Magazine article The Christian Century

Churches Dread Giving Pink Slips

Magazine article The Christian Century

Churches Dread Giving Pink Slips

Article excerpt

As many congregations grapple with declining contributions, some faith communities are following the lead of cash-strapped corporations by laying off employees. But when you're putting someone's spiritual leader out on the street, the task is more difficult.

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"Terminal niceness" keeps congregations from dealing honestly with unneeded or ineffective staff members, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch told 750 people attending a recent ministerial leadership conference at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida.

Congregational leaders, meanwhile, say already-tough financial decisions can become excruciating when you are firing the man who performed your daughter's wedding or the woman who held your hand in the hospital.

"Terminating employees, in business or in churches, is never an easy task," said Phill Martin, deputy executive director of the Texas-based National Association of Church Business Administration. "It's tough when your core value is 'I'm here to minister to people' and you become the author of that pain."

Churches in financial crisis "get all flustered," said congregational expert David Odom, executive vice president of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. Congregations typically vacillate between attention to "cold, hard business facts and denial," he said.

So far, most churches report only a modest impact from the recession--6 percent have cut salaries and an additional 4 percent have cut staff, according to a recent survey by Southern Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research. Another online survey, by NACBA, found that as many as 20 percent of churches have already cut some staffers loose.

But because churches historically feel the pinch later than the general economy--worshipers tend to cut contributions only after everything else--observers worry that many congregations are unprepared to deal with the worst church-budget crunch in almost a century.

"Every large church I know is trying to figure out how many people they can keep," said Odom, founder of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "Some churches, in order to keep all their staff, are deciding not to pay retirement for a year or shifting health insurance costs to employees," said George Bullard, a church consultant in Columbia, South Carolina.

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Other coping measures imposed by congregations include giving employees: unpaid furloughs and shifting some staff to part-time status. But when firing employees finally becomes unavoidable, most churches are unprepared, the experts say. …

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