Right Person, Wrong Position

The effort is there, but not the results. How do you proceed?

Have you ever had to let a church staff member go—even though they gave everything they had—because they still weren’t hitting the mark? That’s a painful and difficult transition to manage, and one that many churches don’t always navigate in a healthy way.

There are many reasons why people transition off of church staffs. Some are positive, such as the instance when a pastor or staff member feels God’s call to leave in order to expand their ministry or challenge their gifts.

Other transitions are more painful, but not necessarily difficult. When a staff member must be dismissed for negligence, a breach of ethics, or some moral failure, it is painful, but the path forward is fairly well documented. Human resources specialists have clearly established the steps necessary to sever the employment relationship and protect the church in the process.

The transitions that are most troublesome are the ones that are necessary because the individual simply doesn’t possess the required gifts and skills to fulfill the expectations of the position. The person may be the most sincere in the world, and loved by everyone, but he or she simply cannot fulfill the job description and meet the standards set. It’s a case of the right person in the wrong position. If you can’t slide that person into a more suitable role, then you have to transition that person from the staff.

That’s never easy, and it’s a scenario that keeps church leaders awake at night. In my years of church management experience, I’ve seen situations handled with godly acuity and I’ve seen situations fumbled poorly. The following guidelines can help as you navigate the transition of a member from your staff:

  1. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31, NIV). This verse should be the guiding principle in how we treat staff members in a transition situation.
  2. Remember that it’s not about failure. It’s about possessing the right gifts and strengths. Nobody sets out to fail; they simply discover that their abilities are unequal or mismatched to the tasks required.
  3. Be sure the contributing factors have been clearly documented and communicated throughout the period leading up to your decision. What expectations went unfulfilled? Cite specific events and details. Be sure those unfulfilled expectations were clearly communicated to the employee at the time they occurred. There should never be surprises. If there are, then you’re not ready to make the transition.
  4. Communicate in person, not with email or written letters. You hired this person; show them the respect they deserve by relationally handling a difficult situation.
  5. Try to provide multiple options for a transition that can protect the staff member’s dignity. The individual can initiate the resignation if they agree the “fit” isn’t right. A transition during a specified period of time is another option. The problem developed over time. Seldom does it have to be solved overnight.
  6. Inform the staff before a decision leaks out, in order to correctly frame the communication, both for the church’s sake and the individual’s. By doing this, we help ensure that people involved with any behind-the-scenes conversations have a much better chance of getting information right.
  7. Reach out to the staff member’s family. It’s vitally important that the senior leadership do everything possible to reassure the family of the church’s love and support. This will go a long way toward helping the family heal and helping the church move forward in a healthy manner.
  8. Act generously with transition benefits, such as unused vacation pay, severance, and the continuation of health-care coverage for a specified period of time. Such expressions of grace help to quell any feelings that the church acted unkindly.
  9. Assist the transitioning staff member with finding other opportunities. If you can help match the individual’s strengths and gifts to another ministry need elsewhere, that also communicates the love and care that should characterize the way we treat people.
  10. If it gets sticky, consult with an attorney. If the employee shows any inclination to fight this decision or resist it in some way, get help. If the circumstances are debatable, or you’re not sure you’re on solid legal ground, get help. Don’t wade into waters that are over your head and pose a risk to the church.
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