How To Handle Church Staff Layoffs

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No matter how you put it, layoffs are hard. Whether you work for a church or in the corporate world, facing termination is met with difficult conversations, heightened emotions, and an incredible opportunity for grace to triumph. So if your church is in the middle of budget cutting and eliminating positions looks inevitable, how do you handle it?

I took some time to sit down with our Director of Consultants, Tim Stevens to discuss what a healthy layoff situation looks like. After approximately 1/5 of the congregation lost their job in the 2008 recession, Granger Church, where Tim worked as the Executive Pastor at the time, was faced with eliminating eight full time positions and cutting the hours of fifteen part-time roles. Below are Tim’s thoughts and words of advice on what to do if your church is facing a similar situation.

How do you know it is time?

Keeping an eye on the staff-to-budget ratio is a must. Logically if your budget or income is shrinking and your staff remains the same, a yellow flag should be raised. Determining how much is being spent on staff should be reviewed monthly. If you start seeing trouble six to nine months out, it is likely time to take an action step toward eliminating some staff roles. While this may seem far into the future, it is better to take these steps in order to provide severance pay to individuals rather than leaving them high and dry.

How do you know which positions to eliminate?

Take the Leadership or Executive Team away for a day or weekend to discuss, and more importantly pray, about this move. Task each person to come up with identifying positions that could be covered by other employees or volunteers. While it will be incredibly difficult to keep emotions and partialities out of the process, it is imperative to push feelings aside and think about logical realignment.

Once some time has been spent individually deliberating positions to cut, ask your directors and managers their thoughts and opinions. Who might be able to take on additional work from other employees, or whose role may be able to be covered by volunteers? Inviting the directing and managing level staff into these decisions breeds trust. They are working daily with the staff likely to be eliminated and can provide better insight than you may be able to discern.

What sort of plan do you put in place?

Make sure you have a timeline and communication plan firmly in place before any action is taken. Tim’s advice is to keep a tight turnaround on making the announcement about impending layoffs and to sit down with those whose jobs are being eliminated.

In his experience, he found making an announcement on a Thursday or Friday allowed the weekend for people to process the information, and following up with individual discussions on Monday allowed people not to be left in limbo too long.

Be upfront and honest with both your staff and the congregation about the reality of layoffs.Tweet: Be upfront and honest with both your staff and the congregation about the reality of layoffs. via @vanderbloemensg

With your staff, there should be a developed trust there in which you can lay all of your cards on the table. Be very specific so that they understand that it is not a performance issue and that it’s not because someone messed something up with finances (unless of course those are the circumstances).

When speaking to the congregation, prepare a 3-4 minute announcement on Sunday with the facts, and point them toward someone they can talk to if they have further questions. Don’t dwell on it, but be available to those that want to talk, and it is likely your congregation will be supportive.

How do you care for the outgoing employees and their families?

Offer the best severance package that you can. If you’ve looked and planned far enough in advance, three months pay and benefits for full time employees should be possible. You and your team should know the state of your finances and be as generous as possible without putting the church in a deeper financial bind.

Other ideas for caring for your employees in these situations is offering them someone to help. When Tim transitioned off some of his team members at Granger, they hired a staffing company in town that could assist those that had been laid off. This firm helped with training for interviews, updating resumes, offered group therapy and discussions, and provided office space to help these people get out of bed and stay in the game. If your church has the opportunity to offer a similar benefit, we encourage you to do so.

What legal issues should you be aware of?

Be aware of rules or regulations around severance that may be particular to your state. It’s also always a wise idea to get severance agreements reviewed by an attorney before using them. Staff release agreements should include severance information as well as an agreement to honor the church and leadership in the split. Paperwork like this can seem very legal and cold, so be sure to talk through it with the employee to put your heart in it and let them know you care. One piece of advice Tim received during this process at Granger, was to avoid using the term “lay-off” and opt instead for speaking of “eliminating positions.”

So much of the severance process is about perception, so do everything in your power to eliminate negative word choice or connotations. Instead, stick to the facts and reaffirm the mission of the church that is being pursued, even in this seemingly bleak time. Do everything you can on the front side to keep a lean staff so that if your church is hit with hard financial times, layoffs are the last resort.

How can you prepare for a church staff layoff in the future?

Free Template: Sample Employee Termination and Release Agreement Form