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.