Difficult Staffing Decisions

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At times it is necessary make difficult decisions related to staff positions or staff members. In minstries it is especially difficult to terminate a staff member. Ministry leaders are not usually professional managers, most ministries do not have HR policies that govern these things, and so these things can become quite personal. Ministry is not “business”, so the “strictly business” flavor of separation is not really appropriate.

I am writing this because a dear friend of mine was let go from a position at a “faith based” non-profit organization this week. I’m not sure of the details of the exact circumstances, but it did come as a surprise, and that is unfortunate.

I want to write about this topic while it is fresh in my mind.

There are three reasons that ministries and non-profits tend to terminate staff members:

Funding and Structure – when donations or other revenue streams are going the wrong way, there are times when organizations need to shrink, realign, or re-group. Sometimes it is a collision of talent, we have too much of one and not enough of another. These are ministry staffing decisions that are the least personal. The problem is “who” is going to be terminated. That is always personal. There is always a choice.

For Cause – when a staff member does something that is illegal, inappropriate, putting the reputation of the organization at risk, violates essential policies, etc. While this is personal, it usually is easy to understand.

Performance – when a staff member is not performing to expectations or organizational need. This is probably the most difficult, and the hardest to deal with for most leaders. We want those we hire to be successful, and we (looking through Jesus’ eyes) want see the good, however, when someone is not getting the job done, or causing conflict with other staff, or simply not gifted in ways that will make them successful in the way we envisioned their role we have some tough choices. Typically, change the person, change the role, or both.

Since performance is the toughtest, I thought I would talk some more about that one. Performance issues can be dealt with more easily (without staff changes) if there is adequate funding. In that case, you can re-align responibilities to the giftedness of your staff, and see if that produces more of what you need. You can also divide a large role, and add staff to get where you are going, if your funding is adequate.

When funding is already tight or even problematic, leaders often feel a pressure to reduce staff, and lean on volunteers more. These are difficult decisions, because it can cause a collapse or a dent in your organizations growth pattern. When you add to this a staff member who does not appear to be getting the right things accomplished, or who appears to be working “off priority”, this pressure intensifies.

My expertise:
As a manager and a manager of leaders, I have been confronted with these choices many times over. I have had to terminate, and restructure my organization to make sure that the right talent were available. I have also had to coach my staff members into higher performance, to grow them into roles, to define stretch goals for them, to rescue them from themselves, and finally to help them recognize when they are simply not capable of doing what I ask. As an individual contributor and a manager of others I have always had a manager of one kind or another – I have had my share of confrontation on both sides of the desk.

My advice does not come from years of ministry experience – but years of leading and managing people in industry, and watching ministry leaders with no formal management training, botch management decisions because they have not learned to lead and manage people.

Advice for leaders:
As a leader, there are some truths that you need to recognize when contemplating a separation or reorganization…

1) Your team is your most valuable resource – a team that works well together can perform better than a group of star performers that doesn’t.
2) Your expectations of performance are not always realistic – get counsel or advice when you have continual conversations about unmet expecations, especially when the team works well together and is exerting an appropriate amount of effort.
3) People are loyal to people more than organizations – especially true with younger organizations. In ministries, church plants and newer non-profits, your volunteers and staff are loyal to the leaders and to each other. staffing changes can disrupt that loyalty and can disturb the “team” of volunteers.
4) Others take notice – what message are you sending to the rest of the staff when you separate someone who is an integral part of the team? If the general consensus of the team (regarding the person separated) is positive, then the message can be perceived as negative – others who have opportunities can feel threatened and separate on their own.

In general, people are overly positive in their estimation of themselves, they tend to think they are doing OK unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If your feedback to them is subtle, suggestive rather than direct, conditional rather than mandatory, consistently balanced positive and negative, etc – they may not recognize your dissatisfaction. If you are unhappy enough with someone’s performance to consider a termination, this should not come as a surprise to them. They should know that they are “on the bubble”. If the team is functioning well together, you should consider a restoration period – that is express your dissatisfaction, with a time limit – and give them a chance to improve, fully understanding what is on the line. In this case, it gives your employee some time to make their own decisions – potentially saving you the trouble of a termination.

Advise for staff members:
As an employee, there are some truths that you need to reflect on when your manager expresses concern or dissatisfaction with your performance…

1) Managers are imperfect – your boss, leader, manager has her own problems, challenges and weaknesses. She also has strengths and biases. If you understand her, you will understand how to be valuable to her.
2) Most people assume that others think like them, and are gifted like them, your manager is no exception, you may need to see yourself through the lens of your bosses strenghts and gifts, to understand his concerns.
3) Bosses generally prefer that you bring problems to them already solved so that they can approve or direct the solution. Try not to make your problems become your bosses problems.
4) Your boss probably does not know what you need to be successful. You are actually in the best position to understand what you need to be successful. Your boss is probably willing to help remove obstacles to your success, but doesn’t necessarily understand what is blocking your progress.

You can do three things to appeal to your manager:


  • Make Yourself Accountable – to your manager by letting them know with time to react to impending failures. It doesn’t help to tell your boss after you have failed. Tell your boss about the obstacles you see coming, and explain how you see the two of you overcoming the obstacle together – give them a vision for how they can help. This is a form of transparency – being willing to share your struggles. Make sure her goals for you are your goals; own them.


  • Manage Up – Take time to understand what is important to your manager – what her hot buttons are. Make sure that you plan to accomplish her most important goals. Also help her understand when issues that are beyond her perception will interfere; help her get “Line Of Sight” to issues that will prevent you (and her) from getting her goals accomplished. By doing this, you are managing your bosses expectations, and helping her to get in front of obstacles that you see (from your perspective) that are in her blind spot.


  • Make Yourself Valuable – Learn about your managers strengths and weaknesses. What is your bosses kryptonite? Offer to pick up administrative tasks that she hates, trade with her where your strengths complement her weaknesses. But always make sure she understands and appreciates the value of your doing this. If you do this at the expense of acheiving her important goals, you sacrificed accountability.

Any time you have a conflict with your manager, you should get some perspective. Don’t simply soldier on, especially if you are resenting your manager for confronting you, or if you feel like you never understand where she is coming from. Find a friend outside your organization and play the situation back to him, ask for advice and do a personal reality check – Am I the problem? If you have a friend who is a manager, who can talk through the other side of the conversation and give you that perspective, that would be valuable.

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