How To Handle An Ineffective Church Staff Member

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One of the greatest joys in ministry is working with a great staff. But if there are challenging staff situations, it can also be one of the biggest frustrations in church leadership. Why do church leaders tend to hold on to people who are ineffective or even harmful to the church? What does it do to the team and mission? What should we need to do about it?

1. Why do church leaders tend to hold on to ineffective staff members too long?

While most church staff members are wonderful, productive people, sometimes there are some people who make their coworkers' lives more difficult. You know who they are, whether the issue is manipulating fellow staff members, lacking follow-through, not accepting responsibility, refusing accessibility or accountability, or any number of other reasons. Yet church leaders seem to be more reluctant to release people.

Here are a few possible reasons why:

  • They want to be kind. Churches tend to attract leaders who are caring and compassionate. They don't wish to hurt other people’s feelings or cause them hardship. Because church leaders strive to be grace-filled, they tend to second-guess themselves, thinking the problem may be with them and not the staff member.
  • The timing isn't right. There’s never an ideal time to confront or fire a staff member. Something seems to always be scheduled, and the church calendar is too full to make a switch on staff. Summer events, big seasonal weekends like Easter and Christmas, or other special events make it a challenge to time out a staff transition.
  • Everyone genuinely likes the person who is unsuccessful in their position. Some people are not good at their job, but that doesn’t mean they’re not great people. This can be especially difficult if the staff member has served the church for a long period of time.
  • They worry about the church’s image. Church leaders sometimes worry that the person let go will say bad things about the church, burning bridges with the community. (This is why it's important to have a Release/Separation Agreement Letter.)
  • They feel blameworthy. Sometimes, church leaders feel bad for hiring people in the first place, for whatever reason. Perhaps the thinking goes something like this: “I have not done well when hiring people. It’s my fault for putting them in a capacity to fail. I waited much too long to get rid of them out of personal guilt.”
  • They justify.  Church leaders might rationalize away irritating or destructive behavior of a certain staff member by thinking, "Maybe it's just a season," or, "They're job is hard with long hours, it's normal."
  • They don’t want to deal with the extra work of re-hiring. Hiring, done right, takes a lot of time and energy. Sometimes it feels easier to put up with an ineffective team member than to spend months finding a new one. Most church leaders are not trained in effective practices of hiring staff.

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2. What happens when church leaders keep ineffective staff?

Whatever the reasons are - and it’s usually a combination of several of the above factors - retaining church staff members who are not a good fit often causes severe damage to an organization and its mission:

  • Leadership is distracted. Don't let it get to the point where you dread going into the office because of a single individual who is clearly not a good fit for the organization. Why drag it out and prolong stress and anxiety? This distracts from the work of ministry, investing in other team members, and doing other things critical to leading the church’s mission and vision.
  • Team morale decreases. Nothing is more demoralizing to a team than when a leader does nothing to remove an irresponsible or even toxic team member. Other staff members might become resentful, frustrated, or despondent. The work of competent, formerly-motivated employees will eventually suffer.
  • Ministries are affected. This is the most important and urgent reason for why leaders need to be more decisive when it comes to staff who are not performing. Having an incompetent staff member, a weak leader, and an unnerved team is a recipe for disaster. The kids, students, families, seniors, and all other ministries we serve will experience even more hardship because of your lack of action.
  • The ineffective person is prevented from achieving a position in which they could excel. Most everyone wants to be a good employee and in a job where they fit. All of us strive to find the things we are good at and should find a role that is fulfilling to us. By keeping people who are not a good fit int a position, we may be preventing them from finding one that may be great for them. Sometimes, staff members are relieved after getting released, knowing they can move into an opportunity that is better for them.

3. What should church leaders do?

All church leaders should feel the responsibility to learn to hire better, supervise better, and let people go better. Here a few recommendations:

  • Tweak your thinking. This is about the church and its ministries, not your fears or feelings or even the other person. Church leaders are charged to advance the vision and mission of the church - that means you are paid to bear the burden of transitioning out ineffective staff and hiring effective team members.
  • Provide ongoing coaching and feedback. One-on-one time with the people you supervise is critical. Resist the temptation to skip out on that. Provide and solicit regular feedback for your team members to prevent these situations from arising. No one should be surprised when they get let go, because you should have already communicated several times with them about improvement, and you should have offered to provide guidance and support.
  • Check for clarity of expectations. So many issues can be resolved if everyone knows what’s expected of them. Ensure you are not punishing people for not being able to guess what you are thinking and expecting.
  • Check for capacity. Make sure the team member has the training, resources, and focus to do their job well.
  • Have an honest conversation about compatibility. If it’s clear this is not a good fit, after you’ve taken care to check for clear expectations and capacity, have an honest conversation with them expressing your concerns.
  • Admit to your fault in the situation. Part of having the honest conversation is admitting to the mistakes you made and to the role that you played in making things worse or dragging them out.
  • Allow people to keep their dignity. Keep in mind that you are working with people whose lives are tremendously affected by your decisions. Treating others with kindness is intrinsically important. Remember that they will likely remain in the field of church ministry, which means you’ll probably run into them later. Be firm when you release someone, but ensure the person feels respected.
  • Consult with an objective, third party. It’s always advisable to seek professional counsel and utilize a third-party, objective organization like Vanderbloemen Search Group to work through staff transitions and/or make more effective hires.

The wrong staff members (or the right ones at the wrong time) will always be detrimental to your church. The right staff at the right time will lead to effective ministry. Nothing is more destructive to a team than toxic colleagues. Yet so many church leaders are paralyzed by indecisiveness when it comes to a staff member who is not good for our team. When dealing with them, we must be respectful, we must be compassionate, but must also be decisive. Our churches and their mission to our communities deserve nothing less.

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