When a Staff Member Becomes a Detriment

Yesterday, as I write, President Obama fired his top general in Afghanistan. Therein lies a tale which every pastor and staff member ought to take to heart.

General Stanley McChrystal is a case study in a lot of things: militarism, athleticism, patriotism, gung-hoism, machoism, and egotism.

What got this commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan sacked was a lengthy article just published in the July edition of Rolling Stone magazine. Since the article is online, anyone can read it. I did last night.

Can you say “insubordination?” (I’m channeling my inner Fred Rogers now.) In a sentence, McChrystal was openly critical of Obama and his diplomatic team. He held nothing back, said exactly what he thought, and had little favorable to say about anyone he has to work with.

The article says Obama had previously taken McChrystal to the woodshed and told him to bridle his mouth. But some people cannot be told anything; they are a law unto themselves.

The writer says McChrystal prides himself on being sharper and guttier than anyone else. But his brashness comes with a price: he has offended almost everyone with a stake in the Afghan conflict.

The title of the article says it all: “The Runaway General: The top commander in Afghanistan has seized control of the war by never taking his eyes off the real enemy: the wimps in the White House.”

You cannot fire a guy like that fast enough. Get him gone now.

Ever seen a church staff member like that?

I’ve seen runaway staffers, but clearly no one just like General McChrystal, a man said to sleep 4 hours a night, run 7 miles a day, and eat one meal a day. He is so intense about his work, he sees his wife something like 30 days a year.

He’s a mixture of brilliance and cockiness, we are told–the poster child as well as the role model for the gung ho culture in the military.

Colleagues say of this general, “He puts soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

Insubordination. A law unto himself. He knows better than anyone.

That attitude is what cost General Douglas MacArthur his job in 1953. President Truman got tired of having his commander on the field countermand his decisions and criticize his policies. He knew what firing this popular general would cost him but did it anyway. I know of no one, no historian especially, who questions what Truman did. It did indeed cost him politically, but history has vindicated him.

Here’s a scenario for you.

The pastor has a popular staff member whose area within the church is little short of amazing. That assistant minister runs a tight ship, leads a team of fiercely loyal (to him!) co-workers, and is acclaimed far and wide for his successes. He writes articles for magazines on his subject, whether his area be worship leadership, education, youth ministry, missions, children, or administration. He certainly knows his work well and does impressive work.

The problem is he is not a team player. He does not care who the pastor of the church is at any given time. He was in place at the church when you the pastor arrived and fully expects he will outlast you. He sits patiently through staff meetings, hardly participating, and does all the things you require of him, although absent of all enthusiasm. He irritates the other team members by his attitude.

You can’t prove it, but you are sure he is criticizing you and the other staffers behind your back. His team members are his cult followers, think he is the beginning and the end of their responsibility, and have little to do with the rest of the staff.

He has shrewdly built his network within the membership of the church. At budget planning time, his people will invariably be in places of decision-making and vocal about how he deserves a great hunk of the finances.

He is the tail that wags the dog.

So, you are the pastor. What do you do with such a one?

The easy answer is: fire him. The harder question is: how?

How to get him out and live to tell about it.

What follows are my answers. They may not be yours. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you. You will go in His strength or you will not survive the trip, friend.

Before you go to a church, find out all you can. Know in advance if you are walking into this kind of loaded situation.

You may assume two things: the pastor search committee as a whole will not talk about this with you (you’ll have to find out from other sources), and such a staff member will have one or more of his people on the search committee. They will tell him every step the committee makes.

Former pastors and neighboring ministers will tell you if one staff member is a bear-trap waiting for your foot.

If the Lord gives you a choice in the matter, avoid that church altogether. If you are dead certain the Lord is sending you to that church, make your will, get your prayer life in order, and plan to rent for the first year. You may not be there long. I’m only half-kidding.

Know if you have the support of the true leaders of the church.

If you do, and if they are courageous enough to stand with you, you can pull an Obama and fire the runaway general. If they are timid and keep cautioning restraint on your part, your choices are narrowed greatly and you may not be able to pull this off.

You might decide to try to live with the bad situation. After all, it won’t kill you. In fact, one of your options is the last thing in the world you might have thought of…

You could join that staff-member’s team.

Become his biggest cheerleader. Befriend him (to the extent he allows anyone that honor). In doing so, accept that he may be laughing at you behind your back, calling you a wimp for caving in to him. Sometimes religious psychotics respect only those who oppose them and call them the crazies they are.

But joining his team is one of your options. In bringing in new members of your staff, you would inform them in one-on-one sessions that the Runaway Staffer is the 600-pound elephant in the church office and we’re going to live with him. If they know going in, staffers can usually handle it. What they cannot handle is learning of his existence the hard way, by going up against the general expecting the fight to be a fair one and (as we say in Alabama) “having his hide put on a pole.”

In one-on-one sessions with the runaway staffer, speak plainly, listen carefully, stay focused on the work of the Lord and the welfare of this church, and keep detailed notes.

The day may come when you have to pull those notes out and defend yourself. If you have taken the time immediately after your meetings with him–every meeting, no matter how casual!–to type up notes of the conversation and to date them, you will be able to respond to the false reports he passes along to his lackies and they to the congregation.

In case you haven’t decided by now, this is a great reason not to pastor a mega church.

Clearly, it’s the larger churches with huge ministerial teams that are more likely to have the runaway generals on their staff.

These guys–they’re almost always men–have been there for years and have built their own organization complete with secret police. They are the Nazis of the 1930s and the rest of the church the acquiescent Allies blithely wanting only to destroy all weapons and be left in peace.

Smaller churches will sometimes have their own version of Reverend McChrystal. These will tend to be laypeople not ministers. They think they are impervious to being fired since they do not take a salary. But if the individual is a law unto himself, gives only lip service to the rest of the church program, criticizes you the pastor behind your back, and trains his workers to believe that his program is the only thing that matters–he is your problem and he must be dealt with.

Get good counsel from professionals before driving this hazardous course.

Your state denominational office will have at least one or two sharp ministers with experience which you can draw from. You may have a pastor friend from a previous city or a professor from your seminary whose wisdom you respect and whose counsel you need.

Don’t try this alone.

One resource that might have escaped your attention is a former pastor who has worked well with the runaway staffer. Call him and ask if you can take him to lunch one day. It’s worth a day or two of your time in case you have to drive or fly. Tell him what’s going on and ask for his best counsel on how to work with the little Napoleon.

You may hear a side of the general you never knew. There’s always the possibility that the guy is redeemable and a potential asset to the church.

Whether you do what the friend says or not is your call. But it’s worth hearing him out.

If and when the time comes to fire the man, just do it.

Make sure the leaders who count most are standing with you.

Then, take a lesson from Obama: do the deed, don’t apologize to the subject, do not take the blame for yourself, don’t beat around the bush, don’t wimp out, and get ready to take the heat. Make the termination effective immediately or sooner since this guy is able to do you a lot of damage.

Every staff member, no matter how ineffectual, will have supporters in the church. When you have to terminate a minister, assume some will be unhappy. Decide in advance you are going to love them (as much as they will let you) and keep telling yourself you will get beyond this.

I fired a guy once whose job I had safeguarded a year longer than the church leadership advised. They had told me before I came to that church that he was lazy and ineffective. I naively said, “I can work with anyone. Let me try working with him for a year.”

When I terminated him, he was unable to comprehend what I was telling him. This could not be happening. So, that evening, the members of the personnel committee filed into my office for a session with this unhappy man. One by one, each voiced his/her own reasons for the termination.

Even then, he left the church angry at me, sure that I had sand-bagged him and done him wrong.

When I unloaded my frustrations with my wife, she said, “Joe, get real. You want to fire a guy and have him like it.” I had to admit she was right. Once again.

In time, years later, he and I became friends again, although from a distance. He’s in heaven now, and I’m still sad about the whole experience.

It’s no fun, terminating someone.

As the new pastor of a church of medium size, I had a little conference with the staffer in charge of music. This good man did not lead worship at Wednesday night’s prayer meetings, but left that in charge of a diminutive senior adult woman who was awful. Her inept leadership was destroying the spirit in the service. I asked why we had to put up with that.

“Pastor, she’s been such a trooper through the years. Everyone loves her. And frankly, she loves doing this and it would hurt her to give it up.”

I said, “It’s hurting the rest of us for her to keep doing it. And the welfare of the whole group is more important than the wishes of one. I want you to deal with this. You are our minister of music. You will lead the music at each service. This is not debatable.”

He did. She took it fine, and all was well.

Sometimes it works out well. Let’s hope it will for you.

12 thoughts on “When a Staff Member Becomes a Detriment

  1. Bro. Joe, as always, timely, informational, and great advice! God bless you brother!

  2. Bro. Joe, while I don’t like arguing politics, I am afraid the day may come when we will need Gen. McChrystal.

  3. Timely and insightful advice especially for young pastors just starting out. The vast majority of our pastors will never be in a mega church, but oh,my…how the lay people in small churches who are the little Napoleons can ruin a terrific church and make a pastor’s life absolutely miserable!

    On the other hand, those servant-hearted leaders in the smaller churches can be priceless to their pastor/staff and their families! God grew me in both situations. Blessings, Becky

  4. Great counsel and great information. I would not be surprised that every pastor who is in ministry for any length of time has to deal with this thankless part of the job. Now I hope every pastor who is dealing with issue as we write, does not arbitrarily go fire the McCrystal in his place. Ha! Bryan

  5. Great insights. I like the one about joining his team. Also I would suggest getting a ministry coach involved. Perhaps there are changes that can be made and save the staff member. Most don’t want to be a pain but may have a pain that can be coached through. Having worked through situations and kept the staff member on board, I know that they are usually worth investing in by using a coach.

  6. I was once the “problem staffer”. I was hired by a very young and green children’s minister to help with a new summer program (FT care for kids on summer break). As an experienced director of a child care program, I had a lot of valuable experience, skills and insight – but I also had an attitude. I was grumbly about how things were being run and amazed that my boss didn’t appreciate my “wisdom”. She fired me quickly and decisively about 6 weeks in. It was a 12 week program and she could have just tolerated me, but she showed remarkable courage and leadership by recognizing how quickly that kind of poison can bring a ministry down.As you might imagine, I was knocked for a loop – very angry, depressed, and humiliated by the whole experience. I thank God for His grace to use this environment/experience to teach me some critical lessons.It took a couple of years, but our story has a happy ending. We found the transcendant power of God’s love can teach, heal,reconcile, and transform.

  7. Sound encouragement and advice. I appreciate the sincereity and the courage to write this. Being the head leader of a parachurch ministry, I can relate to both examples. The redemption of one such person is His glory! Our heart must be anchored to His and ever purposeful throughout the whole situation from beginning to end. I see this heart in you. Thank you. I regret that most that my experience has been more often that the wayward one, the woman who is “A law unto herself. Who knows better than anyone,” who desires to fight rather than working through it. However, as in the example of the dear worship leader, as God’s shepherd, I must and have done what is best for the group, not rashly but prayerfully and with godly counsel. It is easy to lean toward an approach that is not anchored in God’s heart. All the more that we must stay anchored, cautiously avoiding compromise, walking in grace and exhausting all possible means of reconciliation but when not possible, excercising our authority to protect the sheep. We live in a “me” society that has crept in the church body, and therein lies the issue, doesn’t it? It’s all about Jesus Christ and not about “me.” It’s about Chirst in me. I cannot tell you how reassuring this article is. It also makes me sad in that this unfortunately is a cancer which is killing us. Again, thank you.

  8. The last two comments–from Molly and Michelle–were such a blessing. I’ve chatted with both ladies (via email) and thanked them. Molly tells me she is still an active member of the church where she was fired. I find that amazing and such a credit to her maturity in Christ. — Today, just before reading their comments, I received a hostile note from someone I have never met, saying he had read these blogs and “you are one sick individual.” So, Molly’s and Michelle’s comments made up for his ugliness. (I deleted his without replying.)

  9. I’ve been there as well. After having a family leave my church I suffered through 7 year of torment in the church, but I stayed as long as God wanted me to. Now the church is much healthier but I and my family suffered much for this church. Firing people who are good people is hard but will end up okay. Firing an evil person will create a backlash the likes you never dreamed of. … And by the way, the Obama comparison has no validity. He has the entire media on his side. He can do no wrong in their eyes. A pastor will never have the whole media (the gossip centers of the church) on his side. The comparison has no value.

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