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Steve Nicholson: Helping People Move On

Lindsey Gatlin

Lindsey Gatlin

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– From Cutting Edge, “Having Difficult Conversations,” Winter 2009

Steve Nicholson is the pastor of the Evanston Vineyard in Illinois and previously the head of the Church Planting Task Force for Vineyard USA. We talked to Steve about one of the hardest conversations church planters and ministry leaders have to have: removing someone from a particular area of ministry.

CE: How do you know when it’s time to remove somebody from either a ministry or leadership position?

SN: It’s time to remove somebody when you’ve been trying for months to get them to do what you need them to do, and they’re not making progress. Or when other members of the team start asking questions like, “Why is this person not doing their share of work?” Obviously, there are other things that could mean somebody has to be removed. Are we talking about volunteers or paid staff?

CE: Why don’t you start with volunteers and move to paid staff?

SN: If there’s a moral failure or a serious loyalty failure, you would need to remove both. But probably the harder cases to decide are more ambiguous. Maybe it seems like they’re not really getting their job- this is a lot more of a judgment call.

Just about everybody’s dealt with it. You always want to think that you can fix everything; that if you just try harder, you can make it work. But the reality is, you can’t always. Sometimes you just have to admit that you’ve got the wrong person in the wrong slot. If they’re not the right person, there’s very little you can do to help them get over it.

Generally, a good idea is to first go through a process. You try to help them do better, and give them warnings, and maybe put them on probation, and give them extra attention and training, and so forth. But if you’ve done all those things, and it still isn’t turning around, then there really isn’t much choice. So you’re going to have to let them go.

CE: Early on in a church plant, the biggest difficulty is going to be that it’s very likely that that person is a good friend of yours, just by the nature of the group’s size.

SN: I would say, if you were someone who was giving themselves to serve in the church and putting your money in the bucket and trying to be faithful, and you saw that the pastor was keeping somebody in a position where they weren’t functional just because they were friends, how would you feel about it? You would think that was wrong, that it wasn’t fair to the other people at the church, even a little corrupt.

When you’re the pastor, you don’t have the luxury of first being a private individual with a friend. Instead you’re the servant of these people who are putting their trust in your leadership. You’re obligated to make the best decisions you can to help those people, even if it entails personal cost.

CE: Another angle might be when a pastor thinks it would kill this person to take them out of leadership. It would hurt so badly that it’s hard to even imagine doing it. What about that?

SN: Of course it’s going to be painful, but actually, keeping a person in a position where they are failing every day is what’s killing them. And if you keep them there longer, you’re destroying them. You’re keeping them from pursuing what they should be pursuing. Every day that they’re in the wrong position is another day that they’re not in the right position.

Generally, when people aren’t doing well at their job, they know it. That’s a horrible thing to live under and to live with. Yes, it’s going to be painful to finally say, “This is the wrong fit.” But you’re not really helping them by keeping them there. In fact, you’re actually dragging out a disaster.

CE: Maybe there’s another kind of hidden fear: “If this person is very well-connected in the church, and they get upset, then a whole bunch of people are going to leave. Or they’re all going to hate me.”

SN: You’d be surprised how often people can tell when somebody’s not functioning well, because people are actually smarter than we sometimes think. More often than not, when I’ve had to make that choice, everybody else reacted: “Oh, we were wondering when you were going to realize it wasn’t working.” A lot of people aren’t fooled, even if they’re well-connected with somebody.

Secondly, there are good and bad ways to do it. If you’re going to let somebody go, and they were paid staff, you give them a decent severance. You try to help them get into the right spot. If they’re a volunteer, you try to move them from one position to a different position where they’ll do better, so it’s more of a transfer than being fired.
You try to do it in a helpful, relational way and not be uncaring. A lot of times, people are willing to cooperate with that and it comes off fine. Once in a while, you get somebody who is not such a good character, and they’ll want to go to the church by spreading things around and trying to make themselves the martyr.

CE: What should you do if that happens?

SN: If I start to hear that happening, I sit them down and say, “You know, this is not the way we do things. We tried to treat you right and protect your dignity. But if you keep doing this, that gives me freedom to go to every single person in the church and tell them my side of the story about why you’re fired. That won’t make you look very good. So perhaps you want to think about playing nice.”

CE: So, how important is it really to have this conversation? If somebody’s just too scared or too hesitant to do it, can you tell us why it really matters to help the person move on?

SN: You need to do it. It’s always a struggle for everybody. We all want to be the nice guy, but I’ve never heard anybody say, “I wish I’d done it later.” Almost always, when somebody finally pulls the trigger, they’ll end up saying afterward, “I wish I’d pulled the trigger sooner.”

If it’s a volunteer, you have to help a person move on, because they’re in the wrong spot and not in the right spot. You’re not helping them by keeping them there. If you’ve got somebody who can’t hold the tune, can’t hold the note, who thinks they’re the world’s next fantastic worship leader…well, keeping them in there is not doing them any favors.

And if they’re on staff, the reality is, you’re taking people’s money that they are sacrificially giving to the church and giving it to someone who is supposed to perform a certain function. If they’re not doing it, that’s basically robbery.

There are a few people out there who are kind of on the other side of the road. If you frown at them in the hallway, they’re ready to fire you right then. But most people are on this side. They wait too long.

CE: Removing volunteers is obviously a different animal than staff. It seems that you appealed to their self-interest, which could be helpful. You didn’t go into the conversation and say, “You’re really hurting the church,” which is a hard thing to say.

SN: One time I was coaching a church planter, and he wasn’t doing so well. In fact, he was doing a number of things that were consistent with his gift but that really didn’t fit with church planting very well. And he was miserable.

So finally I just sat down with him and said, “You know, it seems to me like you’re not having very much fun here, and it seems like your gifts are more with your ideology. You’re doing this because you think you should, but it’s not what you’re really gifted to do. Why don’t you go do what you’re gifted to do?”

And boy, he was so relieved. He couldn’t drop that church fast enough.

CE: That’s funny. Did the church survive at all?

SN: No, it didn’t. But it wasn’t going to survive anyway.

CE: There was less misery in the world as a result.

SN: Yes.

CE: As people are getting things going, what are some things that people could put in place and do early on in the plant? These conversations are inevitable if the church grows. What could make them easier?

SN: Well, pastors need to be very careful about promises. Sometimes we make promises in sort of a backhanded way and don’t even realize it. You just start going off, and then you say, “I could see you someday doing such and such.” The person walks out of the room saying, “He promised me that I’m going to have this position.”
And the later conversations are a lot more difficult if people have felt like there’s a promise behind it. So I’d say you need to be very careful at all points of any kind of promise or commitment for longevity. In fact, it’s not often a bad idea to start off on a kind of probationary or temporary period. Kind of like a trial run.

You can say, “If this doesn’t work, then we can try something else at the end.” I think you want to build into the church the idea and theology that we want to work according to our passions and our giftings. Part of how we do that is by trying different things. It’s not the end of the world if we try something and it doesn’t work. That’s just part of the process of getting closer to the things we’ll try that will work. And it reduces the “shame factor” too.

You can try to create a culture where people take things a little less heavily and are more prepared for inevitable shifts. That helps a lot. It’s creating a process in the church where you’re actually evaluating what people’s gifts are, where people work with job descriptions that are explicit. Then you can point to black and white and say, “This is in this description, and you’re not doing it.”

CE: Do you have some practical tips about having the conversation itself?

SN: A lot depends on the reading of it. Certainly if it’s a volunteer, and a husband and wife are both involved, it’s very important that they both be in the conversation. I think that’s important. I usually like to start off by asking people to do self-evaluation—“How do you think you’re doing?”

A lot of times they realize they’re not doing so well. If you do it right, it actually won’t be a surprise. The right way should be that it’s the last of a long series of conversations.

There should have been previous conversations, where you’ve said, “I’m not sure this is working. Let’s go over again what’s happening and see what we can do to help you.” There should have been a number of conversations along the way, or statements like, “We’re going to try this only this much longer, and if it doesn’t turn around, then we’re going to get you in a different spot.” There should be plenty of warning and lead-up, but also efforts to help them actually succeed before you ever get to that final conversation.

CE: What kinds of things need to be present in the emotional life of a church planter who’s going to have to do this well?

SN: If you have a need to be liked by everybody, you’re in deep trouble already. The essence of leadership is making hard decisions. That’s why you’re a leader—people need somebody to do it. Not everybody’s going to like it. That’ll throw you off, so you’ve got to be secure in your identity and your relationship with God and in your calling, instead of being dependent on everyone liking your decisions.

These people are entrusted to you by God. And God has put things into them that are meant to be put to the best possible use. Our task is to try to get everybody in such a place that they’re the right person in the right job, and the right position in the church, and the right position in the ministry—whether it’s volunteer or paid. Either way.

Anytime that we don’t have people in the right spot, we’re off track and accountable to God to fix it. We’ll make mistakes, because people are complicated. It’s hard to make the right decision up front. So you can do things to try to avoid it and get better at making decisions up front, but you just won’t avoid everything.

Honestly, over time, somebody who was in the right position at one stage of the church’s life just might not be in the right position anymore if the church gets bigger or goes through changes. It’s inevitable. You can’t be losing sleep over it.

I want to help people have success in being a part of the life of the Kingdom, and having something to contribute that’s changing the world and making it a better place. Again, if somebody’s in the wrong spot, keeping them there is not the way to do it.

I want to help get them in the right spot.

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