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Use discretion when there‘s cause for termination

By Pat Gilbert

There are few situations more difficult for a church executive or administrator than having to dismiss an employee. The multi-step process recommended in many publications is time-consuming and may not be the best fit for your particular circumstances.

Because your church may not pay the unemployment tax, your employees may not have the same access to unemployment compensation as employees in secular occupations. Therefore, the impact of any church termination can be much more serious and traumatic. In general, there are at least four very different situations that may require dismissal of an employee and they each call for different approaches.

1. Serious infractions: This is often referred to as dismissal “for cause.” Behaviors such as theft or deliberate damage to church property, threatened or actual physical assault, falsification of payroll or other financial records, intoxication on the job and other illegal or dangerous activities call for immediate termination of the offending employee. These circumstances should be spelled out in your employee manual.

While you will not discuss the circumstances with other employees, some may already be aware and it’s important that they see that the behavior will not be tolerated. No severance pay should be offered. If there are any employment contracts, especially for pastoral staff, the contracts should specify the conditions “for cause,” the process for dismissal and severance considerations. Such contracts take precedence over the employee manual.

2. Behaviors incompatible with the teachings of your church: These circumstances are especially sensitive. While most employers require their employees to uphold the values of the organization, the values of a church can be substantially different from those of secular employers and may have legal implications in your state. If this is a possible issue for your church, it is best handled by having a covenant of behavior signed as a condition of employment. This covenant should be reviewed by an attorney to ensure it complies with the laws of your state.

A defined process of pastoral counseling is advisable before any termination, allowing for the possibility of a commitment to change the behavior. Repentance and restoration should always be the goal of church discipline. During the time allowed for the counseling process the employee has a choice to change behavior or seek other employment. If there is no change, termination may be inevitable. If severance is provided in these circumstances, it should be done consistently.

3. Inadequate job performance: The multi-step process of verbal and written warning followed by probation and ultimately dismissal is specifically designed for performance issues. It is unfair to expect an employee to live up to unclear expectations, so it’s important that the employee be provided with a job description and clear performance goals well in advance of any performance evaluation. If performance fails to measure up to documented standards a performance improvement plan should be designed and reviewed with the employee and provide measurable targets.

The objective of this plan is to either improve the employee’s performance to acceptable levels or to help the employee realize that the job is not a fit so he can begin to seek other employment. Termination is truly a last resort and should follow a process that is likely to take several months. Since the employee is unlikely to be eligible for unemployment compensation, severance tied to length of service is appropriate.

4. Reduction in staff for financial reasons: This has become more common in recent years, especially in larger churches. Reductions may be based on eliminating functions or on employee performance, but there should be an objective standard applied consistently. Because of the unavailability of unemployment compensation it’s very important to let employees know as far in advance as possible that reductions are likely.

This advance notice will help people avoid financial commitments such as major purchases, home equity loans, etc. It will also provide some with the opportunity to begin seeking other employment. Inviting them to pray for wisdom for leaders as decisions are made will not only increase the prayer support for the decision makers but may also help the affected employees accept the reasons for the decisions. Whenever possible, some severance should be offered, possibly using benevolence funds for this purpose. Allowing the affected employees to use church resources such as Internet access and fax for a time will help them pursue their job search.

Demonstrate compassion

Treating affected employees with compassion will help them deal with the job loss and will also help to reduce “survivor’s guilt” for those who continue to be employed. There may be postings and other legal requirements unique to your state, so check with an attorney well in advance of any staff reductions.

Sudden termination is traumatic for any employee and should be used only in the most extreme circumstances. The loss of income without the safety net of unemployment compensation can be devastating, especially if the employee is the sole bread winner or if major financial commitments have recently been made based on the expected income. For a church worker, the trauma often leads to both loss of employment and loss of their church support system due to embarrassment or bitterness about how the termination was handled.

The goal of any termination process should be to deal appropriately and fairly with the cause for the termination, while demonstrating compassion and care for the affected employee. The manner in which terminations are handled will affect the trust level not only of the terminated employees, but also the church members who know them and those who remain employed by the church.

Pat Gilbert is president of Kingdom Focus Consulting LLC, Lakeville, MN, and  was director of information systems at Willow Creek Community Church. [kingdom-focus.com]

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