Q: What Should Our Ministry Consider Before We Fire an Employee?

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:

  • Verbal assurances to an employee: Oral assurances from the employer, such as “we will be able to keep you through year end.”
  • Employment handbook: Provisions in a handbook that expressly state or imply that employment is to be year-to-year or that termination is only for “just cause.”
  • Employer conduct: Telling a ministry staff member that his or her position is secure, provided weekly giving remains stable, or a similar statement.

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.

Several Lines of Reasoning Provide Grounds for Employment-Related Litigation

If a dismissed employee files a wrongful termination lawsuit, the suit will frequently be based on one or more of the following premises:

  • Federal law violation
  • State law violation
  • Breach of contract
  • Defamation

U.S. Supreme Court Recognized Ministerial Exception

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.”

Protect Your Ministry

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:

Letting Staff Go – Best Practices for Ministry Employers

Working Together: A Guide to Employment Practices for Ministries

Can an Employee Sue a Church or Ministry for Decisions Based on Religious Beliefs?

Good Employment Practices Protect Ministries

*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.