Hire and Fire at Church

Learn to handle these core issues with confidence.

A pastor manages people—some volunteers and some employees. Even the small church usually finds room in its budget to hire a part-time secretary or janitor. These are staff the pastor must oversee. And it doesn’t take long to learn that staff members—even part-time—if ineffectively managed, can undercut a church’s ministry. Effectively managed, they can strengthen a church’s ministry immeasurably.

Effective management of staff begins with the hiring process. A church will not be tripped up as much if this first step is taken well. But even the wisest of churches ends up with ineffective employees who need supervision, redirection, and perhaps termination. Mastering church management means learning to hire and, yes, fire.

Questions to Ask Before Hiring

Before we get to specifics, a few preliminary questions must be answered.

When is it time to replace volunteers with employees? Some believe that the ideal church should manage itself with only volunteers. Ideal or not, most churches quickly see that lay leadership needs to be supplemented with hired staff. But how do you know when to supplement? We hire when I see one of three situations develop.

First, we hire if the volunteer becomes overworked in his or her job. Early in one of my churches, I discovered that the treasurer of the church, a man at ease with numbers and spreadsheets, had to spend 20 hours a week doing the church’s books. That was unfair to him and unfair to his family. So we brought on a part-time bookkeeper.

Second, we hire when we cannot find in our volunteer pool the skills we need for a job. When skills are inadequate, quality and excellence are sacrificed. That means that people will suffer in the long run. To be fair to our congregation we hire people with expertise if we cannot find an “expert” volunteer.

Third, we hire when our volunteer system breaks down. The church, like other volunteer organizations, constantly struggles with this one. We recently had three volunteers who had agreed to chaperone a young people’s trip call three days before the trip and say: “Sorry, we can’t go. Something’s come up.” You cannot run a church that way. When our church decides that we need consistent quality in a program, we hire. Because the hired staff person has covenanted with us to be productive, we can demand a greater level of accountability. We cannot do that with volunteers.

Do we hire within or outside the membership? Our first general principle is this: You don’t pay members of your own family. We expect members of the church to offer themselves freely to serve. And when our board decides, for the reasons stated above, that it’s time to hire, we hire outside the membership.

That principle cannot, of course, be applied across the board. Choir directors and associate ministers, for example, are paid and they are members of the church. But their jobs require them to be intensely involved in the life of the church. Jobs with limited congregational involvement (functional jobs: janitor, secretary) are jobs that should be given to people outside the congregation. If the talent were available, we would rightly expect members to contribute their time in those jobs. Of course, at times the line between these two categories gets fuzzy.

Our second principle: we never hire someone we can’t fire. That’s a crude way of saying that we want to be able to exercise free judgment about an employee’s work and perform our administrative responsibility to the congregation. This rule encourages us to look first outside the church when we need to hire.

Our third principle: Don’t hire within the congregation if it’s going to hamper effective ministry. This applies particularly to the position of church secretary. Church members, especially those coming to a pastor for counseling, are less inhibited about doing so if they don’t know the secretary socially. Naturally, this is a tension when you’re first starting a church and must use volunteers as secretaries.

Who should do the hiring? In our church polity, the formal hiring is done by the board of trustees or delegated to a person or group. But as important as this structure is, it is vital to allow the staff member who will supervise the new position to define the position and do the initial screening. He reports, in turn, to his supervisor, usually me. But since he will have the primary relationship with the person hired, it’s important he have the first say about who gets hired.

Whom do you hire first? My guiding principle is that an organization ought to invest in that part of the organization that will immediately affect the community it seeks to reach.

In our approach, we bring people together primarily through worship. Consequently, the first person we hired was a part-time organist and choir director. Worship is often the community’s introduction to our church. So as soon as we were able, we hired someone who could help us worship with excellence.

What benefits should we offer full-time, non-ordained staff? Since most ministers are offered a variety of benefits, and since many denominations require them, I will focus my thoughts on the part of the staff that may get overlooked.

We believe it is an absolute requisite these days to offer all full-time staff adequate health care. The church cannot expect devotion from its staff if it is not willing to care for them when they fall ill. The first benefit we offer, then, is health care for the staff members and their families. We consider it a moral obligation.

Second, we insist that our heads of households participate in a retirement program. We don’t want our people to reach retirement age and suddenly realize they haven’t laid anything away. If they don’t know anything about it, we’ll offer them counseling and set up a program for them. If the staff person pleads, “I need my money this year; don’t put it in a pension fund,” we politely refuse.

Those are the minimum benefits we think every full-time employee of the church should have. We will not support even missionaries unless the organization for which they work has that same commitment.

What to Look For When Hiring

When hiring, whether for a ministry or support position, we look for three things: Christian commitment, compatibility, and a combination of competence, dedication, and vision.

Christian commitment. Deep Christian commitment is a given, of course, with fulltime ministry staff. But how much Christian commitment should we expect of people in support positions—secretaries and janitors?

I think it’s highly important, for theological but also practical reasons. Christian commitment makes people better workers. They’re more likely to see their job as a vocation, a calling. Skilled people who are looking for work in the church are likely to have a significant level of Christian commitment to begin with. After all, they are willing to sacrifice financially in order to work in a place that seeks to serve and glorify Christ.

Compatibility. Another characteristic I look for during the hiring process is compatibility, both doctrinal and personal. Of course, the more ministry oriented the position, the more compatibility we expect.

Doctrinal compatibility is especially important with ministerial staff. But personal compatibility is just as important for us. We could not have, for example, an independent, strong-headed person working in the education department here who expressed publicly his disagreements with the music program. We’re looking for team players, people who can do their job with excellence, trust others to do theirs, and work with them cooperatively.

Competence, dedication, and vision. After compatibility, we aim to hire people who combine these three qualities. You can’t hook up a team of horses and have one of them dragging behind. We want our ministerial staff to be leaders who develop a vision for their departments. Then we can turn them loose.

I’ve noticed that compatibility and competence make an outstanding combination. Not only are staff members doing great things in their departments, but when we get together, that energy and creativity tends to sharpen each of us. In addition, that combination seems to encourage longevity on my staff. Nobody wants to leave a place where team play and individual excellence are encouraged.

How to Get an Honest Reference

In looking for Christian commitment, compatibility, and competence, the church often has to rely on evaluations of those who have worked with the candidate. But evaluations can be notoriously deceptive. First, the candidate is going to list only references who will evaluate him positively. In addition, most who write evaluations hesitate to speak negatively about the person they evaluate. Yet, in spite of these handicaps, I think it’s possible to get an honest evaluation. It’s not only possible; it’s vital.

To begin with, we don’t just read the references’ letters; we interview them. I can catch things on the telephone—hesitancy or enthusiasm. I also try to find a friend or acquaintance who knows somebody where this person has been. Often I find such people, especially if I dig a little. This person can give me insights the references won’t give. Trying to locate someone for whom the candidate worked two or three situations ago also helps. Their superiors tend to be far more honest with the passing of time.

All this may seem like a lot of trouble. But it saves our church much grief down the road if I will take the time at the beginning

When the Job Isn’t Getting Done

From time to time I suspect a staff member may be malfunctioning. This hardly constitutes evidence for firing, although it may eventually lead to it. What are the steps to take before that drastic measure is called for?

Quietly investigate. As soon as I suspect trouble, I begin keeping my ear to the ground. I ask questions of secretaries or other staff. But I do so quietly, subtly, in a casual manner: What’s going on with so-and-so? How are his groups doing? Anything new coming on line? What’s happening in the department? How many people were in his last class?

Meet with staff. If two or three staff members suggest there are problems with the person in question, I call a meeting of the entire staff, not including the person in question. I’ll ask how serious the problem is. Is it worth looking into, or should I just forget about it? If something should come out, that’s when it does.

Encourage staff to be honest with the person. Next I encourage the rest of the staff to tell the person, in a tactful way, the problems he’s causing them—when he didn’t come to a meeting, or when he stood somebody up, or when he avoided a job that they got stuck with. In the long run, it’s better to talk with the person.

Probation. If that doesn’t work, I will have an interview with the person, and I will ask for his or her perspective regarding the problem. Unless something unexpected comes to light, I will explain to the person that without a change in the next six months, he will be dismissed. I list the specific things that trouble me and the ways those things can be cleared up. I explain that we will have regular meetings to evaluate his work along the way.

Bring in the board. By this time, I have informed the trustee board of what I’m doing. If they have any questions, they talk to the person. And before I decide on a course of action, I will ask the board for advice. Those men, gifted in management and administration, often counsel me wisely on how to handle malfunctioning people. Naturally, they are pledged to confidentiality. Nothing of this sort gets out of the board, not even to their families.

Get the person to tell you what you said. When I talk with someone about job performance or about an unpleasant decision, I ask the person to repeat what I said. Because they are caught emotionally off balance in this situation, people may hear things differently than I say them. Letting people summarize what I’ve said during the interview eliminates needless misunderstandings.

Dismissing a Staff Member

What happens at the end of six months when things have not improved? What are the next steps?

Give time to find new work. First, we tell the person he will no longer work here after a certain date, but we let him stay on staff three to nine months at full salary and with freedom to interview. During that time, he maintains his responsibilities in the church.

Give a gracious farewell. When the person finds another position, we announce to the congregation that he has received a call to another place. We publicly wish him well, although we won’t necessarily praise him for all he did here.

Give fair references. As this staff person interviews elsewhere, his potential employers may phone me for a reference. What am I supposed to say? I put the ball in their court. I ask, “What exactly do you want to know about this person?” I make them ask specific questions. I do not volunteer any information. And then I answer honestly. Sometimes other organizations aren’t looking for the same things we are, and a person who failed here can succeed elsewhere.

Even Good Administrators Sometimes Lose

In spite of thoughtful procedure and compassionate management, things sometimes go wrong. Even if I do everything right, I sometimes lose, or the church may suffer a setback. I may wind up with an angry member who leaves the church over a personnel decision I’ve made. We may end up hiring a staff member who turns out to be incompetent. Sometimes the problem is the hardheadedness of a board member or my inability to predict the future, not a lack of administrative competence.

So in the midst of these tough personnel decisions, I try to do what is best for all concerned, not simply what will make me look successful. My job is not to guarantee success or boast a flawlessly run organization. My job is to make the best decisions I can, and trust that God, in the long run, will use them to build his kingdom.

Adapted from “Hiring and Firing” by Arthur DeKruyter from the book Mastering Church Management.

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