What to Do When the Wrong Person is in a Key Staff Position


Many churches are rethinking their staffing needs. Susan Beaumont says designing the new staffing structure is easier than making the needed personnel changes to enact the plan. She outlines ways that congregations can implement a proactive transition plan that will help realize their objectives more quickly and can be kinder in the long run to everyone involved.

What is the ideal staff team to meet your congregation’s future challenges? (See “Staff Team Design for a New Era.”) You may need to restructure for growth with a new staff design that calls for an upgrade in the skill base of a role, to meet the higher expectations people bring to a larger congregation. You don’t believe the person who occupies the role can meet those higher expectations — they are barely meeting expectations now.

Perhaps you’re downsizing. In that case, you may need to replace two or three specialists with a generalist who can cover the whole range of their responsibilities. The employee may resist widening their responsibilities, and you may not be able to afford a specialist-level salary.

Choosing to stay stuck

It is challenging to balance care for the individual with attention to the congregation’s missional needs, while at the same time managing the reactivity of staff members and congregants who support them. Overwhelmed by these competing needs, many supervisors choose to wait things out until the employee keeping things stuck chooses to leave on their own — effectively postponing the restructuring by several years.

This is also known as restructuring through natural attrition, and there are many reasons employers find this option tempting:

  • The employee may be in a tenuous position through no fault of their own. What you are asking of them is beyond what they were hired to do, and it feels unfair to ask for more.
  • You may fear the person is not employable elsewhere, and you don’t want to feel responsible for someone else’s painful unemployment situation.
  • You may worry that the employee will cause trouble on their way out the door, particularly if they are beloved by some in the congregation. This risk is real: we’ve all heard horror stories of a staff termination that divided a congregation.

These reasons and others tempt employers to avoid realignments. Instead, the supervisor neglects the practice of performance accountability by failing to clarify expectations and deliver difficult feedback. The supervisor decides to be “kind” to the employee while waiting for them to go away, inadvertently creating an ideal environment for mediocrity.

Another way we avoid the pain of realignment is by waiting for the employee to retire. This works — until it doesn’t. A year or two goes by, and the employee is still there. With no incentive to retire, they simply do what they are comfortable doing and ignore job requirements they don’t like, often sticking around for years beyond the hoped-for retirement date. Effectively, they have retired in place. Then what?

Who are we here for?

A congregation does not exist to take care of its employees — on the contrary, the staff team exists to serve the congregation’s mission through their work and leadership. Most congregations dedicate over 50% of their annual operating budget to payroll-related expenses. Stewardship of our financial resources requires that we maximize the use of scarce payroll dollars. We cannot guarantee any staff member a position for life.

It is an employer’s prerogative to redefine a position and to ask staff to contribute more or different work when the mission of the congregation requires it. An employee who is unable or unwilling to participate in a structural redesign needs to be moved off the team. We shouldn’t confuse payroll dollars with benevolence dollars.

A decision to postpone restructuring impacts others on the team. Others step up and overwork to compensate for the employee who falls short. The supervisor invests too much time trying to help the person function effectively. Over time, everyone is likely to resent an underperformer.

One goal of a restructuring may be to bring a wider diversity of skills and perspectives to the team by bringing in new age groups and racial, gender, or ethnic experience. If you rely only on natural attrition to help you to restructure, you are likely to lose the diverse perspectives you already have. Natural turnover on the team is most likely to happen among those who feel “other” — those whose perspective is ignored or dismissed because their ideas aren’t mainstream or because they advocate for changes others find uncomfortable. This is especially problematic in the case of downsizings.

If your goal is greater diversity, you need to create opportunities for diversity in key positions now occupied by staff reluctant to embrace change.

Restructuring proactively

Instead of relying on natural attrition to restructure the team, effective supervisors set clear performance expectations and let people go if they fail to meet them. Here are some guidelines for communicating with employees whose roles you have reimagined:

1. Be clear with the employee about the new demands of the role. Share the specific essential functions (duties and tasks) and the core competencies (skills, abilities, and attributes) of the reimagined position.

2. Offer your honest assessment of the employee’s ability to step into the redesigned role. If their past performance does not suggest success in meeting the demands of the new role, express your concern directly.

3. Create a timeline for demonstrating competence. Name clear outcomes that must be met by specific dates along with metrics and observable behaviors you will use to evaluate success.

4. Offer an attractive stepping-out option. Let the employee know it is okay to resign if they prefer not to accept the challenge of the restructured role. Be clear that you are not firing them — at this time. Paint a picture of what their departure could look like — how you would celebrate their ministry and any financial incentives you might be offering. (Please note that you should seek legal counsel before promising specific terms of a separation package.)

5. If the employee chooses to stay, structure ongoing and consistent check-in conversations to provide feedback on their progress.

6. If the employee fails to satisfy expectations by the deadline established earlier, release them from employment promptly so they can find success elsewhere.

When it comes to downsizing or restructuring, natural attrition may not be the best way to go. A natural attrition plan brings unintended consequences. A more proactive transition plan will help you realize your potential more quickly and may be kinder in the long run to everyone involved.

This article originally appeared in Perspectives for Church and Synagogue Leaders, the e-newsletter of the Congregational Consulting Group. Reprinted by permission.

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About Author

Susan Beaumont is a consultant, author, coach, and spiritual director with Susan Beaumont and Associates (susanbeaumont.com), which provides consulting and online resources for leaders who serve large congregations. She is author of several books, most recently How to Lead When You Don't Know Where You're Going: Leading in a Liminal Season (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), available at Amazon and Rowman & Littlefield.

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