Friday, December 5, 2008

About Ministry Hires & Fires

I recently had dinner with a fellow minister and his wife who had been dismissed from his long-term position as a senior pastor of a larger church. He had been told that his current contract would not be renewed at the end of a recent five-year term. What made this so sad was that the congregation knew nothing about this dismissal, and from his perspective there were insufficient reasons for the termination. The one salient fact that stood out was his AGE – he was in his later 60s. Of course, from his Board's and denominational supervisor's point of view there were "reasons" for his departure. However, the "reasons" seemed vague, unclear and inadequate, given his sterling record of ministry within the church and denomination.

How should we hire and fire ministers? What should be the deciding criteria for their coming and going from our churches and ministries? I would suggest four things. First, there must be intentional, clear, viable results-oriented expectations upfront at the time of hire. So much of hiring done in many denominations and their churches lacks definitive expectations at the outset of a ministry term. Character and credentials and even chemistry are not sufficient, I believe, for an adequate ministerial hire. The man or woman needs to come into a ministry situation or church with a clear understanding of what he or she is expected to accomplish in his ministry term. And, this must be spelled out in goals and results expected. We shy away from these kind of terms, but they are used in leadership in the business world all the time, and jobs are gained or lost on their fulfillment or lack thereof. Some might object that the church or a ministry is NOT a business, but I would beg to differ. It is indeed a cause for God, but that cause needs to be fleshed out in very definite strategies, goals and expectations. 

Second, evaluations need to be done yearly and then rigorously at midterm. Thus, "he preaches well" is not an adequate evaluation. It must be something like, "he preaches well and the evidence is in thirty transformed lives this year. Ten people found Christ through his pulpit ministry, and twenty people have evidenced spiritual growth and maturity." Such evaluations demand record-keeping, accountable relationships and intentional discipleship, not only by the pastor but also by evaluative boards and committees and the denomination. Or, "he cares well" must become "he has visited five hundred people this year as minister of care, and recipients testify as to his promptness of care, his listening abilities, his follow-up visits and calls and so forth." Encouragement and care CAN be monitored, evaluated and strengthened.

Third, mid-stream corrective help, if needed and warranted, needs to be put in place. The ministerial leader then can take steps to improve his performance as well as his professional prowess. Seminars, retreats, specific reading assignments, tapes and videos can all be used as well as professional and personal coaches, mentors and accountability partners. If the minister is unwilling or believe he or she is unable to improve and meet the expectations of his or her hire, then the Board and/or denomination have some choices. They can either reaffirm their original expectations, modify them, or scrap them and form new ones along with input from the minister, if they desire to keep him or her to the end of term. Or, he or she and the Board and denominational group can help the person transfer into something that is more akin to gift mix and talents. And, this can be done with full knowledge of the congregation or ministry staff, with everyone saving face. This midterm event allows the minister to finish out the term, if he or she so desires, and find something else if that is indicated. There is no problem with termination pay, no secret meetings and plans and everyone, including the congregation, can be kept informed as to the progress or lack thereof. This may be "new" to many congregations, but it's time to "grow up" and act like adults in such a process.

Fourth, the end of term evaluation process reviews the expectations and determines whether the minister has met them. Again, such an evaluation needs to take into account especially difficult times and situations entirely out of the hands of the minister that might have prevented full realization of the expectations. So, this is not some "hard-and-fast" legalistically motivated review, but an honest look at production. And, as at the midterm evaluation, definable standards must be put into place. Hence, for instance, if an expectation from a senior minister was to grow the church population by 25%, then that can be reviewed. If he made 20% then the evaluation team makes a determination whether that is sufficiently close to the goal to allow. But, all things being equal, if there has been only 5% total population growth, then he hasn't met this expectation. This factor is considered among many others as to whether he or she is kept or let go. Again, the point is there are no surprises, no hidden agendas, no back room gatherings, and no excuses. 

Wait a minute, someone says! Where is GOD in all of this? Can't God change or challenge our expectations and desires for ministry? Of course! Those are fully considered as the years go by, with changes, additions and deletions as needs be, but all parties are aware of this, work together at this and seek to finally follow what God really wants in this church or ministry. 

Such a system, I believe, is fair, just, possesses biblical integrity, compassionate and Great Commission oriented. It helps us all advance the kingdom instead of just falling into a "same-old, same-old" pattern of living, thinking and processing. It also helps improve ministry for all and weeds out those not really called or gifted for ministry. It takes faith, courage to make the "hard" calls at times, and decisiveness. But isn't that what the church has lacked for too many years?!