Parishes Are Not Jobs Programs

A friend of mine, the pastor of a large Evangelical church, once said something that made a huge impression on me. “No one should work at a church because they need the job.”  Think about that.  If someone is working in your parish primarily because they need to be working, there is a problem.

Let’s be clear.  This is not to say that people who work at a parish don’t need to be paid.  And it’s not to say that their financial needs aren’t real.  In fact, in many parishes we need to be more creative about finding ways to pay good people more so that they don’t feel compelled to leave for another job simply to care for their family.

The point my friend was making is that a parish should never be a jobs program.  A pastor should never, ever, feel that he should keep employing people who don’t have the attitude, talent or mission alignment that he needs to set the world on fire.  And I think I can say with confidence that this is too often the case in many parishes.

Before we get into practical advice for pastors on how to deal with this problem, it’s probably a good idea to understand why it exists in the first place.  There are a few reasons that parishes seem like jobs programs rather than the mission-driven start-up enterprises that the Church needs.

First, it is hard for pastors, spiritual shepherds, to think of themselves “firing” someone who needs money.  I get this.  I do.  Pastors are priests, and if they are good ones, they have a heart for others and want to love them.  The problem, of course, is that keeping an employee in a job that they aren’t good at, or that they aren’t on fire about, is not love.  It is actually misery for the employee, not to mention the people who have to work with and deal with that employee.  And deep down inside, most pastors know this, but the act of having to let them go is so difficult that they will embrace almost any excuse to avoid doing it.  Though I am adamantly against avoiding it, I have great empathy and grace for pastors in this situation.

Second, many diocesan offices will encourage pastors to take this “avoidance” approach.  They do this with good intentions (to avoid lawsuits and conflict), but it is usually very bad advice because it leaves parishes in a state of mediocrity, frustration and tension, and it puts a heavy and costly burden on pastors.  Ironically, it actually leads to much, much bigger problems like pastor burn-out, parish apathy, parish politics and the exodus of Catholics to churches that have higher standards of excellence.  And to add irony to irony, it also allows behavioral problems to fester, which results in bigger and more justified legal problems.

So what should pastors do?  Here are a few specific ideas.

First, they should surround themselves with a few people, leaders, who can support them in moments of understandable fear and weakness.  Like Moses with his arms stretched out over his battling army, every pastor needs trusted brothers and sisters who can hold up their arms sometimes.  Very, very few pastors I know can take decisive action in personnel matters without the encouragement and support of trusted colleagues.  Heck, I don’t know of many CEOs who can do it either.  So, identify a kitchen cabinet (a parish leadership team as we call it) and be open and vulnerable with them about your fears, and even the temptation to feel guilty for doing the right thing.

Second, instead of thinking about “firing” people who you feel shouldn’t be working in your parish, sit down with them in love and be kindly direct.  Pray about it, pray for them, and for your own wisdom and courage.  Instead of focusing on the difficulty of the task at hand, focus on the mission of the parish, focus on the people who are responding to what you are doing in the parish, focus on the employees and volunteers that are on fire and the impact that unskilled or unmotivated or misaligned colleagues has on them.  Focus on Jesus.  A pastor friend of mine recently reminded me of the idea that when you are skiing, if you are focusing on the trees, you’re going to run into them.  The trees are the problem that we’re trying so hard to avoid that we end up constantly running into them.  Focus on the light.  The virgin snow that you’re skiing through.

Now, I realize this might seem a bit theoretical.  So let me give you a sample of how a pastor might go about addressing an employee who is holding the parish back.  It is only one sample, but it provides a graspable example of how a pastor might go about this.  Imagine a pastor sitting down with an employee named Janet:

“Janet, you are a child of God and a dear person, and I care about you.  In fact, I’ve been praying for you and for wisdom and courage around this conversation, because this isn’t easy for me, but it’s the right thing to do.  I need to tell you that given the direction I’m taking the parish and what I need from you, I think it might be best for you, truly, for you, to work somewhere that better aligns with your skills/attitude/desires.  You deserve to work somewhere that doesn’t require you to be something or someone that you aren’t or don’t want to be, and the parish needs people who are ministers, first and foremost, and who are excited about their job and the direction I’ve laid out for the parish.  I’ve been in situations in my own life where I wasn’t a good fit and I made a change and it was ultimately better.  This is not a rejection of you as a person.  Not at all.  I want what is best for you and the parish, and I think this is the right time.  Now, if you disagree, if you think that you can do this job/embrace this new mission the way I’ve laid it out, then I would be willing to be patient with you to help you get there.  But what I can’t do, and what wouldn’t be good for you or the parish, is to make you suffer through something that doesn’t make sense.  And if I’m right here, and it would be best for you to find something better for you, I’d be glad to help you with that process.  That might include financial help with severance, or advisory help with thinking through your next steps, or contacts with other parishes or people who have jobs that might be a good fit for you.  We are not going to turn our backs on you.  And whatever we decide, my goal is that in two or three months, you look back and say ‘that conversation with Fr. John provoked me to do what is best for me.’  And I mean that.  What do you think?”

Okay, so that’s just the approach.  If one were inclined to look for problems, they might say “what if we have no money to help them?”, or “what if they say ‘no, I think you’re wrong and I’m not leaving?’”  Let’s address each of these issues.

  1. Spending money to help a person have a dignified transition is almost always a wildly successful economic trade-off.  The cost of keeping someone who is not motivated or aligned or capable of contributing to the mission of the parish is massive.  Low morale among colleagues, especially the most on-fire ones.  Mediocrity in the ministry of the parish.  Disappointment among parishioners who have to interact with that employee.  Paying someone a generous severance almost always results in leaders saying “that was the best $20,000 I ever spent!”
  2. As for the employee refusing to agree or leave, here is what I would recommend a pastor do and say.  “Okay, Janet.  If that’s what you want to do, I need you to know that this is not going to be easy.  I am going to constantly remind you what is expected of you, and we’re going to be unrelenting in what we need from you to fulfill the mission of the parish.  And we aren’t going to change our expectations.  Now, if you think that sounds like a worthwhile process for you, then you can choose that and see how it goes.  But if you don’t think that the chances of you making adjustments and learning to love the way we’re doing things are high, then you need to think about that right now.”

You might be thinking, “so you’re not actually telling Janet that she has to leave?”  Generally speaking, I don’t think most pastors need to do that.  I think what they really need to do is have the courage to tell Janet the truth, and to be kind, vulnerable and direct.  When we do that, in the majority of situations, Janet will do one of two things.  She will leave on her own, knowing that the prospects for her success and/or fulfillment are low.  Or she’ll actually change her attitude or behavior, which no one has ever required her to do.  Either of those is a good outcome.  In very few cases handled this way will Janet want to take legal action or do something destructive.  Really.  Legal action usually results when a person hasn’t been given a clear message and hasn’t been told what is required.  It’s crazy.  Our fear of being direct actually causes us to keep people around who shouldn’t be there, and then when we just can’t possibly stand it anymore because our best people want to leave or parishioners are angry, we fire them and they want to sue.  Crazy.

Perhaps the best advice I can give here is this: remember that love is not always nice and easy.  It requires truth, as well as grace.  Tolerating an employee who doesn’t fit or perform is neither truthful nor grace-filled.  In fact, it is cruelty wrapped in a thin layer of cowardice disguised as niceness.  I know, because I’ve been there, done that.  This isn’t easy.  It requires wisdom, courage, vulnerability and support from trusted colleagues.  It requires real love.  Truth and grace.

I pray that this message helps you love your difficult employees more, to create an atmosphere of missionary joy and zeal to your parish staff and volunteers, and to lead more people to Jesus Christ and His Church.  And I pray that you don’t give into the temptation to see your parish as a jobs program, to focus on the trees, to find reasons not to have courage, and to allow mediocrity to survive in the organization you lead, which is more important than any company in the world.​​​​​


Pat Lencioni | Co-founder
The Amazing Parish

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