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Finding grace in layoffs

A pastor seeks an answer to the question: What is the Christian way to lay off someone?

February 17, 2009

Standing at the church door after a service is one of the most stressful times of a minister’s week. You try not to get in the way of those who want to bolt out the door. You try to remember the names of the newcomers you’ve met several times. You try to remember personal stories and prayer requests. You try to make conversation, even with those with nothing to say. Some weeks, it is the most pastoral care you do all week.

Such was the case on a recent Sunday when two people stopped to ask me how they could lay off people in a Christian way. In the current economic climate, we often hear about the people losing their jobs; my own wife recently had her job “restructured.” But these people were the ones who had the task of delivering a message decided at a higher corporate level, for the corporate good. These Christians wanted to know how to live out their faith, and they wanted my pastoral guidance.

Maybe I was asleep in seminary the day we had that discussion. I was at a loss to offer an answer. I turned to my own “preacher line,” an online community of pastors and leaders I trust, to ask, “What is the Christian way to tell someone that his job has been eliminated?”

The responses were helpful and wide-ranging. One person sought to find the words that should be used. Several suggested the more personal the encounter, the better. As one wrote, “My model -- although, admittedly, it is a mixed metaphor -- has been Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” When Sheriff Tate couldn’t bring himself to shoot a mad dog, he called Atticus. When I read that, I applied it to my job in taking bad news to staff and church people and resolved that I would not ever dodge or delegate my hard, unpleasant tasks.”

Perhaps the most helpful advice came from those who had been on the receiving end of that kind of news. “Nothing deepens your compassion in this situation quite like having had it done unto you,” one friend wrote.

One colleague talked with a church member who currently has the difficult task of traveling around the country mothballing operations and laying off six to 30 people at a time. He offered these suggestions:

  • Understand that early communication is better. No one likes to be caught unprepared. The news that your job is being eliminated is tough enough without the added shock of being caught unaware. Knowing the financial situation, work environment and business forecast will help everyone prepare for the coming storm.
  • Always have someone with you. That is good business sense in this litigious world, but it is also biblical. Jesus says that two or three can bring a heightened sense of his presence. It also allows others to offer pastoral care.
  • Script the message. This is not a time to ad lib. Confess this is a difficult conversation for everyone involved.
  • Don’t window-dress. Get to the point. The longer you draw out what’s going on, the more confusing it can be to the person.
  • Be empathic. Look the person in the eye. Offer an apology. Listen to and accept their pain, hurt and anger as legitimate and understandable.

 

Perhaps in the end, the fact that a person delivers this horrible news is the moment of grace. They see that someone has not turned away from the pain of this moment, the pain of watching the world collapse, the pain of wondering what the future will hold. For someone to incarnate the grace of God that will not desert us even in our darkest moments, that is how one is a Christian in these moments. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us, grace is not cheap, nor is it easy. But that is what makes it grace.

And there was grace even in this online conversation. My friends reminded me that ministry is collegial, even when you are the only staff person. We need to reach out to others, to glean from their experience and knowledge. Ministry is an ongoing educational endeavor, and the internet makes that so much easier.

It also means that next week when I stand at the back door, I can look down the line with anticipation that I have an extra word of grace to share.