Creative Leadership

When You Need to Fire Employees

Ever struggled with firing someone? I was teaching media professionals in Santiago, Chile a few years ago, and found this post I had written shortly after the visit.  One morning before class, I was reading in the last section of Acts 15 and the beginning of the next chapter from the New Testament. It was about a division that arose over a potential partner in ministry:

“Then after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.” Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”

It’s interesting that Paul and Barnabas were a team up to that point, but for their next journey, Barnabas wanted to include someone named John (called Mark). But Paul knew that John had left them once before – in other words, (and for whatever reason), he just couldn’t cut it at the level they were working.

I’m sure Barnabas wanted to be sensitive an give him more chances. He probably said something like “But he has a good heart, he loves God, and should go with us.” But Paul absolutely stood his ground – not willing to take someone who had quit on them or not produced in the past. So they decided to go two different ways. Paul chose Silas – someone with a proven past – and Barnabas took John called Mark with him.

Then I did a search, and discovered that that’s the last time you hear anything at all about Barnabas and his work with John (called Mark.) It may have been successful, but considering how much the Bible had mentioned him earlier, if it was successful, I tend to think it would have been recorded in some way. On the other hand, Paul went on to another 12 chapters of journeys, exploits, and success for the Kingdom of God, and yet the trip Barnabas and John called Mark took is never mentioned again.

That’s when I was struck by the gravity of hiring employees, shaping the members of our team, and building departments in the hope of becoming more effective. In the book “Good to Great – Why Some Companies Make the Leap, and Others Don’t” by Jim Collins, he uses the analogy of a school bus. He believes the key to a successful organization is:

1) Getting the right people on the bus
2) Getting them in the right seats
3) And getting the wrong people off the bus

Chances are, what you’re doing in hiring, firing, and developing the team around you is probably more critical and important than even you might realize. I don’t know your particular situation, but as leadership expert John Maxwell would put it, developing the leaders around you is the most important aspect of your job.

My point? In the Christian community, we all tend to be excessively compassionate when it comes to firing people, and as a result, our churches, ministries, and religious media organizations are filled with people who are unqualified, unenthusiastic, and costing us money, time, and momentum. If you encounter an employee who is detrimental to achieving your vision – for whatever reason – by all means help him or her, but first – get them “off the bus” so they stop becoming an obstacle to the forward movement of the organization.

Believe me – all the other employees know that person is a problem, and it’s most likely causing great anxiety and resentment. So by all means, get them help if they want it, but first, get them off the team and replace them with someone who values your vision, and is committed to seeing that vision accomplished.

I’d like to hear from anyone who’s experienced anxiety over firing anyone, but who discovered that once it was done, it was the right thing for the organization…

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  1. Phil,

    Having done some firing in the ministry as well as having been fired, your point is well taken as to the need to clean house once in a while. Being fired hurts but it is often good for the person, as it may have been for the Mark of Acts if he was the same Mark of 2 Tim 4:11. As for me, my firing turned out for good. Sometimes, if receptive to and led by the H.S., quiting can be an easier and less painful alternative.


  2. The general point is on target, but the example does not necessarily fit the bill. In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul instructs the reader to bring Mark to Rome, because he is useful to him in his ministry. If this is the same Mark, then we see evidence that Paul did not write off his usefulness in the big picture. Sometimes, a person needs to be relieved because they are going in a different direction, but a redemptive view would suggest that the division between Paul and Barnabas actually created more missionary outreach and God used this disagreement for good. 

  3. Hey Phil, Great post. This is one of my pet gripes about ministries. A staff member usually has to murder someone to warrant dismissal. Most ministry payrolls are bloated with ineffective, over-promoted, under-skilled people who have “great hearts.”

    In 20 years, I have only seen one ministry that was in the other ditch. They tended to bring people on, burn them out and toss them aside without much thought. But that species of organization is rare in the extreme.

    One more thing…I’ve always contended that when, out of compassion, a ministry keeps someone employed who is ineffective, it does a grave disservice to both the organization AND the individual. It hamstrings the ministry’s effectiveness but also keeps that individual from seeking and finding God’s highest and best place of service. Ministries need to get better at “tough love.”

  4. Absolutely, right on point. I thoroughly enjoyed this article. You mentioned John Maxwell, I was taken back for a moment. In my life I dont hear of too many people that read his books. In one of his books(unsure of which one really) he describes the 80/20 application. It is practical and somewhat on point with this article. A leader ( which can be anyone at any level of an organization) should spend 80% of his/her time with the 20% that yields the greatest reward or positive return. Likewise the other 20% of time should be spent with building up and /or weeding out the other 80% that does not have a great return. Sometimes part of this 80% needs to be let go or built up in a role that is better suited even if it means another organization. As workers and Christians we need to be concerned with excellence and strive for it at whatever level we find ourselves and whatever decisions that may need to be made.

  5. I fully agree with the statement that others in the organization will already be suffering the bad employee before you get around to figuring it out. If you can't motivate them and they can't improve on their own it is time to move on. This firing is best for you, the ministry and the employee in the long run. As Christians this is hard because feelings do get hurt and people are left with a bad taste for "the ministry" but better that than the wasting of dollars given for ministry being thrown away on an unproductive employee. That's just bad stewardship, period.

  6. I have made the hard choices and the easy ones when it comes to firing people in the ministry. I always think of a scale and which way it would tip if you weighed what good an individual brings against the bad. This almost always hold true, even with the "three strikes" appoach.

    However, he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. I was fired with no strikes, no warning, just a "we would like to free you up to pursue other opportunities." Come to find out that "room" was made for the son of the high-profile-minister to climb the ladder.


    It has been hard but God provides.


  7. Phil,

    You’re spot on. I had to fire several people in the past year, both for performance reasons and for financial. Firing someone was the hardest, most emotional thing I ever had to do. I was physically sick about it, but this person was not catching the vision, was mishandling client relationships, and costing me money – but yet I wanted to be gracious. I misunderstood was grace was. That by enabling this person, I was doing damage to her, to my clients, to my other staff, and to me. It had to be done. Doesn’t mean we don’t love the people, it can be done in love, but when it has to be done. It has to be done. I am going to post this with a like back to your site. Thank you for posting this, Phil.

  8. Firing someone is one of the most difficult experience of anyone’s profession career, especially when it involves a faith-based company or ministry. I suppose many feel that ministries are immune to poor personnel performances, necessitating dismissals. The sad truth is, no organization is immune from the harsh reality that, sometimes, someone needs to go. When you sit on my side of the desk, professional standards and Christian-based policies and procedures dictate that I give every opportunity and chance, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. I can honestly say that I have never terminated anyone in anger or unjustly. People deserve better. But I have terminated someone who I knew was not a good fit far too late. My job should be to know the difference between the two. I always strive for fairness and objectivity, trying my best to make it work, either in their current position or finding a place that suits them better. But when every attempt fails, I am honest , caring and compassionate, but firm and direct. I seek to encourage and not destroy. And I seek to invest my years of knowledge and perspective into them, that they might, hopefully, grow and learn from the total experience. Does it always work? Not always. People you fire sometimes get angry and bitter and say terrible things about you. I do not have to answer to that person. I must remember that I have been afforded stewardship over a ministry organization and will be held accountable for every action taken, to my Board of Directors and, more importantly, my God. I will always remember a management principle I learned very early in my college career. A great professor of mine imparted this jewel of wisdom: It’s not the ones you fire that come back to haunt you. It’s the ones you should have, but didn’t. Pearls of wisdom, even after 40 years.

  9. Phil,

    Good article – but keep in mind that sometimes employees don’t “catch the vision” or want to move forward because the leader is really an idiot. Morally or otherwise, they are flawed and incapable of Biblically (or otherwise) wise decisions.

    What keeps an employee or vendor from ending up in this situation ? Good research. Research the company, and especially the top leadership BEFORE making contact with them or responding to any contact from them. Remember – if the leader(s) have been in place for more than 2-3 years they have had a chance to impact the organzation and perhaps the people at the lower or mid levels of the organization are a reflection of who is at the top.

    Morons run companies and business units even today and while we should love them (Christ commands it) we are NOT *required* to establish relationships with them in cases where we have a real choice.

    Here is a verse from the book of Proverbs that expresses some guidance on this issue.
    Proverbs 14:17 Go from the presence of a foolish man, when you do not percieve in him the lips of knowledge.

    Thank you and God bless you,

  10. I agree, If Mark was useless, why did Paul asked to bring him? As you mention in another post, is not just firing the guy, but helping him find what can do right.

  11. Remember Mother Superior “firing” Maria in The Sound of Music? That’s how to do it! Something about finding the will of God and doing it… What a concept! Then, Maria sang about confidence and courage as she faced her new job, which as it turned out to be, the right job.

  12. Did you notice though that later on Paul asks for Mark to come to him to help him in his ministry? II Tim 4;11 The ministry of Barnabas “son of Encouragement” Acts 4:36,37 was to believe in people when others didn’t. He had this ministry in Paul’s life Acts 9:26,27. He again believed in Mark and he again became a worthy team member and wrote the gospel that bears his name. Barnabas believed in and encouraged two men at vulnerable times in ther lives who would later author over a third of the New Testament. Having just been ‘fired’ by a Paul for being too Barnabas-like it’s interesting to see what you see in Acts15. I would guess you have a Paul temperament but somewhere back in your life there is a Barnabas or two who believed in you when others didn’t. How many ministries exist today because two leaders clashed over values? The glorious thing is that God used the conflict to double the missionary enterprise and I believe they later reconciled (again see II Tim4:11) It is very painful to be ‘let off the bus’ but I believe in future reconciliation and in greater expansion of the kingdom. God knows what He’s about.

  13. Phil,

    What a great post!  The break up of Paul and Barnabas was HUGE in the early church.  Paul often comes across as very callous in this situation, but as you point out he made the right decision.  Paul understood that his message needed a 100% reliable team to be able to deliver it to the fledging churches he and Barnabas had planted.

    I really like the conclusions you draw from this…

    “That’s when I was struck by the gravity of hiring employees, shaping the members of our team, and building departments in the hope of becoming more effective.”

    Spot on!  I was about to write a similar post on my blog, but after reading this I decided to send my readers here instead. 


  14. Phil – As a life coach I work with people who have been on the wrong bus or needed to change seats. It takes loving intentional action but the results are well worth it!



  15. Dear Phil,

    I completely agree with the point you are making.

    However, it should be noted that Barnabus was indeed very successful. There may not be much scripture to record it, but every word in the Bible is God breathed and he chose what to put in and leave out. Thus we should not see Paul’s epistles as a sign that his life was more or less successful that someone else’s. That is not the point of Scripture. It is there for us to learn from and to hear God speaking.

    Barnabus did not leave behind epistles, no, his epistle was John Mark himself, as evidenced by the apparent faith Paul eventually developed in him (2Ti 4:11) later on in life. He is a perfect example of a young man who had grown up through a mixture mercy (from Barnabus) and truth (from Paul).

    I think there are other more objective ways to make the same point, like using Pro 22:10 (AMP) “Drive out the scoffer, and contention will go out; yes, strife and abuse will cease.” and Pro 10:26 (AMP) “Lazy people are a pain to their employer. They are like smoke in the eyes or vinegar that sets the teeth on edge.”

    Your point is valid, no matter which of Paul or Barnabus was correct in their judgement of how to proceed over John Mark.

    God bless,

    Dave Reinecke

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