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When Layoffs Loom
When Layoffs Loom
Letting church staff go safely, legally—and with grace.

The local church may be a community of faith, but it is also a local employer. Like all employers, churches hire people to fill staff positions. They also face the tough, and sometimes risky, decisions to lay off people.

More congregations than ever faced difficult decisions involving downsizing during the Great Recession. A fall-off in stewardship and severe declines in investment fund values because of the sharp drop in the stock market took tolls on many churches.

Because personnel costs often take up at least a third of a church's operating budget, and even half or more, the spotlight inevitably shines on staffing as a primary place to reduce costs. Surprisingly, our church budget priorities survey of 827 church leaders in March 2009 showed only 13 percent would consider layoffs, with salary freezes (27 percent), hiring freezes (19 percent), and pay cuts (14 percent) the three likelier options.

A variety of reasons may exist for this outlook. Layoffs may not be necessary in some instances. Or, in other instances, church leaders often put off crucial staffing decisions until finances get out of hand, says Frank Sommerville, a Texas-based attorney experienced in church labor issues. "The attitude regarding church staffing is that 'the Lord will provide,'" he says, "but (they) seek help way too late in the process, and make it a more expensive and deeper problem to dig out of. Church leaders need to learn the Rule of the Shovel: when in the hole, the first step is to put down the shovel."

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