handbook that clearly lays out the hiring and firing process. Be sure that employees know if you live in an “at will” state.
2.     Have clear Job Descriptions.
3.     Have a clear chain of command.
4.     Hire carefully.  Be very thorough in your search process.  Not only should there be a background check, but for key ministry positions, don’t just trust the references they give, dig around.  A helpful website is: http://protectmyministry.com/
5.     Never ignore your “gut” or intuition.  If you don’t feel right about it, don’t hire.
6.  Ask them what they are reacting against.  It could be political, theological, or a long list of things.  For example if it is politics, this could limit their ability for effective ministry for those who may differ in political convictions. 
7.   Remember character REALLY matters!   Warren Buffet is credited for saying that three things matter in hiring, Character, Intelligence and Passion/Energy.  The second two can be worked on. 
B.    Firing:
1.     Have regular evaluations where any concerns are clearly laid out.  Put everything in writing! Both the employer and the employee should sign it. Documentation is a must! 
2.     Communicate, communicate, and communicate!  I can’t tell you how many pastors don’t talk with their staff and let frustration build.  If there are concerns address it immediately!
3.     Never forget about the age, gender, and overtime laws.   
4.     Follow Denominational procedures especially in cases of discipline.
5.     When it becomes necessary to fire:
a.      Pray.
b.     Don’t act impulsively! Bring the elders into the process.  This will make sure it is not simply a personal thing. If has become personal, let others handle it and be willing to admit your sin!
c.      Be humble and gracious. 
d.     Follow procedures.
e.      Make and keep documentation.
f.      Keep email correspondence to a bare minimum. 
6.     Below the right is a chart laying out some important laws to remember. 

                    II.          Volunteers are employees:  Most pastors do not see the volunteer church workers as employees. Nevertheless, in most cases the courts do.  Therefore it is very important to handle the hiring and firing of volunteer judiciously.  Beyond what I have mentioned above, here are some addition things to keep in mind.
A.    Having volunteer ministry (job) descriptions.
B.    Have one year term limits to any volunteer job.  This not only keeps people from burnout, but is an easy way to let someone go.
C.    Don’t just let anyone who wants to help serve. 
D.    Do Background checks.
E.     Make sure the accountability structure is actually working and communication is taking place.

                    III.          Collateral damage:  A unique challenge that churches face is that both hiring and firing has an effect on the entire congregation.  If you hire the right person for the job, it can be a great benefit to the overall life of the church.  If you make a bad hire, it will effect more than just the ministry area that the person was hired for.  It can have an effect on the entire church.  The smaller the church, the greater the risk.
A.    When you hire, it is not only important to follow all the above procedures, but to make sure that person is “a fit” for the ministry position, but for the congregation. 
B.    If proper procedures are not taken and adequate communication not done, there can be tension in the congregation before the person even starts. 
C.    Remember that regardless of how poorly someone has done their job, or how scandalous their behavior may have been, they have relationships with people in the church that cannot be ignored.  This means that much of the process will be talked about, and there will be those who will not agree with the decision and possibly leave the church.
D.    If church discipline is the reason for dismissal, be sure to handle it by procedure and communicate clearly to the congregation.
E.     Remember that every hire and fire also effects a spouse and family if they have them.  Don’t ignore that!  

Please understand that this is just a brief overview of the challenges of hiring and firing in a church context.  I highly encourage you to take the time to research this further before you have to hire your first staff person.  My prayer is that God will bless you with many good hires, and very few “fires.”   I also encourage you to develop a pattern of praying for the staff in your church.  Pray for blessing and protection!  You will be amazed at what God does! 

Be proactive and build relationships with your staff.  Make yourself available so that if they are having problems or struggling with sin, they will come to you.  Pray that God will give you eyes to see, and bring to your attentions any concerns before they become a problem.

Lastly, learn from your mistakes!  Every hire will not be perfect, and every fire will not go well, but learn from each one so that you don’t repeat the cycle!  I am always saddened when I hear of pastors who habitually make bad hires and then suddenly fire a staff member.

[1] Michael Zigarelli, Ph.D. ,Regent Business Review 2005

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