Too toxic to keep, too popular to fire: What to do about that difficult staff member

“Shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).

I once asked a pastor friend, “Are you afraid of (a certain member of his staff who was causing him grief)?”  He said, “No, I’m not afraid of him.  But I fear  the damage he could do if I were to fire him.”

Therein lies the dilemma:  What to do about a team member  too powerful to fire but too difficult to keep.

Read on.

I’ve been reading H. W. Brands’ The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War. Dr. Brands is a highly respected professor of history at the University of Texas. Back when Brands taught at Texas A&M, Stephen Ambrose brought him to New Orleans for the 1998 conference on the Spanish-American War. My son Neil and I took in the conference and have been big fans of Professor Brands ever since.

In April 1951, Truman fired the most popular general in American history, becoming in one act the most reviled President in memory. During this period of his presidency, historians agree that Truman had become  one of the most unpopular presidents in history.  Interestingly, however, history vindicates Truman in his decision to dismiss the egotistical and out of control general.  You will search long and hard to find a military historian who thinks that MacArthur should not have been fired.

Someone asked Dwight D. Eisenhower once, “Didn’t you serve under General MacArthur?” (Ike had been his right-hand man in the Philippines in the 1930s.)  He answered, “I studied dramatics under him for eight years.” He is quoted as saying, “MacArthur could never see another sun, or even a moon for that matter, as long as he was the sun.”

The U.S. Constitution posits the ultimate military authority of this country in the hands of the President as  Commander-in-Chief.  Generals take orders from the President. General MacArthur made little secret, however, of his contempt for the system, his disdain for  the politicians in Washington, and his conviction that  he alone knew best how to contain the Communist menace in Asia and win the Korean War.  The record is well-documented that he ignored some of the presidential directives, was a law to himself in his conduct of the war, and deserved his dismissal.

The nation’s military leaders at the time agreed that anyone other than MacArthur would have been dismissed long before. The problem was MacArthur’s huge popularity.  The American people, never known to follow the subtleties of politics, the complexities of the constitution, and relationships of national leaders with one another, deified the man.

In April 1951, I was a child of 11 and  well remember the furor that erupted from Truman’s sacking of MacArthur.

When Truman decided  to dismiss MacArthur and replace him with General Matthew Ridgway, he had the complete support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and every other key leader in the know.  But he made it clear: the decision was his and his alone.  Charged with the duty by the Constitution, Truman made the decision and took the flack, which was considerable.

And that’s the point for pastors–or any kind of boss–who has to deal with an incorrigible underling too toxic to keep but  too popular to dismiss:  Get your leadership on board. When the firestorm begins to rage, they will be asked what they knew and given a chance to speak up.  They should be courageous and prompt in defending  the pastor’s decision.

Other suggestions…

Do nothing rash.  Take your time.

Make sure you do all you can to give the targeted staff member guidance, support, and room to do his job.

Document each step you take, each conversation you have, every attempt you make to salvage the relationship and redeem the ministry.

When conditions become  so critical you dare not allow the status quo to continue–you make the decision.  You are the pastor.

To make the decision, you will have to consider all your options and weigh the cost of each one.  For that, you need good advisors, competent assistants, and responsible team members.

Do not blame anyone for the decision you alone are making.  I cannot tell you the times terminated staffers have told me that in firing them, the  pastor said, “I didn’t want to do this, but the leaders are headstrong.”  That is so cowardly.  If you are being pressured to terminate a staffer but you disagree, hold your ground.

There will be a cost, no matter what you do. 

If you terminate a popular staff member, even if you explain the reasons and document the dysfunctionality of his work, to a large segment of the congregation nothing will matter other than their devotion to the man.  So, do not be surprised when a portion of the membership does unreasonable and unthinking things.  (My wife said to me after just such an event, “Joe, get real.  You want to fire a man and have him like it.” I had to admit she was right.  Thereafter, the ousted staff member’s anger did not bother me so much.)

There is always a price to be paid for leadership, the cost of being the episcopos, the overseer.  The good shepherd gives his life–if necessary–for the sheep.  The hireling flees, because he does not care about the sheep.  (John 10)

Be courageous, friend.  Go back and reread Matthew 10:16-42 and remind yourself why the Lord has to draft people into the ministry.  Be strong.

Do the right thing, then love your enemies (that would be Luke 6:27ff), and leave the rest to the Lord.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.