Understanding that termination is a difficult process to execute, we as human beings never want to engage in those conversations. But before even approaching the process of termination, I looked through Scripture and found countless times where Christ confronted another—speaking the truth in love—and had “crucial conversations” with them. One interaction that comes to mind is the woman at the well in John 4. In it, we see Jesus showing this woman the flaws in her life yet, at the same time, holding out the solution for her. It was the perfect balance of challenge and grace.
This isn’t to say that as executive pastors we ought to engage every termination in the same mechanical way. What I believe this passage shows us is how we can begin the termination process, when we encounter it, from a perspective and viewpoint of love for the individual. After all is said and done, while the person may not be a “fit” for our organization, he or she is a fit somewhere; they are a prized possession in God’s eyes and we should treat them as such.
With that basis, the first step in terminating someone from a church begins before the actual termination takes place by asking the question “why.” The question all executive pastors should ask before engaging in the termination process is, “Why is this person being considered for termination?” This begins to give us a framework in which to work; it makes us separate emotions from the actual “deliverables” that we are expecting from the pastor or employee of the church. The indication for a termination should not be based on how we feel about the person because often times feelings can change. Basically, if left to our own devices, we would find a way to get around the issue of termination. It could be for any reason—from the person being a good friend to the fact that we just don’t want to go through the hiring process again.
However, terminations should be rooted in what the organization expects. This way, we can make those hard decisions based on the DNA and core values of the local body. As Daniel Rolfe stated in his webinar in the XPastor Online Course, there are five actions that are normally the cause of termination. The first is a lack of character; the person has violated morals and ethics that the organization holds to be true—which in this case is informed by the Word of God. The second is a lack of competency; the person has demonstrated that he or she is not fit to handle the tasks of the position. Third is the emergence of a new calling; the employee or pastor has found another place to serve. Fourth is the reduction in financial capability; the organization can no longer support the person in the way that they were. Fifth is the lack of trust and community, which ties in closely with the first reason; the person has not been genuine and open with the team at large.
It’s worth noting here that reviews are a big part of the termination process—and hiring for that matter. According to Dr. Paul Utnage in his discussion on reviews in the XPastor Online Course, most people are apprehensive of them. Reviews do not do much to help the lower performers perform better and have traditionally missed the mark. However, Paul did mention that reviews should be conducted from the standpoint of aiding the person in being successful in their individual ministry or department. This drastically changes the philosophy on reviews and goes a long way in helping church ministries grow, as well as establishing a healthy leadership dynamic. To sum it up, as Daniel Rolfe mentioned, “Do not terminate for something you have not coached on.”
If we have started with the “why” of the termination process and determined that the process needs to begin, the next step is to give a verbal warning. This begins the process, which hopefully does not end in termination but is a necessary step in the entire ordeal. It is important at the outset to document everything. Even in the first stage of the verbal warning, it is important to document that the conversation happened. A follow-up document or email can be sent to the employee, reviewing the discussion and outlining the item(s) that need to be changed in order to be successful in moving forward with the organization.
The third step in the termination process, after giving a verbal warning, is to give a written warning. This is assuming that the behavior that was addressed was given reasonable time to be resolved but was not acted upon. The written warning should be documented and should not be given to the person without explanation. It would be beneficial to call a meeting, once again addressing the issue. At the end of this meeting, have the supervisor, executive pastor, and any other person directly responsible sign the document, as well as the employee who was given the verbal warning. The employee would sign this document—not to say that they are in agreement but to show that they have received the document and are aware that leadership needed to approach them regarding their service for a second time. This document would be an official document of the organization and should be placed in the person’s personnel file. Again, it is important to keep the lines of communication open, reinforcing the fact that leadership wants the person to succeed in their role and continue to come alongside them.
The last step in the process is the step that no executive pastor or supervisor wants to make—the actual termination. In the last step of termination, a meeting is called to again communicate to the employee why the whole process started. Next, the leader would outline the attempted solutions to the problem and how the organization went about trying to rectify the situation. Finally, the last document is presented that outlines the grounds for dismissal (or probation) and all involved parties are asked to sign the document. At the end of this meeting, housekeeping measures are outlined: a severance package, separation of service letter, exit interview schedule, list of items to turn in, etc. While this is organizational housekeeping, we as executive pastors would do well to continue to care for the person and his family, as well as for the church. Communication will be key throughout the transition.
This last step in the process should not be carried out in a cold, mechanical way. Daniel Rolfe mentioned that in a termination process, not only are you leaving an impression on the person being terminated, but also on the rest of your team as they watch the termination take place. It is important, especially in the church context, to handle terminations with a direct approach that is full of grace and love for the individual.
The outlined termination process is not for those on the team who have had “moral failures.” In the case of exposed moral failure, the individual should be immediately dismissed by the leadership team/governing body, going through the proper channels in the last step of the termination process. In exposed moral failure, the process goes directly to the last step, skipping both the verbal and written warning.
Sadly, this is a difference that shows itself all too often in the case of the pastor and the non-pastor (employee). We know that so many shepherds fall due to moral issues; that takes its toll on the local body. Pastors are held to a higher standard of leadership as outlined in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. So, while pastors and employees are held to the standard of serving with excellence, I believe pastors are called to be “above reproach.” When they fail at that, they immediately forfeit their position in the local body. However, despite all that, it is the job of the executive pastor, even in the midst of a pastoral termination due to moral failure, to help provide the tools to help bring the individual back to walking closely with Jesus.
All of this leads to a note on the hiring process. As an organization, the local body needs to put an emphasis on hiring well so that it becomes part of the leadership culture and a dynamic of the church. There are many reasons why we may rush through a hiring process or seek to fill positions on our team. However, we must take the time to hire right so that we minimize the risk of termination and the need of having to hire again—essentially increasing our retention rate. One of the most crucial parts of hiring well is understanding what a successful candidate looks like, pinpointing their daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly responsibilities and what success looks like in the areas he is responsible for. When we are able to do that, and communicate the same to the candidate, there can be no question of what is expected of him. This should decrease the amount of confusion, if and when a termination process should need to be embarked upon.
In conclusion, the termination process is something that no leader wants to go through but must be prepared for. Many organizations, profit and non-profit, embark on these processes daily. As a local body of believers, we need to embark on the process in the most God-honoring way possible. While we have the mechanics of a verbal warning, written warning, and final dismissal at our disposal, it means nothing if we cannot deliver them in truth and in love. It is a fine dynamic and the most challenging part of termination. If we can commit ourselves to not only do terminations well but also hiring well, we will see God receive the glory in our organizations and in the local church.