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Thoughts on Firing People in Ministry – And Some Objections to Doing So

By August 24, 2016Church, Leadership

This is a difficult post – about a difficult issue. It is one we don’t necessarily like to talk about in the church, but sometimes we must.

I came out of a business background, so some things which are done in ministry are different for me. And, frankly, many should be. Ministry isn’t business – it’s ministry. Let me say it again. Ministry isn’t business – it’s ministry.

Some of the people who think I don’t understand this need to read it one more time. Ministry isn’t business – it’s ministry.

At the same time, we should never hide in the label of ministry or us it as an excuse to waste Kingdom dollars. We need good practices of financial and people accountability. Just as the business world has to have healthy employment practices in place simply to stay in business – we need them in ministry. What we do is too important not to consider every dollar.

And, also frankly speaking, this hasn’t always been my experience in ministry.

I struggle being the bad guy, for example, about our utility bills. Some people are terrible about wasting electricity – especially not turning out lights. But, when your utility bill is larger than any one ministry budget you have to consider how you spend it.

Another example is in the area of staffing – people paid by the church. I’ve seen and encountered numerous times where staff people were allowed to continue drawing salaries from a church when their effectiveness is in serious question – or they aren’t even doing their job anymore. Everyone may know something needs to be done, but no one is willing to make the hard decision.

One of the hardest decisions any leader ever makes is to release someone from their employment. It should never be taken lightly. It always hurts. It wasn’t easy in business and it isn’t in ministry. But, sometimes it’s the right thing to do. And, it seems in ministry we are often much slower – if ever – to get there.

I was talking with a pastor who knows he needs to make a hard decision regarding a member of his staff, but he simply hasn’t been able to garner the support or gumption to do it. This person isn’t productive and isn’t trying to be. Though the person is hugely popular with the right crowd on Sunday, he has a damaging personality on the team during the week. He continually works against the pastor’s leadership – undermining him to other staff and lay leadership. The pastor has counseled with the person, has agreement from elders something needs to be done, but no one has been willing to make the hard decision. And, this has been the case for years – not months – years; and with more than one pastor. In the meantime, Kingdom dollars are admittedly being wasted. (I have had this same conversation numerous times with other pastors.)

Many times, in my experience, churches haven’t made the decision because of fear of how others will respond and they use “ministry” simply as an excuse. Again, many times the business world would have already made the obvious decision. After having this discussion countless times with church leaders, I often feel the need to address it. (Please know, I’m talking strictly about poor performance, not about those who lose their jobs because of tightening budgets. This, too, is a growing issue, but not one I’m addressing here.)

Here are some of the objections I’ve encountered and a few counter thoughts to consider:

We love the person – Of course. We love everyone. It’s what we are called to do. But, is this a good reason to empower bad behavior or to waste Kingdom dollars?

We don’t want to hurt their family – Of course not, again. And we should be gracious and generous in the exit strategy, and be willing to walk with the person through the recovery process as much as is reasonable and welcomed by the released person. But are we not also hurting other families who sacrifice and give to the church by misusing their resources on an ineffective staff member?

We are afraid we haven’t extended enough grace – I understand. We are to extend grace, but hasn’t there been a lot of grace given to allow the person to stay this long? When does truth come into play?

We are afraid of the ripple effects – And it’s understandable you would be. You should always consider how decisions will impact others. Yet the reality is you probably have ripple effects now anyway. You are injuring other ministries and jeopardizing future progress by delaying what you know you need to do. It will only get more difficult with time. At some point you may have to cut your losses.

Leaders have to make hard decisions. We should first do everything within our power to redeem the person’s job. (We did in business too. It’s much more efficient to retain an existing employee than to hire a new one.) But, protecting the vision for all may involve tough love for others.

Many times when we delay decisions like this we delay the healing which needs to occur and the benefits of making the right (and difficult) decision. Also, we send a dangerous message it’s acceptable to do whatever this person isn’t doing or is doing which merits being let go.

Notice I didn’t say this was easy. But genuine leadership never is easy. Don’t use ministry as an excuse. Pray about the matter diligently. Do everything in your power to redeem the person. Work through due process. Get wise advice from others before you make the decision – even from an attorney if needed. But, when the answer is clear what you need to do – do it.

Let me close with a word to those who have lost or may some day lose your job because of poor performance. I am not insensitive to your plight. In fact, I’ve helped numerous people pick up the pieces and begin again. I’ve hired people who were fired from a job and some of them made the best team members.

Sometimes being let go allows God an opportunity to do something new in your life – even something better. If you made mistakes, own them and learn from them. There is grace to begin again. Sometimes it was a matter of fit more than anything else, but whatever the reason, grow from it and let God restore the broken pieces. He specializes in restoration.

Okay, I’ve opened a can of worms. Please know I’m not trying to add insult to injury. These are difficult issues and should be prayerfully considered. They certainly, however, shouldn’t be ignored.

In my next post I will share some thoughts on how to do this gracefully.

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 28 Comments

  • derek says:

    What do you do if the one that needs firing is a lay leader who is a volunteer and is in a leadership role at the highest level in the church? Struggling through this right now.

    • ronedmondson says:

      You respond the same way as you would a paid person. Check my post tomorrow and see if this helps. But, you handle it with grace and truth. It can be even harder, but if they aren't a good fit you still must find a way. I find many times refocusing them to another area better suited for their gifting helps. If they are difficult to work with anyway there's even more reason to do something.

  • Jaleel Hamid says:

    Important words.. that needed to be said. Thanks for some inspiration for my own upcoming article on political figures.

  • Bob Lawson says:

    That includes church boards who don't fire pastors. A former pastor at a church I once attended, in response to the question "Why should we keep you here?" could only respond, "I need to support my family." I used to teach career education to high school and that's the first answer I told them NEVER to give in response to the question "Why do you want this job?"

  • 'Leaders have to make hard decisions'. That's so true. I am not a pastor but the principles apply in every situation of leadership. I've recently needed to make a very tough decision. I believe it is the right thing to do but most people around me are not in agreement. There are gossips and all that. But I've learnt that people are generally fickle. When the tough, unpopular decision starts to yield fruits, the same people who almost 'beheaded' you will sing your praise.
    Consider Paul in Acts 28:4-6. People called him a murderer only to be called a god some hours later.

  • Brent Dumler says:

    Yes, a 'how-to' would be great. I would also add that while you are mainly addressing paid staff and the misuse of church funds, the key principle in this post fully applies to volunteers too! Yes, we can and should fire volunteers if they are leaving a negative imprint on the ministry. Just because someone is volunteering their time does not make them indispensable. Great post!

  • phyllis says:

    I come from a different angle, as a friend of several beloved members of church staffs who were relieved of their duties. This happened not because of lack of performance but because they didn't fit the 'new vision' in the 'progress' of the church. These were not voted on dismissals or even discussed openly, which I frankly think is only right. Yes, I agree that sometimes better and new positions open new horizons, however, the questions that are left with the congregations leave scars that can only be soothed by the grace and peace of the Holy Spirit.

    • ronedmondson says:

      I understand that. The fact is though that it’s messy and requires grace and healing either way. When things are known rumors still develop. Even when the church votes sides are taken based on relationships, misinformation and personal agendas. There is no easy way in these matters. They are always difficult. We can have intentions of doing the right and best thing in either system and it will still cause friction. As you know, even church splits over issues like this.  And, most times, in my experience, whether the church votes or not the real truth is only known by a few people. Many times that’s grace extended to the person being fired and especially their family by not airing all details in a public setting. I can’t tell you the times I’ve watched a pastor take the heat for making a hard decision simply because he chose not to share all he knows to protect innocent people.  But, again, either way these are never easy issues. Thank you. 

      • trish says:

        Thanks Ron! Very timely via WorshipIdeass today. Have to go with your response to phyllis here. Have been part of the "love covers" end and not sharing details to protect the one who is let go. No way possible for congregational voting to have a good ending. "Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don't try to figure out everything on your own." Proverbs 3, The Message

  • ronedmondson says:


  • Mark Foster says:

    I could add a great big ditto to everything you said Ron, so thanks for saying it!

  • R. says:

    One if the things that I have seen in ministry is the employing of family. I find that this really complicates things. When a family member isn’t motivated or performing, the leader still has the duty to deal with the issue. But they usually don’t. So the family members stay on staff, drawing a salary and benefits, and often making costly mistakes. Meanwhile, the church struggles, and there’s never enough money to get things done, or employ qualified non-family members who can get things done. It’s frustrating and sad. It makes me want to instead give me tithes and offering to a reputable large ministry that is run well and accomplishing what they have set out to accomplish. Too often, pastors use their churches as a charity job for lazy family members who can’t make it on their own.

  • jonstallings says:

    Very import post Ron. I have had to participate in a few Ministry firings including my own 🙂 It is tough to do, but we need to be able to do it with confidence. Often moving someone on is the best thing for all parties involved.