For a variety of reasons, ministry leaders may realize that an individual who was hired to perform work for the ministry is no longer a good fit for the position. Whatever the cause, as ministry organizations seek to further their mission, parting ways with an employed staff member may become necessary.
View employee termination as a process, not a point-in-time event.
Rushing the process is one of the biggest mistakes ministries can make in the area of employee termination. Before ministry leaders let an employed staff member go, they should first take the following steps:
Step 1: Talk to Your Attorney
Employment laws vary significantly from state to state. Before terminating a ministry employee, always consult with a locally licensed attorney for legal advice based on the employment laws in your state.
Step 2: Determine Whether the Individual is an ‘At-Will’ Employee
The at-will employment doctrine holds that, absent a contract between an employer and employee, the employer may terminate an employee for any reason not prohibited by law.
Factors that can weaken at-will employment protection include:
An employer can minimize these risks by clearly stating that the employment relationship is at-will in the employee handbook and in any other employment-related documents ministry leaders give to employees.
Step 3: Documentation and Consistency
Ministry leaders should carefully maintain documentation for each ministry employee from the time that the ministry hires the individual until their employment ends. Regular written performance reviews not only help your employed staff know how they’re performing, but reviews also can serve as valuable evidence to support a potential employee termination.
It’s far better to err on the side of over-documentation. The contents of employee files are often critical in defending an employer’s decision to terminate employed staff. In addition to thorough documentation, it’s also important that you treat all your employees consistently, applying policies in a uniform manner across your ministry organization.
Ministry leaders should carefully maintain documentation for each ministry employee from the time that the ministry hires the individual until their employment ends.
Step 4: Employment Handbook Review
When you consider an employee termination, review your employment handbook to ensure that the steps you are taking line up with the policies stated in the handbook. Involve your attorney in this process.
If your ministry doesn’t have an employment handbook, or if your handbook is outdated, you may want to review Brotherhood Mutual’s Working Together: A Guide to Employment Practices for Ministries. It includes an abundance of employment-related information and sample policies that will help you develop an employee handbook for your ministry.
If a dismissed employee files a wrongful termination lawsuit, the suit will frequently be based on one or more of the following premises:
In its landmark 2012 Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. EEOC decision, the U.S. Supreme Court formally recognized a ministerial exception to discrimination laws as they apply to religious institutions. The result of this ruling is that ministry organizations will be permitted to make hiring and firing decisions with less concern about being sued for discrimination by pastors and other ministerial staff. Generally, the ministerial exception applies only to ministerial employees—those whose attend to the “religious needs of the faithful.”
Be sure your ministry organization has appropriate employment practices liability insurance coverage in place. Also remember, consulting with a locally licensed attorney is generally your best defense against wrongful termination claims that a dismissed employee may bring against your ministry.
For more information on terminating an employee staff member, please review the following additional resources:
*Important information: Brotherhood Mutual is pleased to provide Legal Assist as a complimentary resource. The services we offer through Legal Assist are intended to provide general legal information to our current and prospective policyholders.
The information we provide is intended to be helpful, but it does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for the advice from a licensed attorney in your area. Accordingly, no attorney/client relationship is created through this process, and no legal advice will be provided. We strongly encourage you to regularly consult with a local attorney as part of your risk management program.
Thank you for your interest in Brotherhood Mutual. We appreciate the opportunity to provide your church or other ministry with an insurance quote and will reply to your request as soon as possible.
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