Dealing with Difficult Staff

May 24th, 2011

John, our Church Council chairperson, looked worried as he walked into my office. “Martin,” he said, “you need to know that Jason (a former staff member at one of my pastorates and not his real name) is calling you a ‘False Prophet.’ He’s also criticizing the staff to members of the congregation.” Several months later on Jason’s last Sunday John said to me, “An interesting chapter in our history comes to a close today.”

I’ve been supervising church staff members for over twenty-five years. Although most of my staff relationships have been positive, I’ve dealt with my share of difficult staff members, including Jason. What follows are seven lessons I’ve learned, often the hard way, from these painful experiences. 

1. Expect Staff Problems

On my second day of work at my first pastorate out of seminary, a church leader walked into my office, closed the door and said, “Pastor, you’ve got to do something about our youth director.” Since that day, dealing with staff problems has never ended. Senior Pastors always face staff issues of one kind or another. Even the best staff members have bad days and make bad decisions. Once one staff problem gets resolved, another soon rises up.  So get used to it!

Jason’s first year went fairly well. Then, a few weeks into his second year, things rapidly deteriorated. The trouble began with a financial decision that deeply angered Jason. He immediately fired off a hostile email to the finance chair condemning the decision. For good measure he trashed me, other staff members, and the entire congregation. Although Jason’s email caught me off guard it should not have surprised me. After almost three decades in the Senior Pastor business, I know to expect staff problems.

2. Deal with Staff Problems Immediately

When a staff problem surfaces, our first response is usually to ignore it and hope it goes away. Nobody, especially ministers, likes tension, conflict or confrontation. But ignoring staff problems almost always makes them worse. Therefore, wise pastors deal with staff problems directly and immediately.

I received a copy of Jason’s email on a Wednesday morning. That afternoon, he and I met.  He immediately apologized. Given his youthfulness, inexperience, and recent stress factors in his personal life, I cut him some slack. In the end it proved an unwise decision.  The email was only the tip of a very large iceberg, as I soon found out. But confronting him immediately was an important first step in dealing with the problem.

3. Document the Details

When you’re having staff problems, it’s imperative to document the details. If things go south, detailed notes will help protect both you and your church from possible legal action and/or congregational backlash. Good documentation also allows you to clearly illustrate—both to the offending staff member and to your church leadership—the specific behaviors that you find unacceptable. So, keep detailed and dated records of all problematic behaviors, and store them in a secure location.

Over the following weeks, I kept careful records of Jason’s inappropriate attitudes and behaviors, which were legion and growing. Keeping detailed records of these troubling behaviors proved helpful in the weeks that followed.

4. Seek Counsel from Others

The writer of Ecclesiastes wisely said, “Two are better than one.” That’s especially true when dealing with difficult staff members. When staff challenges come, as they always will, it’s crucial to seek the advice of trusted advisors.

During this difficult time with Jason, I sought confidential help from our Associate Minister, my clergy support group, and one of my mentors. Their invaluable insights taught me the wisdom of Proverbs 15:22, “Without counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed.” (NRSV). 

5. Consult Your Staff Parish Relations or Personnel Committee

You obviously don’t need to involve your Staff Parish Relations or Personnel Committee in every minor staff problem that arises. However, on substantive issues, you need to bring your committee on board, for numerous reasons. First, they need to know what’s going on. Second, you need their insight. Third, you need their support and prayers. And finally, you need their authority. The offending staff person needs to know that your concerns about their behavior don’t just come from you—but from the entire committee.

Using the documentation mentioned earlier, our associate and I gave a thorough overview of the situation to our Staff Parish Relations Committee. Several days later, Jason met with the committee to discuss our concerns. The meeting did not go well. Jason’s arrogant and combative attitude troubled every person on the committee. Other issues also surfaced, including his unwillingness to be a team player on the staff, his resistance of supervision, and his failure to fulfill several of his job responsibilities. After Jason left the meeting we discussed two possible courses of action—immediate termination or probation.

6. Place Problem Staff Members Under Probation

When a staff problem becomes serious, it’s time to place the employee on probation. Put down on paper the problematic behaviors of the staff member, along with specific actions they can take to resolve them. Lay out a definitive time table for resolution, along with the consequences of not complying. Then have them sign the document. A formal written probation agreement offers several important benefits. Although rare, probation sometimes results in a positive turnaround of the staff member. Another benefit is that problematic staff members frequently decide to resign rather than submit to probation, saving you the pain and grief of firing them. Even if they don’t immediately resign, they often begin looking for another position and resign soon thereafter. Finally, if termination does become necessary, you can honestly tell your church leaders and/or entire congregation that you did everything in your power to resolve the problem and avoid termination.

After a long discussion about whether we should fire Jason immediately, or place him on probation, Staff Parish decided to try probation. Nobody felt optimistic that things would turn around, but we wanted to make every possible effort to redeem the situation. Jason’s probation lasted several months and proved painful for all involved—especially for me and other members of the staff. Unfortunately, it became evident that probation would not solve this problem. We needed to take the next step.

7. When Necessary, Terminate

Although terminating a church staff member is extremely painful, sometimes there’s no other option. As Jim Collins says in Good to Great, sometimes “you have to get the wrong people off the bus.” If that becomes necessary, have your Staff Parish or Personnel Committee do so as gracefully as possible. For example, consider offering the terminated employee a generous severance package. When the decision is made to terminate, make sure the ex-employee leaves their job immediately. A disgruntled terminated staff member can spew a great deal of toxic negativity into your church in short order, so don’t give them any additional opportunities to do so.

In the end we did not have to fire Jason. At the last moment, he accepted a staff position at another church. However, had he not taken that position, he would have been fired the following week. On hindsight, we should have terminated Jason several months earlier. In our effort to avoid a church-wide scene, and in a genuine effort to offer grace to Jason, we only prolonged his inevitable and painful departure. Thankfully, in spite of his hostility, Jason’s resignation had little impact on our congregation. By the grace of God, our church thrived before Jason arrived, we thrived during his short but difficult tenure, and we continued to thrive after he left. However, if we had it to do over again, we would have fired him several months before he resigned. 

Our Staff Parish Committee and I wanted the Jason saga to have a happy ending. We wanted to reconcile our differences and move forward as a staff and church. But sometimes staff stories do not have happy endings. However, in God’s providence, God worked to bring good out of that difficult situation. When Jason left, we filled his position with an interim. The interim did so well we hired him permanently. He ended up being an incredible blessing to that entire congregation and still serves there. Jason landed on his feet as well. The last I heard, things were going well for him and his congregation. 

In an ideal world, we would avoid employee problems altogether by being perfect pastors, by hiring perfect staff members, or by inheriting a perfect staff. Since none of these scenarios are likely, I hope the above seven strategies will help you as you deal with inevitable staff problems at your church.

 

Martin Thielen has served as senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, Lebanon, Tenn. for the last ten years. His preaching and worship Web site, including sermons and series, is www.GettingReadyforSunday.com. Martin’s most recent book is “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” A Guide to What Matters Most. Complete information about the book, including a free Leader’s Guide, can be found at http://thielen.wjkbooks.com.

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