The gospel, rather than the world, must set the standards of life for Christians in every aspect of life, including the workplace. Holiness involves being different from the world, but this does not mean we have lower standards than the world or can ignore local industrial legislation. It does mean we will draw our concerns not from normal practice, but from the Scriptures.
If this is true of regular commercial practice for the Christian, how much more should it be true of employment practices in our church life, including the question of whether or not to fire church workers for incompetence.
CONSIDER YOUR PRESUPPOSITIONS
To think Christianly about something as commonplace as workplace practices requires a critical analysis of our own presuppositions. Sometimes the Spirit uses God’s Word to reveal these presuppositions to us, and sometimes he helps us to understand these presuppositions in order to better understand his Word.
On this issue our assumptions frequently come from the pattern of industrial relations that we are used to in our society. We sometimes discover our presuppositions from another context, such as working overseas or studying history.
Within the church we often need to experience other denominations to realize the assumptions that we are making. The difference between the employment philosophies of clergy (e.g., Anglican self-employed and Baptist church-employed) is quite significant but largely unnoticed by people who never move out of their own denomination. Sadly, this aids us in unwittingly reading our own denominational practice into the Scriptures. So, for example, it is very hard to determine the New Testament meaning of the word “deacon” without bringing into the discussion something of the office in your particular tradition. Even determining to transliterate diakonos as “deacon” instead of translating it as “servant” is affected by our traditions.
THINK BIBLICALLY, NOT IDEOLOGICALLY
Broadly speaking, Western economies are heavily influenced by socialism and/or capitalism. Either of these can point to the Bible and to Christian thought as the source of some of their key ideas. Either of them can be criticised for failing in some key Christian notions. And both of them fail the Christian test by being fundamentally materialistic in their worldview.
Unfortunately, Christians who are in one camp or the other have been informed that it is a binary choice. So once committed to one political economy even Christians seem to find no good in the opposite. This thinking has been determined more by the world than by the Scriptures.
Christians should not see workers as units of production but as people made in God’s image. We should not treat them on the basis of the bottom line but on the basis of their relationship with God. Just as we do not abort babies or “euthanise” the elderly, so we do not treat fellow labourers impersonally or for our own benefit. The labourer is worthy of his hire and more. For even an ox is to be allowed to benefit directly from its labour, and if that is true for an ox how much more for a human.
In addition, the slave master is to remember that the slave has his rights and that the master is answerable to our heavenly Master who will treat us without partiality. Nowhere outside the Bible will we be taught “giving to those in need” as a motive for doing honest work (Eph. 4:28).
SACKING THE INCOMPETENT?
But let’s return to the question at hand about sacking the incompetent member of a church staff.
The first problem with this question lies in defining “incompetent.” If it means dishonest, lazy, or disloyal, the Christian boss may well take action even to the extent of sacking. People are primarily responsible to provide for themselves by their labour and the church is not to be burdened by people’s laziness and unwillingness to engage in work.
Paul would not have the Thessalonians feed a lazy man who refuses to work (2 Thess. 3:6-12), or even provide for the young widows who learn to be idlers, busybodies, and gossips for lack of useful employment (1 Tim. 5:9-16). Furthermore, while a young man like Mark may be given a second chance by Barnabas, Paul was not wrong in refusing to take on mission again, a man who had deserted them on a previous mission (Acts 13:13, 15:37-39).
No doubt there are times when there is a downturn in the economy, or some difficulty in the church, and staff members have to be dismissed because there is not enough money to pay for them. Yet at such a time it is important that faithful workers are given every generous help to find alternative work. Other staff members should look to how they could help out of their pay to provide. And congregation members who have employed them should share in the consequence of the downturn.
CHURCH EMPLOYMENT DIFFERENT FOR FIVE REASONS
However, we cannot assume that normal, even Christian, business practices are the right model to follow when it comes to church employment. Church differs from the community in several respects.
Firstly, we are family. It is easy to use the language of brothers and sisters but far more important to treat each other as family. Family look out for each other’s welfare and share each other’s burdens. While it is wrong to treat other people and foreigners unjustly, it is doubly wrong to mistreat a sibling (Obadiah 10).
Secondly, ministers of the gospel need to be recognized for their work (1 Cor. 16:18) as the teaching elder deserves double honour (1 Tim. 5:17). Speaking the truth in love, speaking the oracles of God, calling upon people to repent, and preaching the gospel of Jesus, especially in your own community, leads not only to great love but also to great animosity. It is therefore very important to protect those whose work places them into the forefront of gospel ministry. We don’t want them to be tempted to weaken the message, to become lovers of praise, to compromise the truth for personal security, or to become partial. Knowing that he has the secure backing of the church in his job will enable a pastor or church staffer to confront both the difficult situations and people in the congregation. But when a pastor has to find favour with the powerful of the church, lest he be summarily sacked, he is no longer leading God’s people but following the fat sheep (Ezek. 34). I recall speaking at a pastor’s conference where a middle-aged man said, in tears, “I agree the Bible teaches what you say, but I could never put that into practice in our church, for they would sack me immediately.” In that case, what is the point of being the pastor?
Thirdly, many ministry jobs require moving the whole family into a new location. Being sacked similarly requires moving the family out of the community. This can create great hardships for ministry families and children. Unlike many jobs where we are socially strangers to our clients, customers and colleagues, most ministries require our congregation to be our neighbours and our friends. This does not mean a minister cannot be sacked. But his situation is very different from many jobs where the worker can continue in his house, his children continue in their school, his wife continue in her network of friends, and the whole family continue in their church, while the man seeks a new job in the same city.
Fourthly, we work for a voluntary association. Monetary profit is not the bottom line in our work context. Instead it is gathering God’s people into fellowship around his Word. This creates a different set of expectations and standards than the world. Church members are not customers, demanding better service from our employees. We are family gathering together to build each other and the church. Ministers do not have the same responsibility/authority structure in their pastoral ministry as workers have within the workplace.
Fifthly, the work of the Lord is not able to be measured except by faithfulness. And even that is not really open to scrutiny. So, Paul refuses to be judged by any person, and does not even judge himself (1 Cor. 4:1-4). So how do we measure incompetency? It is like trying to measure success in the ministry. Churches can grow and offertories increase despite and even because of the unfaithfulness of the minister. Some of the great heretics of history have had wonderful personal skills and great popularity. Indeed it is almost incumbent on a false shepherd that he is really attractive to the people on matters of appearance and worldly success. On the other hand, the true prophet of God is all too frequently despised and rejected as the Lord was in his day.
For all these reasons, a church’s hiring and firing policies will be very different to most places of employment.
SOME PRACTICAL CONCLUSIONS
What does this mean practically?
It’s not appropriate to sack competent staff members simply to suit the current developments at the church. Some churches sack staff members because the church leadership wishes to have a different team composition. It can be that the church has grown and different gifts are needed. It can be that a new team could revitalize the church in the doldrums. This seems to me to be failure of care, love, and justice. It seems unloving, ungrateful, and harsh to sack a staff member—especially a faithful one who has seen the work grow to a new level—and so seriously inconvenience his life, family, and ministry because of inadequate management or planning by the church leadership. Rather than train the staff in new directions, or possibly choose not to follow new directions, or choose the staff more carefully with a long term view in mind, it is easier for management to change the employees—easier for management, not for the staff member.
If the staff members are employed on the basis of short-term contracts, and they know this is the practice before they start, the outcomes are not so bad. It is far better to hire slowly and continue training so that we find and develop workers to grow with the church than to dispose of them when they no longer suit us.
As with so many ethical issues in Christ it is a matter of motives. And, as with all such matters, we have to remember the deceitful and sinful nature of our own hearts.