Fire the Church Secretary?
April 19, 2013

Dear Theo,

I'm writing for your advice. Our church has just called a new pastor.

Our problem is our church secretary. She has been a member all of her life, as were her parents and grandparents.

Her skills are pretty rusty, she doesn't do e-mail and she types the bulletin and newsletter on a typewriter. When she cuts and pastes, she actually cuts and pastes.

Her overriding problem is her sense of entitlement. She has been our secretary since God was a child, and she acts like she owns the place.

She seems to set her own hours, and she seems to choose her own projects. Above all, she claims to be so busy and so overburdened with the work.

So, can the church fire a member? Should it happen before the new pastor starts, or should we let him figure it out for himself?

Signed,

Hiding Under the Sink

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Dear Hiding Under the Sink:

Can you fire a member? Sure! Should you? Probably, but it's complicated. Congregations that “hire from within” sometimes luck out, if the member they hire is a skilled, hard-working person who respects boundaries. Those folks are treasures. But just as often churches that blur the lines end up in a no-win situation. That's where you are.

And it is no-win, believe me. For one thing, even if this secretary is as inept and insufferable as you imply, and even if everyone knows it and would be relieved to see her go, the moment you move against her, she may be seen as a victim. Most congregations can't bear that, even though the victim in this case is the church! We're programmed to care for the underdog, even if that puppy is taking us for a ride. There will be a price to pay for letting her go—gossip in the parking lot, etc. If you believe it would be right to fire her, you have to be willing to pay that price.

People will argue that you need to consider her ancestors, her age, her long years of secretarial service and all the work she did on the Strawberry Fair, and that no matter her actual performance, it would be wrong to put her on the street in this economy. This is church, after all, not a business; and church is family. We don't treat each other this way. It's hard for folks to grasp that this is not about an individual's feelings so much as it is about the whole church's well-being. It's also about justice. You need a secretary who actually does the job, and you can't be pouring resources into an employee who can't or won't do what you ask. If you say that, however, you will seem heartless. But if you are not sort of “heartless”—that is, if you are not clear in your own mind about the nature of the problem, if your skin is not thick, and if the slightest hint of conflict makes you reach for your nervous pills—you will back down, and she will be in her current position until Jesus returns, and the church will continue to be ill-served.

See what I mean about no-win?

Now, you could decide to leave her for the incoming pastor to deal with. But as you can guess, if he or she comes in and fires her and a ruckus blows up as a result, it will instantly turn this nice new person into a very bad person—not a felicitous start to a new ministry, and not a gift you want to give him. It will keep on giving. There's also the possibility that he is the sort of minister who avoids conflict. If that's the case and you leave it to him, he may do nothing (except moan and groan in private), and you'll all be right back where you started, at the mercy of the secretary.  So if you can avoid dumping this in your minister's newly-arrived lap, please do!

One thing you could try before moving to a firing is to talk with her about preparing for the new minister's arrival. In the course of the chat, you could bring up her much-expressed dissatisfaction with the job's “excessive” demands and make it clear that it's likely the job will be changing as the church changes and grows with this new pastor. Has she given any thought to whether she's up for that? Has she perhaps contemplated retirement? Would she be interested in talking with the personnel committee about her future? You could discover that she's as eager to find a way to leave as you are to find a way to have her go. Then you could announce she's leaving, have a sheet cake and testimonials at coffee hour, and all would be well.

But if that made-in-heaven scenario doesn't materialize, you might ask if she would like to think about bridging into retirement with far fewer hours and a more limited set of responsibilities, maybe a job requiring only one or two things you know she can do well. Perhaps she'd consider becoming an honored “emeritus” staff/member volunteer, helping out with particular tasks on a regular or as-needed basis? Honoring a person often goes a long way toward smoothing situations like these.

If she is not open to any of these suggestions, or if the church isn't willing to consider them, then you are back to your dilemma. And if that's where you end up, you should let her go sooner rather than later. But here's the kicker: you may not be able to let her go sooner rather than later. Unless your congregation has an accepted habit of firing staff without any sort of process, you will have to go through one. A firing needs to be based on something objective—especially this kind of firing in which a long-time church member is the focus.

So, does she have a clear, mutually-agreed-upon job description? Has her performance of those stated tasks and responsibilities been reviewed periodically by the appropriate supervising lay or clergy leaders? Is there a paper trail of those reviews, along with documented recommendations for improvement, reprimands, or other forms of correction? Does she have any idea her job may be in jeopardy based on face-to-face conversations with her supervisor about her performance each year? If the answer to some or all the above is “yes,” you probably wouldn't be writing. She'd be gone already.  So I'm assuming it's “no.” And if it is, the bad news is you can't just dump umpteen years of frustration on her head in one fell swoop. You can't up and fire her just because you've finally gotten to the breaking point and a new pastor is waiting in the wings. I'm not talking about legal liability. Just simple fairness.

Without a paper trail, you may need to conduct a review, find her wanting, give her a period of time in which to show improvement (with specific benchmarks), and then review her again, before a final decision is made. This will take time—months, perhaps. If this is the road you feel you have to take, it might be good to bring the new pastor into the conversation. Any process you devise may overlap with his arrival and perhaps even extend into the first months of his pastorate. He may wish to be in the loop, and he may have good guidance to give you about the way to handle things. Who knows? He may even say, “Look, don't worry about it. I'm good at this sort of thing. Not afraid of a little ruckus. I'll take care of everything once I get there.” If he does, you have permission to dance a jig in the sanctuary and stop taking your nervous pills. But don't count on it.

Now, if all along you have been doing things right from a personnel standpoint and you do have a documented case for dismissal, I think you should inform her sooner rather than later about your continuing dissatisfaction with her performance and give her proper notice. But no matter how you get to the point of firing, be sure you follow carefully and transparently any and all procedures your congregation has in writing about staff dismissals. Keep the conversation focused on the job, don't let it turn personal, and be very clear about the terms and conditions of her termination (e. g., timeline for leaving, vacation time owed, severance pay, etc.). Even though you may not be feeling magnanimous, be as generous as possible in view of her long “service” to the church. Give her every permissible and just consideration. Then prepare yourself for blowback.

You will weather it. Once the initial storm subsides, most congregations that have had to do this unpleasant deed soon experience relief. Once the atmosphere in the office improves, work is actually getting done, and new things are happening as a result of a good new hire's professionalism and your greater clarity of expectation and accountability—well, it won't be as glorious as the Second Coming, but it will feel good to everyone, and most folks will quietly let all huffy bygones be bygones.

Of course the former secretary, who is still a member of the church, may stay on in the congregation. From her perch in the choir she may carp about the church leaders who did that mean awful thing to her, but that's okay. After a while, people will grow tired of it. There will soon be other squabbles to focus on anyway. What good is a church without someone who is upset at somebody else? 

She may also shake the church's dust from her feet and never return. Even people who can't stand her will probably be upset by that and try to get her back, or beg the new minister to bring her back. If a return is in the cards, so be it. But if it isn't, it's one more of those tough things you'll just have to live with. What you need to know for your consolation is that you acted in the best interests of the congregation, even if no one ever acknowledges that, much less thanks you for it.

Bless you, and may you be a blessing,

Theo

Who is Theo?

"Dear Theo" is written anonymously by three UCC ministers of different ages and backgrounds - one main writer and two respite writers. We're hoping the questions will span all kinds of topics: from sexuality and relationships to church culture and conflict to mental health, family drama, ethical and moral dilemmas, and everything in between.

Every week will feature a new letter and a new answer. Please write Dear Theo with your questions and problems by sending to deartheo@ucc.org. Letter writers identities will also ALWAYS remain anonymous.

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