I consistently read the Alban Weekly and the February 10 issue has a helpful article from Susan Beaumont entitled “Courage Under Fire” about the always difficult decision to fire a church staff member.
Over my 40 years of parish ministry, I had to fire six people who were on staff. None were easy but two were especially agonizing.
One sentence in the article helped me understand more clearly why these two were so difficult. Beaumont wrote about her side of a conversation with a pastor who had a staff member who was causing problems. “When you cannot simultaneously honor your dual role as her pastor and as her supervisor, you must tend to your role as supervisor, because no one else has the authority to play that role.”
My simultaneous role in the two painful cases of firing a janitor and a secretary was not pastor and supervisor but supervisor and friend.
The janitor had worked at my church for eight years and I had been with him through the sudden death of his mother. A great “shade tree mechanic,” he had helped me work on our cars a number of times. Before he started working for us, he had a problem with alcohol but for the first seven years, he had given up drinking. I was never sure why he started back but he did. He was not doing the job so after working with him over a three month period, I had to fire him. That was one of the toughest things I have ever done.
The secretary had been with me through a very difficult period in the life of the congregation and she had been extremely supportive. She told me that she had a problem with anger but I had never seen it until the day when she completely lost it with another staff member and screamed things that were totally inappropriate. In those few moments, she lost all credibility with the other staff who overheard the tirade including another staff member who tried to intervene. I was out of the office visiting at the hospital and by the time I returned, I had three letters of resignation from staff members on my desk, none of which were from the secretary. When we talked, I discovered that the reason she was angry was justified but her actions were not. Out of my discretionary funds, I arranged for her to receive counseling.
Not realizing that a pastor needs to assume the role of supervisor creates problems. Being a friend caused me to not want to make the right decision. Wanting to be the pastor to a troublesome staff person can create the same tension. At one of my interim congregations, a significant point of conflict was the firing of a staff member shortly before I arrived–a termination which should have happened three to four years before. I asked the pastor who was there when the staff member should have been fired why he kept her on staff. He replied that, as a pastor, his calling was to help the staff member. He never perceived himself as a supervisor.
The lesson is to know which hat we need to wear at the proper time–pastor, friend or supervisor. Knowing which hat makes decision making clearer but no less agonizing, especially when the person is your friend or you are their pastor.