You Have An Obligation to Fire Incompetent Staff

Article
08.29.2011

Is it ever right to fire church staff? If so, when? And how should you go about this difficult task?

DEDICATED TO THRIFT

Walking down the street recently I noticed that the name on a nearby bank had changed again. Another failure or merger? The signs had changed, but I noticed a message carved into the stone when the bank building was originally constructed in 1874: “Dedicated To Thrift.”

Thrift? There’s a word you don’t hear much. But it’s a good word. It means using money or resources carefully and not wastefully.

Stewardship is another good word that we may not hear much, but is found throughout Scripture and is similar to thrift. It’s taking responsibility for something and managing it well. We see two good examples of stewardship, along with one bad one, in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. Two of the characters are commended for their stewardship and management, while one is condemned. He’s called “wicked and slothful” since he did nothing with the talent given to him.

I want to argue that it is right to fire Christians who are staff members of churches based on this idea of stewardship.[1] It is right to fire Christian employees who are poor stewards. A local church has been given many talents: time, money, buildings (in some cases), members, and opportunities to be faithful witnesses in the community in which they are situated. Stewardship calls the local church to seize these talents, manage them well, and bear fruit for the spread of the gospel, the strengthening of the local church, and ultimately the glory of God.

WHY DONORS GIVE

Let’s remember that members of our churches are voluntarily giving their money for the spread of the gospel. As stewards themselves, donors faithfully give so that more people may be won to and grown up in Christ. That transaction—a donor giving his money to a church—has the implied understanding that money won’t be wasted or misdirected, but that it will be stewarded well for the purposes for which it was given. The donor is implicitly saying, “I want to take the money God has given me to steward and set it aside, together with my fellow church members, to support the time of this particular Christian so that he can give more of his time and gifts to the spread of the gospel.” An unfaithful employee of the church undermines the trust which underlies a Christian’s giving.

ONLY “GOOD-TO-GREAT” EMPLOYEES STAY?

What qualifies as such poor stewardship that one should be dismissed from a job? This is where it becomes very difficult to give a satisfying answer in a short article. But there are some categories that, I think, justify the removal of an employee for the sake of the mission and the faithful stewarding of the resources of the church. Who then should be fired?

  • The non-Christian: “Workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23) and “workers of evil” (Luke 13:27) certainly qualify as unfaithful, along with anyone who meets the description of “not inheriting the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6: 9-10). They function as reverse witnesses in their work, and they should be removed from staff. Some of you may be chuckling under your breath at this point. But I speak from experience: one member of a church staff who was a known adulterer was initially instructed to get counseling, after which he would be restored to his staff position. May that never be!
  • The lazy and idle: When a lazy or idle person receives pay for work that he did not do, he is essentially stealing from his employer. We should no sooner have a lazy or idle person on our church staffs than we would house a known thief. Paul speaks strongly to this issue:

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. (2 Thess. 3:6)

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command:  If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. (2 Thess. 3:10-11)

In our day, lazy and idle behavior isn’t simply a person taking cat naps at the desk. It can take the form of long lunches and personal phone calls, or lingering on Facebook, email, and the newsfeeds.

  • The divisive: Unity is a prime concern in Scripture, especially in Paul’s writings. Unity is a fragile thing, particularly in an all-volunteer organization like the church. Unity must be worked for and protected. Paul writes,

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Cor. 1:10)

A divisive staff member is incredibly powerful. He has the ability to undermine authority, gut the good motivations of younger workers, and rob the leadership of the joy God intends them to have (Heb. 13:17).

  • The untrustworthy: “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (1 Cor. 4:2). Have you ever given a task to someone who is known to be untrustworthy or unreliable? This predicament causes inefficiencies, ineffectiveness, and frustration. In Acts 6 the apostles are looking to appoint men of “good repute” so that they can devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. If they don’t find trustworthy men, then the apostles’ ministry will be diluted at best as they spend distracted time picking up the pieces of unfaithful ministry.
  • The unmotivated: Proverbs 16:26 says, “A worker’s appetite works for him; his mouth urges him on.”  Proverbs 21:25 says, “The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor.” There is a class of people who appear to be unmotivated. They don’t hear the urgency in Jesus’ words when he says in John 9:4, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” To put it positively, the church staff member should be characterized by zeal!
  • The incompetent: This is a tough one. You could have a well-intentioned, solid believer who simply lacks the skills for which they were hired and therefore is unable to perform the necessary tasks. In this case, I think you still need to dismiss or relocate the employee based on the stewardship principle.

PRACTICAL ADVICE

The burden of this article has been to establish the principle that, in certain circumstances, it is right to dismiss church staff employees. You can do this well or poorly. Should you find yourself in the unenviable situation of needing to fire one of your staff, you might consider the following:

  1. Do it with the approval of other leaders. Don’t act alone.
  2. If you are able, depending on the circumstances, give the fired employee lots of time to transition to another job. Assuming the employee is a member of your church, if you act in such a way that the dismissed employee immediately feels pressure to provide for his or her family you are potentially inviting bitterness and division into your church. Long transitions show kindness to the individual and make for peace within the church.

[1] I am not addressing how one removes from office a pastor, elder or deacon who is disqualified from serving.  How one approaches that issue is a different burden than what this article is intended to bear.  Instead, I am addressing this article to pastors and elders, those who are biblically tasked with shepherding Christ’s church, including those in the employ of a local church.

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Editor’s note: Read this article for a different perspective on the same issue: “You Should Think Twice Before Firing Incompetent Staff,” by Philip Jensen.

By:
Matt Schmucker

Matt Schmucker was the founding executive director of 9Marks. He now organizes several conferences, including Together for the Gospel and CROSS, while serving as member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.