Every year across the United States, 4,000 churches close their doors, according to research from Thom Rainer.
Five years ago, Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, closed its doors. It was one of the more public in modern history because it was widely reported across social media, websites and blogs.
When I got to Mars Hill in 2011, layoffs and terminations were not done well. I would love to say that I always laid off staff in a loving way in my role as pastor. But I did not. One of the greatest lessons I learned while at Mars Hill was to lead as a pastor and not a professional.
Over time, Jesus taught me a lot from and with Pastor Dave Bruskas as he led our staff through the pastoral epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus) each week. By the grace of God, in the end, we had gotten closer to getting it right than what we had in the past.
Most of the time, churches lay off employees because of financial difficulties because they can no longer afford the employee. Sometimes, churches lay off staff because of a shift in vision. When the person is laid off, their position will not be refilled.
Here are some tips I've learned over the years about how to lay off staff in a way that's honoring and kind to them:
- Be certain that the layoff is correct and needed.
- Seek wise counsel. Before you execute a layoff, seek wise counsel from your board or other pastors from other churches. You need prayer as the leader and wise counsel for what is best for your church and your staff.
- As a leader and manager, take some responsibility for the layoff. The church hired the employee and situations have changed financially or strategically. If you were too aggressive on church growth plans that did not pan out, you need to own that.
- A layoff, unlike a termination, will come as a shock to the staff member. Even though you might have been watching the financial numbers closely as the executive pastor, most staff members will not know the financial situation of the church to that detail. So be prepared for their shock and emotional upset.
- Meet with the person who is being laid off with another pastor, if possible. Open the meeting in prayer. Then get right to it: "I am very sorry, but we are going to have to lay you off."
- Go through as much detail as you can to explain the reason for the layoff and also that their position will not be refilled because of the current circumstances.
- As a leader, you have a requirement to try to assist the person being laid off in finding another job. That means you need to write a reference letter, use your contacts to get them an interview and be available when future employers call for a recommendation or reference. Many people these days do not know how to write a good, effective resume. So, give the former employee an example of a good resume. Offer to help them edit it before they send it out.
- Many times, the staff member will be very hurt, mad or upset with you and the church. Give them time and space to go and talk to their spouse and family.
- Existing staff will feel shame and guilt that they still have a position when their friends and co-workers don't. Still others may fear that their position is also in jeopardy. Have a staff meeting after the individual layoff meetings for the staff to process the situation.
- Since many times layoffs are done with multiple staff members at one time, you should bring them back (a couple of days or weeks after they were notified of the layoff) to have a time of prayer and community with remaining staff. Remember, it might be appropriate to invite their spouses. Spend this time in the Word with a short teaching and have an open prayer time where supervisors and staff pray over the former employee.
I wish I had followed the suggestions given above, each and every time that I laid off a staff member. I did not. Thanks be to God for the power of the Holy Spirit, which has graciously sanctified me in this area over the last several years. Looking back at the two large layoffs we had at Mars Hill in May and September 2014, we had a prayer time Wednesday, Sept. 10. It was one of the toughest days of my professional life.
That day, we had all of our church locations and their local staff join an online broadcast, and we invited all of the people who were laid off to return for a corporate time of prayer. Pastor Bruskas started the meeting with a Bible teaching. Then we had each supervisor or close co-worker pray over each person who had been laid off. For a leader, it was a tough thing to do, but in hindsight, it was most definitely the right thing.
As an executive pastor, I have learned over time that you cannot lead a church staff like a business. You are a pastor with business acumen. The leadership style that worked while you were in the secular world may not love and lead like your church team needs.
This fact is never truer than when it comes to terminations and layoffs. I pray that God will use what I have learned to help you lead and love well through the tough staff transitions you will face.
Sutton Turner is the chief operating officer of Vanderbloemen, which serves teams with a greater purpose by aligning their people solutions for growth: hiring, compensation, succession and culture. Through its retained executive search and consulting services, Vanderbloemen serves churches, schools, nonprofits, family offices and Christian businesses in all parts of the United States and internationally.
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