Needed Church Decisions, Unavoidable Risk: Part 1
Leaders sometimes need to make tough—even risky—decisions to keep the church unified and healthy.

Editor's Note: Today is the first of a three-part series looking at the ways difficult decisions must be made in churches.

Church institutional decisions may involve finances, facilities, or personnel, but their common denominator is that if ignored, the church will fragment, go bankrupt, suffer serious decline, or fail to realize its full potential.

Perhaps the toughest of these decisions is related to personnel, particularly when a staff member must be fired. There's risk in letting someone go.

Drexel Rankin, minister of Carmel (Indiana) Christian Church, remembers firing an organist:

He possessed remarkable talent, but he was undependable. Occasionally he would show up fifteen minutes late for Sunday morning worship; I would already have winged a prelude and played the first hymn when he would walk in. After he did that the third time, I told him, 'Don't ever do that again. If you do, don't bother coming!'

Then at the Easter sunrise service, he didn't show at all. No word from him. I tried calling him at home but got no answer. I found out a couple of days later that he had been at the hospital. He had evidently hurt a finger and gone to the emergency room, but he didn't bother to call anybody. He just skipped the service.

I was angry. I told the moderator of our church council I was firing the organist. The moderator liked the organist and didn't want him to be fired, so he took it to the church council, questioning my judgment in firing the organist. I was in the frying pan that night. But I believed in what I was doing. I told the council the whole story, how angry I was, and that I was sticking by my decision. It went down hard, but they finally agreed.

Afterwards, I realized I should have brought the decision to the council first, and should have dealt with the organist after my anger had cooled. I learned my lesson. It was good I did, because a couple of years later I faced the same situation with our choir director.

She also had talent galore. She was a fine person, and everyone loved her, but she was disorganized, undependable, and frequently late. I'd sit down with her and say, 'What's going on? Why are you showing up late to rehearsal? Can I help you work this out?'

But our discussions didn't seem to help. She began to talk about resigning. Morale began to suffer. After she missed three staff meetings in a row, I knew I had to act. I managed to get her to come to the office. She said she could stay only five minutes: 'We're not going to be able to talk until late next week. I just haven't got the time.'

I said, 'Diane, that's not acceptable.'

She said again, 'Well, I've been thinking about resigning anyway.'

At that point she had said it once too often, and I said, 'I think you ought to write it out and lay it on my desk Sunday.' That was a far healthier situation than my firing her. Positive resolutions can sometimes be arrived at if you show patience and use confrontation skills. Even better is learning to rely on the church council for guidance in sticky personnel matters.

Not every institutional crisis is a personnel problem. It may be a financial mutiny by members who withhold their tithe as a means of forcing their will on the rest of the body. It may be trying to reconcile your church's interests with those of the denomination. Sometimes it is the agonizing decision about whether to build a new building.

The first step in identifying an institutional problem is to make sure it is not theological. Then ask the following:

  1. If left unattended, will this crisis damage the organizational viability of our church?
  2. Are the theological or personal issues raised really germane to the discussion? Or are they red herrings, distracting from the institutional issue?
  3. Am I, as pastor or church leader, the cause of the conflict? If I were not here, would there still be a conflict? (This identifies whether the situation is interpersonal or personal rather than institutional).

Adapted fromWhen to Take a Risk, copyright 1987 Christianity Today. Full access to this book is available through membership access atCTLibrary.comFor more information on this topic,Dismissing Employees and Volunteersprovides guidance on how to deal with performance issues with church staff and volunteers.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."


Displaying 1–3 of 3 comments

George Kabanda

March 21, 2012  12:27am

Thank you so much, Of course as leaders, Pastors we should learn be good listeneers. Thank you, George

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March 20, 2012  4:16pm

I was the Administrator in a church whose Senior Pastor decided that the Youth Pastor had to go. Because he had been called by the church, the normal process would have been to ask the church to vote on his termination. But, to make a long story short, the Senior Pastor chose to call him into his office and in front of several hand picked witnesses force him to sign a letter of resignation (or supposedly face immediate termination). Concurrently, the Youth Pastor's wife was in the middle of treatment for a serious illness. Prior to this, I and others had advised the pastor to be sure he put the Youth Pastor on a performance plan and had counseling documentation and a record of failures to perform. Although he claimed to have notes, the Senior Pastor never produced them despite being asked for them for the personnel record. To be fair, others were advising him differently. Personally, I had very little direct knowledge of the Youth Pastor's performance. When church members heard about the resignation of the well liked Youth Pastor, they asked questions at the next business meeting and the Senior Pastor refused to answer even in a general way. One church member specifically asked if the resignation voluntary and could not get an answer. The end result was that I resigned, because I was not able to support the Senior Pastor's decision, the process he used, or the timing. Three of the four office personnel left. All but three deacons resigned. The church moderator resigned. And the entire school board (of an associated school in which the Youth Pastor's wife was a teacher) resigned. Many members went to other churches and some of those remaining stayed, but not happily. Quite a few of the members who left were mature, giving, and active in ministry. A year later, the church continues, but the fallout remains and the church and school continue to struggle. Those who have moved on to other churches have generally become active, valuable members of the other churches. My family has had this experience itself. THe Youth Pastor has found other ministry work locally and is moving forward.

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March 16, 2012  9:57am

Depending on your church tradition or culture, congregants will often not understand or agree with these decisions. Some believe that because it's a church that you're not exercising grace. Others will be attached to the person and allow their feelings to get in the way of what is needed. I've been in these situations and it's not pretty. Even if explained well, people have their favorites and can get downright ugly about it, even going so far as to suggest who should leave. Some will even hold grudges long after the person is gone and is thriving at their new position.

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