It seemed evident that God brought Pastor Lyle to join the team at First Church as the Pastor of Ministry. He was sharp, a good communicator, and well-liked by the search team. He was responsible for leadership development, small groups, and campus ministry. The first few months on staff he showed great promise. Pastor Lyle launched a new discipleship ministry, mentored several men, and visited those who were hospitalized. At staff meetings, he shared good insights and bought into the vision.
But then some underlying negative characteristics began to surface. In his effort to do ministry, Pastor Lyle was hard on people. It’s not that he didn’t do ministry, he did. But he left a trail of damaged volunteers in his wake. In his pursuit of power and influence, he offended other staff members by treating them like cheap tools. He had a need to always be right, and this created disunity among the rest of the staff. Multiple attempts to salvage the situation were made by the lead pastor and elders, but after two tough years it was evident that Pastor Lyle was not the right pastor for First Church. Several hard conversations later, Pastor Lyle was asked to leave. Instead of leaving with grace and dignity, he tossed a turd in the proverbial punchbowl, picked up his cup, gave a toast to poor leadership, and left as if he were a righteous prophet stoned for speaking truth. His poor departure had a ripple effect on relationships within the church, causing some to leave and others to mourn for the whole situation.
This scenario might not be your scenario right now, but it certainly could be. If you have been in ministry for any length of time, you have had a staff member or key lay leader leave the church poorly. Not every staff member will be with you forever. Change is part of life. Sometimes good staff leave for good reasons; it happens. And when good staff leave for good reasons they should be celebrated and sent out with love and grace. This can be a win-win scenario and bless the person who is departing.
Other times a staff person might need to be asked to leave for impropriety, immorality, or authority conflicts. Some staff resign because they are upset, have unmet expectations, or are the wrong fit for the job they are doing. People who leave because they can’t do the work rarely ever admit it. I have talked to dozens of pastors who have experienced staff transitions, and rarely is a staff member or lead pastor honest enough to admit they could no longer do the job they were hired to do. Apparently it’s much easier to blame others that admit ones’ limitations. These situations are tough and taxing on everyone.
If you have a staff member leave on bad terms, expect these ten ramifications.
1. You can expect people to leave the church. Churches are glued together by relationships. The fact that your relationship with the departing staff is less than ideal doesn’t mean they don’t have other good relationships. You can expect some of the staff member’s close friends to leave the church. When they do, there isn’t much you can do about it. Just find a way to love them as they leave. You can bet they based their decision on one version of the story or left out of loyalty to the relationship. Do everything you can to honor Christ in your response to others.
2. You can expect people to talk a lot. Whenever you have to release a staff member, people will want to know the reason. How much do you tell them? This requires discernment, since each situation is unique. You need to share enough information so that it becomes clear that you are not hiding information. I learned this lesson the hard way. In an effort to save face for one staff member we fired, we did not divulge enough information about the reason he was fired, and that undermined my credibility with several families who wanted to know more but I refused to tell them. Several months later, after learning I should share more, I began to share more with those who asked, and they completely understood the decision. I wish I would have done this right away. I had to come to the conclusion that I was not morally responsible for the facts that led to that staff member’s dismissal. Telling the truth is not slander, so tell the truth and find peace in it.
3. You can expect the staff to ask you a lot of questions. Your staff already knows more about the situation than you think they do. You need them to be your advocate because others in the church will pry them for information. They need to know more than most, but they don’t need to know every detail. Be open to receiving their questions, be authentic in your response, and share as much as you can with them. Love them, and help them through the situation.
4. You can expect the staff to need your support. Your staff might not agree with the reason the person was fired or be upset that they left, but ultimately you want to pastor your staff through the transition. Help them to grieve if they need to grieve or stay humble if they are thrilled the person is gone.
5. You can expect rumors to spread. If you don’t give enough information as to the reason the staff member is gone, people will tend to fill in the gaps with opinions and share them as facts. The best way to handle difficult staff transitions is to have the elders or leadership team write a “one voice” statement that outlines the facts. Make this statement available to anyone who asks for it. Do this with the realization that even when the facts are shared, you can still expect rumors to fly. Stick to the facts and repeat them often in love with grace.
6. You can expect Satan to step into the middle of the mess. Satan loves to create confusion, disillusionment, and division. He has mastered it over the years. Since the church is God’s chosen vessel to advance His Kingdom, the church is the place Satan will strike the most. Satan can magnify bad circumstances in a hurry, making you feel like the entire church is going to explode. Stick to the truth, and trust God with the outcomes even though you can’t control them.
7. You can expect sniper fire. Let’s be honest, not everybody plays nice in the sandbox. People will accuse you of not following God, they will say you are not spiritual or deep, they will question your prayer life and may even hint that you are demonized and unsaved. Because we are all sinful people, we are all fully capable of hurting others.
When one of our staff left on bad terms, I heard rumors from my inner circle of friends that they believed the Holy Spirit had left the church and that I was not following God at all. These comments and accusations were meant to cause damage. They hurt the church and also hurt me and my family personally. Every pastor will encounter sniper fire, but not every pastor heals from it. Many get discouraged and would rather quit than take more shots. Spiritual leaders within the church will take shots as well, so you need to minister to them even when you are being fired at yourself. The key is to have thick skin and a tender heart. If you have thin skin and a hard heart, you won’t last long in ministry. Good captains always prove themselves in rough seas.
8. You can expect to go through a grieving cycle. When someone dies, those who were close to that person grieve. When a staff member leaves for good reasons or because the church asked them to leave, you will go through a grieving process. You might feel a sense of joy or intense anger or pain. Be honest with yourself when you grieve. Get outside help if you need to. Talk to other seasoned pastors, see a counselor, talk with trusted friends and admit your own pain in the process.
9. You can expect to have a few curve balls thrown at you. People you thought were on your team will leave your team, and others you anticipated would be upset won’t be. One church celebrated a staff member’s accomplishments after he said he was resigning and threw him a going away party on his last day. The church even gave him a month’s wages and paid his insurance out of their generosity. But before he left, he spent his last two weeks meeting with all of his leaders one-on-one, blasting the church leadership and lead pastor. This was wrong and sinful, and he did it while he was being paid by the church. Most of his leaders ended up drinking his Kool-Aid and leaving the church. What could have been a healthy transition turned toxic. You might get hit with a few curve balls, and when you do they are going to hurt. Put some ice on the wound and stay focused on leading your team because they need you.
10. You can expect God to get you through it. Several years ago, I was meeting with one of my mentors and describing a tough situation. He looked at me and reassured me that I would get through it and be a better leader because of it. At the time, I had my doubts, but looking back, I realize he was spot on. I did get through it. The damage was less than I anticipated, the pain was more real than expected, and God was more faithful than I imagined. Not only did God get me through it, he grew me through it, and I’m grateful for it.
If you have recently been fired, resigned, or, dare I say, left a church on bad terms yourself, you have the ability to honor Christ even if you don’t agree with what the church did. Make amends where you need to, and spend some time healing. The manner in which you leave a church reflects your level of spiritual maturity. Ultimately we are all the body of Christ called and commissioned to make disciples, so let’s stay focused on that. Do the best you can to leave strong so that you are always welcome to back if you should chose to visit.
I want to encourage you to stay strong in your calling. Churches are full of sinful people trying to fulfill a holy mission and it’s tough. If you have no idea what I’m talking about in this blog, file it away for later because one day you will. Now you will know what to expect when it does happen. God will help you through it because the church is the bride of Christ and she is beautiful even though she is full of imperfect people.