Letting Go of Church Staff

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Layoff NoticeLayoffs are always hard.  Especially in churches and nonprofits where employees tend to work with their hearts as much as their heads and hands.

I have had to let people go, and I’ve been let go.  So I know the feelings of the employee and the employer.  Both sides are gut-wrenching, but when it comes to letting people go pastors/employers have to take the greater responsibility.

3 Responsible Actions When Letting People Go

1. Let people go from a position of strength.

I know it sounds counter-intuitive but it’s best to let people go before you absolutely have to.

If the church is financially hurting and staff has to be cut, don’t wait until the church is on it’s last dollar to hand out pink-slips.  Let people go while there is money in the bank.

In a recent article about layoffs at the gaming-giant Zynga, CEO Mark Pincus explains why he is letting 18% of the workforce go while the company is still profitable.

Because we’re making these moves proactively and from a position of financial strength, we can take care of laid off employees. We’re offering generous severance packages that reflect our appreciation for all of their work and we hope this will provide a foundation as they pursue their next professional steps.

It is best to let people go pro-actively from a position of strength rather than reactively from a position of weakness.  A fair rule of thumb for severance is to give a person one week’s pay for every year of employment.  If that is not possible, then at least give them one month’s salary. Most people’s bills are monthly, plus a month is not very long to leave one job and find a new one.

It may seem more explainable to wait and let people go once the “coffers are dry”, but in doing so you have taken their job and their financial safety-net as they search for new employment.

2. Let people manage their own opportunities

Many times pastors/employers will wait to let someone go, hoping that a new opportunity will come along for them.  This is often a false-hope driven by a desire to avoid a difficult conversation.

Dragging out the inevitable potentially hurts the employee and is over-assuming on the part of the employer.

I have told people that I postponed letting them go a month prior, only to have them say, “I turned down an opportunity a month ago.”  Ouch!

It’s over-assuming for an employer to manage an employee’s opportunities, and often attempting to do so causes harm rather than good.

3. Let people have as much notice as possible

Once a lay-off is deemed necessary a pastor/employer may want to get it over quickly.  However, keep in mind that no matter how much joblessness is expected, it will still come as a shock-to-the-system for the most prepared employee.

It is best to give a person time to process their emotions while still employed. That way they can ask follow up questions and try to make sense of their options while still in familiar surroundings.

An employee should never have a surprise lay-off, unless their ethical/moral behavior requires an immediate dismissal.

Even if a person is being fired for poor performance, give them ample notice with explanation.

I have informed employees they were being let go in a month’s time due to ineptitude. I have then been able to partner with them during their last month to leave strong and on a good note.

Being let go hurts.  There is no reason to add insult to injury.

Above all else…

Allow people to keep their dignity.

Offer respect and do not patronize.  Spend more time trying to sympathize than justifying your reasons for the lay-off.  Give them a reference letter in which you highlight their work/leadership qualities and explain the “factors beyond their control” that required they be let go.

If possible check in with them after their last day.  I have called former employees a week or two later just to ask how things were going.

Employment is about people, and good pastors/employers never disrespect a person even if they have to part ways.

Join the Conversation: Any other actions a pastor/employer should take when letting a staff member go?

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  • mark

    I have been laid off and unfortunately had to lay people off. While this article makes some good points I have issues. First and foremost it is the employees responsibility to create a safety net not the employers. Secondly it seems naive to me to think that an employee would be unaware of the seriousness of the church financials when they are public record. Thirdly the notice issue is tricky. Depending on the role playef by the person leaving too much notice could be risky. I have been in situations where the person being released was let go the same day. I have also seen it done with 60 days notice. While the latter was better for some it was not for all.