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lit up exit sign

Tools for Good News People When Sharing Bad News: How to Let a Church Employee Go

lit up exit signAs the new year unfolds, so often does the need for casting new visions for the church. The new year can be a space in which to start anew and a moment for leadership to cast new visions for the communities they serve. Improving the functioning of the church to best support and sustain its more visible ministries is often the first step in achieving these new visions. Unfortunately, this often comes with the prayerful discernment that changes might need to be made to the roles and employment of paid and unpaid lay staff. In short, sometimes in order to strengthen your church’s ministry and fulfill its vision, it is necessary to let an employee go.

I used to work a corporate job where, for over nine years, I was instrumental in the hiring and firing of staff from multiple departments. From that experience, I learned what is the best practice when having to give someone the news that they no longer have a job under your employment.

Now let’s be honest, this is one of the worst parts of the job. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news…we are supposed to be the good news people! But unfortunately, this is a part of the job and one that is not spoken about enough. Of course, please follow all the employment laws you are required to by your church and state governance and report all unlawful activity to the appropriate authorities. I am also only talking about the specific act of letting someone go, not the process of discernment that should lead up to the decision. This article assumes that a healthy and contextually appropriate discernment process involving church leadership, has been completed and brought you to the need for termination.

Once I started doing this more regularly, although it never got easier emotionally, I became more adept at doing it skillfully and compassionately. I created an acronym to remind me of the things I needed to make this meeting as respectful and dignity-giving as possible.  That acronym is P.H.A.S.E.S. It stands for: Pray, Have paperwork ready, At beginning of shift in private, Supervisor (or HR), Exit strategy, Say as little as possible. I will go through each of these in a bit more detail. All of these steps can also be adapted to your specific context and are only meant to help open the conversation around this part of the pastoral role. Read more

Epiphany

Three months into my ministry I was still fighting this weekly battle. Saturday nights were torture. Sunday mornings were anxious. Sunday afternoons were naptime. Perhaps it was no coincidence that everything changed on Epiphany.

After lunch on January 6, 2003, I drove my husband, Shon, to the emergency room. It was nothing urgent, but we both knew something was not “right.” Between Christmas and Epiphany, Shon had experienced five episodes of sudden, momentary paralysis on the right side of his body. None of them lasted for more than ten or fifteen seconds. In fact, they were so quick; we wrote them off as a pinched nerve or something from his old high school football injuries. But then he lost control of his right side while driving home from work one day. Thus, on Epiphany, I insisted we find the source of the problem.

We knew it wasn’t a good sign when they took Shon ahead of the kid with the broken arm. After a round of tests and several hours of waiting, an exhausted doctor pulled back the curtain. He did not look up from the chart, but we could tell he was at the end of a very long shift and this was a visit he was not going to enjoy. “There’s something on the left side of your brain,” he said abruptly. Shon and I looked at one another to make sure we heard him correctly. It was definitely more than a pinched nerve.

More detailed diagnostics revealed “the thing” was a lemon-sized tumor sitting on Shon’s left motor cortex. In two days’ time, he underwent brain surgery to remove the tumor. Just six days after we had entered the ER, Shon walked out with his faculties intact, albeit a little lighter in the head. The diagnosis was oligoastrocytoma, a primary brain tumor, grade 2. What followed was a flurry of doctors’ appointments, non-stop tests and frequent seizures.

As we understood it, this was a slow-growing tumor that would likely come back, but not for some years to come. In the two years that followed, we were able to get the seizures under control and our lives settled into a somewhat normal routine. Shon would never be able to go back to work because of the seizures, but found enough to keep him busy at home and at church. He recovered so well that I only had to take a couple of Sundays off immediately after the surgery. Otherwise, I was back to work as usual, kind of.

It felt as if my foundation had been violently shaken but the building was still standing. I was trying to carry on in my ministry as if nothing had changed, and yet everything was different. The change really became apparent when my mom died unexpectedly of breast cancer just a few short months after Shon’s surgery. Suddenly, life took on a whole new sense of urgency. I dreaded Saturday nights, not just because of the sermon writing, but because dwelling so deeply in the Word kicked up so many painful memories and emotions, especially when the lectionary kept giving me barren women. Read more