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:
- If left unattended, will this crisis damage the organizational viability of our church?
- Are the theological or personal issues raised really germane to the discussion? Or are they red herrings, distracting from the institutional issue?
- 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 from When to Take a Risk, copyright 1987 Christianity Today. Full access to this book is available through membership access at CT Library For more information on this topic, Dismissing Employees and Volunteers provides guidance on how to deal with performance issues with church staff and volunteers.
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