managers can’t be held hostage by a bad employee

A reader writes:

I belong to a church of the type where people’s families have attended for generations. One of our members has acted as secretary for over 20 years. A few years ago, we hired a new pastor and this secretary does not like him. She’s always been a prickly person to work with, frequently overstepping her professional boundaries because of her family connections. However, over the past few years her unprofessional attitude has started affecting the rest of the members, as well as outside groups.

She has flat-out refused to embrace and use new technology which would allow her to adapt to her changing job, and her work quality has gotten worse over time. Today in a meeting about an upcoming fundraiser, she showed up and publicly accused the pastor of misappropriating some of the funds in the budget. The finance committee assured her that the pastor’s compensation was correct and in line with the standards used by the governing board of our denomination and she spoke over them, asking, “Oh, so we have to do what they say?” It’s like she’s forgotten that she’s an employee and the committee members and governing board are her bosses.

Apparently she’s been name-calling and losing her temper with the pastor’s wife in private, calling the pastor’s wife a “loser” and yelling at the pastor for wearing jeans to the office on Saturdays. She’s also been making decisions that are none of her business, such as whether or not outside groups can use the facilities, or who can contribute which items and talents at which church events. She’s been mean and bullying to other church members in general.

I’m curious as to how you would approach this situation. The main trouble is that she’s threatening to leave in a huff and take her family and friends with her. In our small church, that will actually have an impact.

I feel that this has become a conflict of interest. If she doesn’t respect the pastor, she can’t be working as his assistant. I’m of the mind that we should tell her that her concerns are welcome as a church member but that she’s no longer welcome to stay on as an employee, as she has not been properly performing her job duties. I also feel that once she’s gone and not stirring up trouble, we’ll attract more people because we won’t have someone so off-putting acting as front for the church. How would you approach this situation?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 148 comments… read them below }

      1. SF2K01*

        They’re not ineligible, they’re just not obligated to pay into the UI system for a range of religious and religious adjacent employees (they could volunteer to do so if they wanted). The specifics beyond that depend on the State, but in New York, for example, an administrative secretary would not be exempt and they would need to pay into UI if they are paying them over $1,000 a quarter.

        Funnily enough, in New York, the organization can also request exemption from paying into UI for those employees with the tradeoff being if such an employee does file for UI, the organization would be responsible for covering the entire UI claim costs.

        1. winifred*

          This is state-specific. I work for a church in Mass. and churches are, by law, not allowed to pay into UI because we are not considered employees.

          This is why it’s always a terrible idea to hire church members as staff. The “benefit” is usually seen that they’re willing to work for what is usually extremely low pay. The downside is perfectly encapsulated by this letter and is a problem at many churches.

    1. PollyQ*

      Not sure what that has to do with the question? It doesn’t appear that the reasons the problem employee is being kept include concern for her financial well-being. And the church is free to pay her severance if the fire her anyway.

      1. Genesis*

        I think Sola was suggesting they should just fire her already. I would. Even if that meant losing parishioners. If they approve of her antagonistic behavior, I wouldn’t want them around anyway. But I have a suspicion not all of them do.

        1. FrenchCusser*

          She sounds like a horror. I doubt very many people would leave if she were gone. If she treats her BOSSES that way, just imagine how she treats her family.

          And she doesn’t have any friends.

  1. I edit everything*

    Ohhhh, geez. Church politics are *the worst*. And entitled church secretaries are the worst of the worst. She’s more likely to get the pastor to leave than leave herself. Also, if she has that much power, I’d start looking to see if she has access to the bank accounts. I know this is an old letter, but chances are she’s still hanging around.

    1. ThatGirl*

      They are the worst. My dad was a pastor and thankfully he never had a secretary like this but both times we left churches during my childhood it was due to internal politics. I really hope they kicked this lady to the proverbial curb.

      1. Lynn*

        You aren’t kidding. Church politics have a whole level of terrible all their own.

        My in-laws attended, for several decades, an small church. There were several splits over minor “theological” disagreements. Honestly, the claim was theological disagreements, but it was really just pettiness playing out.

        The ILs finally got fed up and left both groups behind when the church split over plastic vs glass storage in the church kitchen. Yes-people were actually arguing about the theological implications of using glass for dry goods storage. Last they heard, there was yet another split in the group that retained use of the building-it is down to about 20 members in 3 families now.

        1. CoffeeforLife*

          I need to know the theological implications for using glass! I would think plastic would be the bad guy.

    2. Grand Admiral Thrawn Will Always Be Blue*

      Long time ex church office worker here – absolutely, this woman needs to go. No way will she adapt. She’s probably completely dedicated to the other pastor and will not switch loyalties. And yes, church politics are an animal unto themselves. **never again**

      1. OyHiOh*

        OP, the “in honor of your many years of service to the church” and “your family’s many contributions to our community” “retirement” party works shockingly well in this sort of situation.

        1. Juneybug*

          Had a friend (Sally the supervisor) do that to a very loved older woman (Beth
          the bad employee) – told Beth she was having a work retirement party on this date and to invite all of her friends. Why? Because Beth the bad employee refused to embrace technology (sent clients paper bills and insisted on check or cash payments), was loose and floppy with accounting practices (Sally the supervisor believe employee had taken personal loans against funds but couldn’t prove it), would gossip all day instead of work, couldn’t find payment history, Sally would tell her to do this one thing and Beth would do another which would cause late payments to vendors, etc. Sally had provided training, coaching, and then performance improvement plan but nothing work. Beth was set in her own ways and was going to do what she wanted. She had lasted longer than previous bosses so she was going to wait until Sally left. But my friend was tougher than that – bad employee goes, good boss stays.
          Once Beth left, accounting was perfect, everyone loved the new electronic methods of receiving/paying bills, less complaints from other employees and clients because no rumors/gossip was going around, etc. It was wonderful walking into the office to take my friend Sally out to lunch. The whole atmosphere had changed. No one was happier at that retirement party than Sally.

          1. pancakes*

            And Beth was cooperative with this plan? It seems unlikely to me that someone who puts so much energy and resistance into being a bad employee would accept being retired against their will with ease. What you are describing is termination, but unless Beth had a contract they likely could’ve terminated her employment much earlier. Why not just terminate her at the end of the PIP?

            1. Snuck*

              Because if you find the motivation for the employee you can sometimes put a ‘spin’ on something and make it more appealing. It’s entirely possible that Beth knew she wasn’t competent but couldn’t admit it, that she wanted to stay at the church but couldn’t find an out from the role (thought she was indispensable?) and knew that she was going to this darn party with a smile on her face or going to face a long slow and reputation destroying process… so everyone agreed to the golden handshake path for easier transition?

              It’s not always worth PIP and forcing change, especially not if there’s a lot of pain involved. If you can find an alternative path that everyone can live with you jump on it.

      2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I’ve seen that work well with one person – who yes was jut worn out, but nowhere near as bad as the secretary in the letter – and once turn into an all out war with the bad secretary feeling like he was being pushed out (which yes he was – but just like the OP’s bad secretary he refused to adapt to changing demands of the job). I would go the celebratory retirement party route only if you think the rest of the church will back the pastor/council and not the secretary.

      3. Richard Hershberger*

        The conversation is unlikely to be helpful, but yes on the retirement party. Go all out on it, with lots of talk about her years of dedicated service to the church. Give her every opportunity to act like this was her idea. If she makes this impossible, focus on new technology, not her personal qualities. People understand this as a compelling factor, and not personal. She and her family might still flounce out the door, but they might not, and even if they do, you want to set it up so impartial third parties won’t blame you.

      4. Snuck*

        Another option can be the “special projects” route. “You are so experienced, and have so much knowledge, we would really like your input on managing the new Church roof – you know so much about how we run, and all the members. We NEED you to help set this up, fundraise and support this, as it’s crucial that someone with your experience, knowledge and dedication take it on. I know it’s going to be a longer project, about a year or two, but that’s why it’s more important YOU take it on, because we know you are so committed.”

        And then when she agrees “Gosh you are so busy, we’ll bring a short term contractor in to help with the book work, so you can focus on your Important Project, and she can do your busy work”…. Short term contractors are less threatening because they are ‘short term’ and the Pastor makes an hour a week to have tea and listen about the roof building project. Over the course of a year she pours herself self importantly into the new roof, someone else competent manages the office, and she gets to have a jovial tea each week with the Pastor hopefully improving relations (technically to talk about hte progress on the Important Project, but he can also chat to her about things like his sermon, and make her feel included, heard and important).

        And then give your Pastor some form of pay rise – not necessarily cash, but give him something else for putting up with her ;) Quietly. Someone to mow the lawns at his house, or a pot luck dinner he’s been holding for community members every week roster people to help set it up and clean it up not leaving it all to him, or find a seminary student he clicks with and employ them as the casual contractor so he can have a ‘good friend’ there as well.

    3. Momma Bear*

      We had a small church where a clique kept running off decent pastors for personal reasons. It should have been no surprise that attendance dwindled. Once I was grown and gone, I never went back to that congregation.

      It seems that other people in the church are willing to back the pastor, so I think whoever is in charge of her employment should have a “come to Jesus meeting” (pun slightly intended) and lay it out for her. She’s a bully. Her family may leave. Or they may be as sick of being pushed around by her as you are. But what she’s doing is not right and especially the pastor’s wife shouldn’t have to put up with it. She’s been the gatekeeper and forgotten that “I am the church” also has the line “You are the church. We are the church together.” Small churches do feel a significant pinch when people leave, but sometimes people leave anyway. You can’t get them to stay if she keeps chastising people. Volunteers are hard enough to find without someone bullying them.

      This might also be a good moment for the pastor/parish relations committee to plan to talk to people after her departure and have a company line about why she was asked to leave her job.

      I would also try to hire a new secretary with no other ties to the congregation.

      1. Sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss*

        Yes. Our last secretary was not a member. She was good at it and well loved. She is sorely missed today.

        I was told I could not apply because I was a member. I was disappointed but it made complete sense.

        1. Ugh*

          I think it’s MUCH better to not be a member of a church you work for. A relative of mine was a church admin and had a very major medical scare, which resulted in 1. needing time off work, 2. being sort of slower for a while at work while recovering and 3. needing to get some support and comfort from her pastor/boss who was salty about giving her time off, and dismissive of her medical issue.

          I am 100% positive the pastor would have treated her with appropriate pastoral care if employment dynamics weren’t in play. If it was a regular toxic workplace she could have just left, but it was her church of 30 years, so she just took it. It was truly devastating to be on the sidelines of, and convinced me to cut ties with that church forever. Silver lining: I did convince her to retire early.

          1. Grand Admiral Thrawn Will Always Be Blue*

            It truly is better to NOT be a member and employee. You avoid so much garbage that way.

      2. Ann Nonymous*

        I work as the bookkeeper at a church I’m not a member of and don’t attend. I think it’s the best situation all around. The woman I replaced was a member and an employee (for several decades) and she was Done with it all when she left. I haven’t heard any complaints against her, but it seems that hiring members is bad on so many levels.

        1. CoveredInBees*

          Other than our rabbis, no one who works for my synagogue attends it. I don’t know how many are even Jewish. This is by design and I think it works very well.

        2. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

          My mom is a church administrator at the parish she attends, and it is such a blurred line between work and spiritual engagement. She never gets to be “off”, even when she’s attending services she has to be ready to jump in and do some work. She and my dad work so many volunteer hours on top of her actual paid working hours, and of course she gets paid peanuts for the work she’s doing. Plus, she’s been wanting to retire for literally 3 years and her boss (who is also her priest) won’t let her until they find someone who can replace her, which is not going very well. Work is all tied up with community and emotional baggage and there essentially is no HR – it’s like the very worst of nonprofit toxicity, everyone is “here for the mission” and if you speak up for better pay/working conditions you’re at traitor to the community. Ugh, I get so mad just thinking about it!

            1. Librarian of SHIELD*

              In religious communities, it’s not uncommon for women who undertake the work of running things to be pressured to work harder and do more for the good of the community. So it’s likely that the priest “won’t let” his admin retire by laying on this kind of pressure. If she isn’t there giving all her time and energy, souls aren’t going to get saved, community members are going to miss out on benefits, the whole world will go downhill. Never underestimate how motivating a little religious guilt can be.

            2. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

              Exactly what Librarian said – he’s asked her to stay on, which coming from a priest is basically a spiritual order. If she quits now she’ll be “harming the community” and hurting the people she cares about, plus her social standing in her worship community would be diminished. So sure, legally she could quit any time, but she’s being held hostage emotionally albeit not physically.

              1. pancakes*

                A form of social standing that calls for being underpaid and exploited reflects some pretty warped societal ideas.

      3. laowai-gaijin*

        Since this is a church, I’d make the “come to Jesus” literal. As in, lay out for her all the ways she is acting in an unchristian way, and tell her it needs to stop. Preferably, a church board member she respects should do this.

        1. Danie*

          I agree with this. In any other situation I wouldn’t say this, but this is literally a church, a Christian organisation. In the Bible it literally says ““If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan” <= Matthew 18.

          Even if you ignore the practical sense or removing her, there is also a biblical principle backing her removal as well.

      4. tink*

        Her attitude is going to have people leaving that church regardless, because either she (and presumably her connections) go because she can’t get her way anymore, or other people leave because she is getting her way and being a rude bully where folks can see (or feel the effects of) it.

        1. Ama*

          Yup, I’ve seen this happen before — if it is that small of a church and this woman thinks she’s entitled to that much control, there’s no way she hasn’t already driven off some members who don’t want to deal with her.

      5. Sara*

        I just lost a great part time employee to a church. She isn’t a member and they said they only hire non-parishioners. After reading this I can see why!

      6. Anhaga*

        “We had a small church where a clique kept running off decent pastors for personal reasons. It should have been no surprise that attendance dwindled. Once I was grown and gone, I never went back to that congregation. ”

        Hah, did we grow up in the same church? That’s what my childhood church was like. I attempted to go back as an adult when I briefly moved my family to the area, was asked to be the choir director for a while, and was promptly fussed out by the controlling clique that treats the church as its historic interest club. It was really sad and is one more reason that I’m very on the fence about organized religion in general.

        1. Momma Bear*

          Funny enough, one of the people the clique chased off was a new choir director…but that was a long time ago so probably not you. But these comments go to show how a few vocal people can really harm an organization long-term.

      7. TardyTardis*

        Although sometimes the pastor’s wife is at fault (though not in this case, obviously). We had one who told a sick member that she was ill because she wrote fantasy and SF, and tried to take over the women’s organization even though someone else had been running it for a year and a half. The pastor was also a piece of work–wanted to put the church in debt buying real estate. They stayed for fewer years than normal…

        But yes, this secretary could definitely use a retirement party. You have to wonder who she’s already run off from the church membership.

    4. HelenB*

      The only thing worse are Seminary politics. You get church and university politics combined.

      1. kittymommy*

        100% can attest.

        Truthfully, even if she does leave the church she is unlikely to stay away. They come back, they always come back. This church is too ingrained in her life and her families history she is very unlikely to be “happy” any where else (or find people who will tolerate this behavior). But yeah, she’s got to go from the office. This behavior will undermine the church and is without a doubt keeping people away. Not to get too religious, but she is not being a good witness for the faith or the church and visitors will take notice of that.

    5. Artemesia*

      A non-religious professional organization I belonged to had a secretary who managed all the finances like this. Since the officials were essentially elected volunteers they relied heavily on her and just put up with her officiousness and unpleasantness. When a new treasurer was elected who actually did the job — he had a background in finance which most officers had not had — it turned out she had embezzled for years. People who ‘can’t be fired’ are time bombs waiting to explode. I’ll bet that church has plenty of members who can’t imagine why she is being given so much power over the organization and will be relieved if she is gone.

    6. Drago Cucina*

      It really is enough to make one loose her faith. Church politics and making sausage. Neither one is pretty.

    7. MissM*

      Most of the churches I’ve belonged to have a policy of not employing members for the non-pastoral roles for this exact reason. It’s bad enough when the priest and the board get into it, but you need the day to day operations to avoid the politics and just work.

    8. Amy the Rev*

      Yep- this is why we, as a general rule, don’t hire members, and when we do, it’s for a stated, finite time-frame (like hiring a graduated high school senior to be a part-time sexton the summer before he leaves for college).

    9. Chickaletta*

      Church politics are insane! I was on the “board” of a church during an HR crisis and it’s not as cut and dry as regular employment at all because employees are often members and vice versa, and there’s also a lot of emotion involved. Imagine the person there’s an HR issue with is the exact same person that many people trust their counseling to, or to oversee their mother’s funeral, or upcoming wedding. Employment issues within a church are very delicate.

  2. TimeTravlR*

    I used to work at a church that had a similar dynamic. The employee did get fired and the family was very much in arms and had a meeting with the pastor and the committee (staff-parish relations) who did the actual firing. They stuck to their guns and the family left. And then eventually (not long after) decided they would come back and attend church there after all. I won’t speak to the dynamics of small churches being reliant on families to keep the doors open because that isn’t the question and is a whole ‘other discussion. But you can’t keep someone on who refuses to do what is best for the church. Because of the dynamics, it does make sense to lay it out for her and give her one last chance as Alison noted.

    1. SimplyTheBest*

      And usually, they can’t actually make good on their threats to take everyone with them. People like their church for more than that one person. They’ve built a community there. It’s not easy to just uproot and take off.

    2. The Cosmic Avenger*

      It’s significantly more complicated with a church than a regular office because of the interconnectedness of the employees and the “customers” (church members), but IMO the principle still holds: if you allow a problem employee to create an uncomfortable work environment, you’re also going to chase away a lot of good employees, and so the culture becomes strongly dysfunctional. Also:

      Or, if you won’t let someone go because she’ll trash-talk you in important communities, why are you entrusting knowledge of the inner workings of your organization to someone who you believe would act as an enemy if given the opportunity?

      Heck, in my experience people like that are probably trash talking you anyway even if they’re getting much of what they want, because it’s ALL ABOUT THEM and you’re not treating them like the prince/princess/unicorn they are.

  3. CommanderBanana*

    Oh boy! Man, churches are a whole other thing, but people like this soured me on organized religion for like….25 years, sooo.

  4. OhNoYouDidn't*

    I’ve always been thankful that my church (for which I volunteered in an administrative capacity for almost a decade) has always been run with good business practices and that stuff like this wouldn’t be tolerated. It’s a ministry, but it’s a job that you’re getting paid to do. So, do your job, treat people professionally (and as you’d have others treat you because that’s what we’re supposed to do anyway), or you need to find a job that’s a better fit. Church or not, it shouldn’t really matter.

  5. Tracy*

    This is so common that you wouldn’t believe it. I’m not even trying to exaggerate. There was a very very very similar situation that just happened at my own church and while it was hard for the church staff to experience, there will be an improvement down the road.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I think every community has it to some degree. My parents’ church has a member who desperately wants to be in charge of a certain important committee, but she’s so hotheaded and hard to work with that she never will be (which is good). And I was in a music club for many years that had some weird power struggles going on among a few longstanding and very-invested members.

    2. Alpaca Bag*

      We are a few years past it at our church, and yes, a few people did leave with the problem person, which turned out to be okay. Apparently we had gotten a reputation as a place that lets an unpleasant, pushy person run things, and it kept us from getting new visitors or members. Our unpleasant, pushy person has been replaced by some new members, some of whom have children, and we have more volunteers now, because they feel valuable and appreciated. I didn’t realize how bad the environment had gotten until it got better, like finally fixing a toothache.

  6. Dust Bunny*

    No way, no how would I join a church who kept an employee like this. I would have serious questions about the judgment of church leadership and their concern for everyone else in the congregation.

    I friend of ours is a long-time church secretary but a) she’s a reasonable, intelligent, friendly person and b) she intentionally works for a church that is not of her denomination (and they intentionally hired someone who was not of their denomination). It’s a lot easier to stay neutral when you don’t share the ideology and your family has no ties.

    1. kt*

      A friend of mine does church admin, as well, and she intentionally has never worshipped where she’s worked. She very sensibly keeps a bright line, although she does belong to the denomination. This came in handy recently as a new pastor came in and replaced previous competent management with incompetent management, and friend did decide to leave — at least she was not losing her spiritual home and income in the same moment.

      Similarly, I know a pastor who was run out of her church by an insular minority of folks who didn’t like change, or something, and it’s been quite destructive for her career and family life. Don’t be a bystander as this sort of abuse is carried out.

      1. many bells down*

        I am also a church admin, and while I’m welcome to attend services I CANNOT be a member. It’s in our bylaws that staff can’t be members of the same congregation.

        1. Amy the Rev*

          YES! This is such a good inclusion in the bylaws. It can cause all sorts of issues when your boss is also your pastor!

      2. Richard Hershberger*

        It is best practice for none of the lay staff to be members or closely related to members. But the temptation is strong: You have an opening, the pay is lousy, and you have a member willing an able to take the job. Indeed, this person already knows the church, so can hit the ground running. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it is immediately obvious to everyone that it isn’t going to work. Then sometimes you get what we have here. It is likely that this person was just fine for the first ten or fifteen years.

      3. Slicejmar*

        Thank you for saying this, kt. My partner is one of those clergy who was run out by a minority of folks from one congregation. At his next, he had an employee just like this who resisted updating financial management practices. No surprise, it turned out she’d been monkeying with the books. She eventually rage quite but not before starting an “anonymous” letter campaign to fire him. It took a long time, but the leadership adopted standards for operation of the church that have kept this from happening again.

    2. Librarian of SHIELD*

      This is an especially big concern if this person is the first point of contact if potential members call the church to ask questions before their first visit. When I was changing churches a few years ago, one step in my process was to call the church and ask a handful of questions (accessibility of the buildings, etc), and I did cross one church off the list because the person who answered my call was abrupt and seemed like she was gatekeeping, and I didn’t want that energy in a church I was going to belong to. In some cases when the question is “will stopping this behavior means the person and their network will leave?” it’s worth asking a second question. “Has this person’s behavior already been keeping other people away?”

    3. Starlike*

      This is absolutely the way to handle it. I’ve been the replacement for a secretary exactly like this, and while I came in as a member of the church, I left as… not one. The mixing of church membership and money is a terrible idea, and the only staff member who was able to be at all objective about anything was the business office manager, who was from another denomination. But it’s so necessary from the other side, too – it’s impossible for your boss to also be your pastor. A boss can’t also interact in pastoral ways with people who work for him, and staff see way too much of “how the sausage is made” to be able to truly act in congregational capacity or ever be off work when they’re in the building.

  7. Some dude*

    I don’t attend a church so I am ignorant about the dynamics, but having volunteered for a membership org that relied on dues to stay afloat, I can say that sometimes getting rid of an established member who is not growing with the organization and has become toxic can make room for new members to take their place. Her absence might actually create space for new people to come to your church, people more aligned with the new pastor and who were turned off by this prickly employee. Because that prickly employee might be the first touchpoint that prospective members have with your church.

    1. Momma Bear*

      Agreed. If she’s blocking groups from using the building then there goes not only revenue, but an opportunity to be welcoming to the community. Like any customer facing role, it matters who you have interacting with outsiders. If they don’t reflect your business well, then your business (or organization) will suffer.

    2. pope suburban*

      Yes. I worked for a business that had a problem employee like this, and having him around was a huge detriment. In our case, not only was he not actually that good at his job, he refused to work on assignments with most of our other technicians or builders, he alienated clients with his aggressive (and frankly weird) behavior, and he was stealing from the company on a pretty serious scale. Trying to manage the losses there while juggling his negative impacts on literally everyone he interacted with was a huge drain. The boss, for various reasons, was reluctant to let him go and dragged out the termination process for about a year. A miserable year in which multiple people were threatened by this person.

      Then he left, and…nothing bad happened! In fact, things got easier! We had more money/equipment, installations and maintenance calls went more smoothly, client complaints went down, and things ran as well as they ever did in that Workplace Of Bees. The truth is, there is no one on this earth who is so good at their job that everyone around them has to suffer insults, rudeness, and yelling all the time. You can’t just buy your way out of the social and professional contract. People always worry about “what if we lost them,” and invariably, the answer is just, “We’ll find someone new and make changes, and go forward.” I understand that this can seem daunting and I certainly can’t speak to how this fear manifests in a faith community, but it’s always okay and right to let a huge jerk go. Your org will find a way after the jerk’s exit.

    3. Paris Geller*

      This is exactly what I was going to say. I know churches are in many ways a category of their own, and I do understand that it can be difficult to have someone who is both an employee and a parishioner, and this is a small church and sure, the family’s absence will definitely be felt. At the same time–the secretary’s bad behavior might be driving away potential members and you don’t even realize it when you’re in the thick of a situation like this. I know this is an old letter, but I’m willing to bet the secretary was doing more egregious things than even the letter writer knew–and the examples were pretty bad!

  8. Bernice Clifton*

    I don’t know what denomination this is, but if it’s even decently represented in your area, I’d bet my paycheck that you’ve had prospective parishioners and parishioners that have had a run-in with her and just left to worship at another congregation.

      1. Anne*

        We had this with someone at our church. If she hadn’t just resigned we were going elsewhere because she was the director of education, and it was not serving our needs. In our case, the Pastor was not listening to dissent about her, and yes people left. It’s still employment. I think sometimes people don’t think so because its church, but if you are being paid for your services, you need to do your job and do it well.

    1. SadieMae*

      Yes. Especially since many times, a disgruntled member will latch on to newbies because he wants to win them to his side of whatever the current argument is right away. When I worked at a church there were a few people like this. They would basically accost new people, seeming at first to be friendly, and then they would start saying things like “SOME people around here like this contemporary music, but I think it’s not REAL church music. Don’t you agree?” or “I love to see visitors, you know we’ve lost membership lately, I’m sure it’s because of the building renovation, it’s SO ugly. I can’t believe the board OK’d that fence, but you know Phyllis’s husband worked for the contractor, and Phyllis ALWAYS gets her way around here…” I would try to break in and redirect things when I could, but that initial taste left by the disgruntled person is hard to wash away.

      (And, yes, I am also a “Never again!” former church employee. I admire the heck out of people who do that work, but after my experience, I’d really rather poke a hot fork in my eyeball than deal with church politics again. It’s a special level of hell.)

      1. MissBaudelaire*

        That kind of behavior is exactly why I don’t like worshipping at traditional churches.

        A lot of ‘good’ congregations around me are very old. People conflate old with good. So they’re full of elderly people, set in their ways, who do what you’ve described. Major turn off. Add into that the fact that they kick and scream at changes, have nothing to appear to new and younger people, then get confused when they lose membership and can’t get new. It’s interesting.

  9. PK*

    I think it’s tricky when you’re talking about an employee who is also part of the congregation because, unlike in many offices, letting someone go doesn’t mean having them actually go (and you don’t actually want her gone from the congregation if you can avoid it because of impact). But here’s the thing, even when people aren’t employees, in Church Politics you’ll often find people trying to hold the church hostage with the threat of leaving. (Sometimes it’s an elder/vestry member trying to hold the priest/pastor hostage, sometimes it’s a “matriarch” or “patriarch” of the congregation who has a lot of influence just trying to hold the general church hostage. It’s rarely a paid employee issue.) My mother, the priest, would probably want to remind OP that, even when you worry about numbers and congregation sustainability, you need to be willing to let people go (as in, say goodbye, not kick them out). The denominational divisions in the church create issues, but they also create lovely opportunities for people to find their church home and a place of worship that makes them happy (or they can just go to the next closest church in the same denomination). If somebody threatens to leave, help them ask themselves whether they’re really happy at the church and it’s an empty threat, or if they would actually be happier elsewhere. Thank them for their contributions and presence, tell them you’ll be sad they left, and wish them the best of luck at their new church home. I don’t think that most people would actually leave, but for some people, leaving would be the right choice for their spiritual journey. And that was all very religious talk, but to bring it back to business, I think the advice works in companies too. Someitmes the person saying “I’ve been looking at a new job, they offered me this, can you match the offer” means it’s worth it to try to help them stay, but even if they’re a wonderful employee, maybe it can help to make sure they know you wish them the best if they really want to leave. I felt so guilty when I switched jobs 3 years ago because I had nothing against the job I was leaving, and once I knew they wished me the best, it made it so much easier. If I could have known that before I resigned, it might have made the hunt less stressful. (Not that I had any reason to think they wouldn’t wish me the best, just that it’s hard to know.)

  10. LizM*

    You’re going to lose the pastor over this dynamic. What will that do to your congregation? I’ve been on a handful of pastor search committees over the years for our church, and internal politics seems like a major reason we find pastors looking for new jobs. And I can’t imagine a pastor wanting to stay in a situation where their spouse is being abused and the governing board isn’t willing to do anything about it.

    The thing is, it’s very easy to get used to a toxic employee. So used to that person, that you’re not able to see the people that are quietly leaving or disengaging with your church, or the people who visit but never really engage because they can’t get past her as a gatekeeper. So if they take a big group with them, it feels like a big loss, but I’d be willing to bet you will have other members step up to fill the void once they can participate without having to deal with her. And honestly, while there might be a short term pain, if you have people that are more loyal to an employee than to the community, that might be necessary for the health of your congregation.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      This, this, this! How long will a good pastor stay in a dynamic like this: the minimum amount of time that he is required to.

      (Some denominations have a minimum amount of time the pastor will be at the congregation – in mine it is four years.)

      1. Anne*

        Really? That seems crazy to me. I’m episcopalian and every church I’ve been at will not allow this. Because its not good for the church and its not good for that person.
        Especially for the people who work at the church but aren’t there on Sundays, like admins. They can go to their own church on Sundays.
        Our choir director even goes elsewhere for church and she is there on Sunday mornings.
        You may want to go to the pastor/priest for council but they are also your boss? Blurs so many lines.

        1. Lunar Caustic*

          A great many churches (especially in the US) value everyone being in ideological lockstep over healthy organizational and relationship practices. Hence the prevalence of financial and abuse scandals.

          1. Anne*

            Oh, well that makes sense since Im Episcopalian and we dont require ideology to be a member OR employee. “We” as in denominationally.

            1. Richard Hershberger*

              I am Lutheran (ELCA) but Episcopalian-adjacent in many ways. Y’all are usually very good about church governance and best practices. I’d say you are at the top, among churches I know enough about to comment. But many others are not nearly so well governed. The typical problem is susceptibility to the cult of personality, usually but not always around the pastor. This is essentially the entire Evangelical megachurch model. You also find the other extreme, with a board of some sort filled with appointees-for-life, who keep the pastor firmly under their thumb. This is at least as big a problem, but in a different way.

              1. Tangerina Warbleworth*

                Hello, fellow Episcopalian-adjacent ELCA Lutheran! I agree with everything you said, especially about the E’s knowing their stuff. I also lived through an unwanted cult of personality that destroyed the Lutheran church I grew up in, which is why my parents are now Episcopalian.

                The pastor in question didn’t actually want a cult of personality around him, but he was naturally very, very handsome (like, Ivor Novello handsome), and the old Church Ladies (well-off widows), who were literally touchy-feely, just loooooooved him. He left of his own accord — three guesses why — and after that, our church could not keep a pastor for more than two years, because he was never a good as Pastor Handsome. It started a rift between The Ladies and the rest of the congregation that lasted for years, causing one bad decision after another, losing members, not getting new members because the whole town knew about our troubles, and finally closing for lack of funds. The last members of the congregation went to the Episcopalian church and they’re still there, because they all love it.

                TL/DR: A once-thriving church closes, all because old wealthy Church Ladies were such babies over losing Pastor Handsome.

          2. Donkey Hotey*

            Oh yes. I’ve seen job applications where the applicant must sign off on a doctrine of faith to be considered for the job.

            1. Richard Hershberger*

              This is not unusual in the Evangelical world, which is all about forming a bubble and staying as much as possible inside it. Unbeliever cooties are contrary to this ideal, even among support staff.

          3. AE*

            Wow! I’ve been involved in religious orgs where, at least for people on the financial/accounting side, not only could they not be a member, but they deliberately hired people who were not members of the religion at all to minimize the chance and appearance of bias.

          4. Person from the Resume*

            LOL! Someone just told me that he was not Catholic and got a job at a Catholic church/diocese overseeing finances. In his interview he was asked if he was Catholic and when he said no was told good because the job would cause him to lose his faith if he was.

            1. Drago Cucina*

              Oh yes, and lots of parishes are filled with these types. We often get new priests and new to the US priests as our assistant pastors. The recommendation my husband makes (he’s a deacon) is when they move on to be a pastor the first step should be a forensic audit so they know the books are in order.

              In one case the new pastor found that the long-time secretary, from a well known family in the town, had been skimming from the parish finances. She also announced that she and her husband expected the pastor to take them out to dinner once a week. One his dime. She quickly resigned and for the first time the parish has been financially solid and people are coming back.

              In another case it seems the parish had bought a pick-up and jet-ski that was solely being used by the parish grounds keeper/handy-man.

              A few of the most “successful” pastors I know had experience in other areas. One had been a Navy officer. Another had a business degree from Wharton. Still another was a NASA engineer. They all had the sense to know what they didn’t know, ask, and investigate.

        2. James*

          I’ve seen it in Roman Catholic churches. In part they hire internally to the church for the same reason many companies do internal promotions–they trust the people in the church, have established relationships with them, and hold the view that if someone’s going to benefit it should be someone of the faith. In some cases there are trust issues as well. The Wiccan/Pagan groups I’ve seen do the same, though often this is as much because it’s informal and not a job, per say, as anything else–someone’s gotta keep the books, and since many aren’t open about their practice it’s almost got to be someone internal.

          Of course, the Roman Catholic churches I’ve attended had zero problems throwing someone out of a job as well. It’s not out of the church, just out of the job.

          1. Beany*

            Is it possible that RC churches want to hire internally because of health & benefits issues relating to hot-button topics like birth control? There’ve certainly been high-profile cases of organizations with an RC ethos (not just the churches themselves) refusing to pay for certain types of health insurance coverage. If the employee was RC as well, this would make it more likely that this wouldn’t be an issue.

            1. James*

              It’s a possibility, certainly. But in the cases that I’ve seen, hiring outside the parish simply wasn’t considered. It would be like using a dogsled to get to work in Michigan–possible, sure, but not something a normal person would even consider. Even outside parishes weren’t considered for roles until everyone in the parish was given the option.

              To be clear: I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m just saying it’s not something I’ve witnessed.

        3. CoveredInBees*

          Also, they can have access to personal information about other congregants. Who is getting counseling from the clergy. Who is getting financial aid on preschool tuition. While I don’t think anyone should be ashamed for either of these things, they should stay private and no one should worry about fellow congregants gossiping about it.

        4. Susie Q*

          As an Episcopalian, this is true. None of the church employees are members of our parish.

      2. Ally McBeal*

        This! I recently moved back to my parents’ hometown, and while I left my family’s Protestant denomination for Catholicism many years ago, I could see myself working in the denomination’s corporate office (also in town) because I still have a lot of respect for their theology and have positive memories of growing up in that denomination… except my aunt works for them and said they’ll only hire someone who’s a member of a church within that denomination. And they’re not even an evangelical denomination, which (also from personal experience) can be even more tightly bound to the requirement that everyone fall into moral/theological lockstep.

  11. Bagpuss*

    I think they have to decide whether they want to keep her and her family, or to keep other congregants and employees. Most people are not going to do a big dramatic flounce and leave, they will simply stop showing up, and go elsewhere.

    You’re losing people either way, so you need to decide whether you want to lose someone who is toxic and unprofessional, or people who are quieter abut more reasonable.

    Also (and I wouldn’t suggest this in a normal work environment, but perhaps given the dynamics of a church and lots of family being involved) is there any what that the Pastor could speak to her family about encouraging her to get checked out medically? She may just be an unpleasant person but (particularly if she is older) the uninhibited shouting at people, etc could be a symptom of early dementia .

  12. Lora*

    Mrs. Cake!

    (Don’t want to link to the L-Space description due to moderation holdups, but for non-Terry Pratchett fans, Mrs Cake is a small yet forceful lady who has precognition, who takes over administrative tasks for any given temple, performs them quite well, but terrifies the rest of the congregation and the priest. When she is gently asked to please stop, she gives them a piece of her mind and stomps off. She also runs a boarding house for the undead.)

    I do believe the solution is to let Mrs. Cake go give some other congregation a piece of her mind.

  13. Helpful?*

    My in-laws had a similar situation with their church, only it was the pastor. He was great at sermons, but in meetings and behind closed doors had a bad temper and would go off at times. They created basically a PIP committee to work with him and discuss what areas he needed to work on in a private setting so as not to air to much laundry. After some time (I think a few months, but not positive), the committee made the recommendation to let him go due to him admitting he wasn’t willing to work on anything they said he needed.

    When it did go down, the church did have some fallout due to those who were not privy to the committee discussion or not fully aware they even had the committee. However, the “talk” died down after a month and the church has had no issues since. This was probably 2 or 3 years ago. GL

    1. laowai-gaijin*

      I’ve seen two churches go down this path. In each case, the pastor was great at preaching, but needed to have too much control in other areas. The strong-arming and temper flare-ups eventually forced the churches to remove the pastors. It’s never fun, but it is necessary.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Dealt with this from a principal standpoint. Enrollment severely dropped off -when he gained full control – and there was major turnover in the staff (one “retired” at age 31 to pursue a new career to get away from him).

        Two years after he left the school is again growing – but I will never send my kids back – the potential damage to their faith is far to great to return. We also transferred our membership to a sister congregation as a result of that pastor.

    2. Arachnia*

      I am honestly delighted to hear of churches removing pastors for those kinds of issues. I think they have too often been able to run unchecked because of their public popularity, and then all kinds of spiritual abuse happens. Pastors need to be loving, serving, gentle, and full of integrity first- eloquence is extremely secondary.

  14. veronica*

    If your church would fail because one family left, then your church is not healthy. A death of a church congregation is very painful. The last church I attended went through a process of intentional discernment and decided to close before they fully dwindled. Perhaps the questions to pose to the church leaders is “Do you want to close because you are mired in the past and beholden to the whims of individuals in your congregation? Is our individual congregation what is important or are there greater ideals or practices we want to strive towards?” There was a lot of discussion in our church as it closed that just because our small community no longer existed didn’t mean that Christianity was dead. Seems obvious to an outsider, but it was an important reminder during the process. We sold the building, threw a big party and gave away a lot of money to organizations that needed it.

    1. Momma Bear*

      At one point my hometown church was down to so few families we realized that three marriages would make the entire congregation related. I understand the feeling that the church is “dead” and what that means for one’s own spirit. This is an employee problem, but it is also an organization as a whole problem.

  15. AndersonDarling*

    I hate this scenario. Leadership says they have to keep the toxic employee because of “reasons.” But they are really saying that they are willing to lose their best employees who are so talented that they can leave anytime for a better work environment.
    By keeping the worst employee, they lower the bar for the whole org.
    I know this is more nuanced because it is a church, but I needed to vent on the topic.

  16. Donkey Hotey*

    I’m just going to toss this in here: Antagonists in the Church by Kenneth Haugk.
    Folks, I’m an atheist and this book taught me a ton about dealing with people like this secretary, especially in all-volunteer (or at least majority volunteer) organizations. For me, I skimmed over the Bible citations and such, but the root of it still helped me a lot.

    1. PPP*

      Thank you for the book recommendation! I couldn’t remember the title, but we used it as a template for dealing with the same issues in a Pagan organization I belonged to. Agree that it can definitely be used outside of religious communities and really bring a breath of sanity.

  17. Emily*

    I think Alison’s advice is excellent. I also think LW makes a very good point that this secretary is very likely running off potential members. At my church the previous pastor had an inner circle and there was a lot of cliqueishness going on. He also found ways to pull strings to get who he wanted appointed to the church council (who was supposed to be overseeing him). When he left and the current pastor came, a lot of people from the former’s pastor clique were unhappy because the current pastor wouldn’t play their games and didn’t put up with their nonsense. Most of them left, and the church was a lot better off and we’ve gotten new members. There are still a few chronic complainers (like there are at any organization), but the church is a lot healthier now.

  18. Bananaphone*

    book recommendation “Antagonists In The Church” is about problem people in the church taking power and destroying from within. Might apply here.

    1. Alpaca Bag*

      Yes, that’s a great book – I read it when we were having similar troubles. Also, I love your user name! :) (Ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring…)

  19. RaeofSunshine*

    I worked as a Catholic Youth Minister right out of undergrad. I am no longer religious.
    Those things are related – Church politics are the absolute fastest way to kill faith.

    1. Lady Lyndon*

      Came here to say this. We’ve read this letter before and reached the same conclusion that this church lady is overstepping her bounds. Is this an update?

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      From my response: “I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago”

  20. Wombats and Tequila*

    I have served on the vestry of a small church. You get attached to people, but it is natural that they will come and go. So either your church let’s this lady go, or they let everybody else go–as in, the pastor, you, prospective new members, young people, i.e. the church’s future.

    If you have any power to get this woman fired/retired, exercise it. If you don’t, say your piece, then cut your losses and, sad as it is, look for a new church family.

    If things sort themselves out after you leave, you can always go back to help rebuild.

  21. James*

    From a purely secular, employment perspective, there’s ample reason to fire her. The comment “Oh, so we have to do what they say?” demonstrates a flagrant disrespect for the organization. I’ve gotten comments like that about policies from higher up the food chain, and my response has always been “Yes, of course, they are our bosses and this is a requirement for employment.” This employee is also disrespecting the customers (ie, the congregation), her immediate supervisors (pastor and his wife [usually very involved in the church, in my admittedly limited experience]), and…well, everyone. From a purely secular perspective, this is completely unacceptable and needs to be shut down NOW.

    There’s ample theological justification as well. I mean, look at where the word “pastor” comes from. I wouldn’t include this in a discussion with this employee, but it’s worth considering if you feel guilty letting her go.

  22. RC Rascal*

    The church I grew up in closed a few years ago, partially resulting from this kind of dynamic. Several people got into power who shouldn’t have been in power. One was running children’s programming (Nut #1), the other youth programming (Nut #2). Both were dedicated volunteers, but neither should have been in those positions. However, they wanted the jobs and no one wanted to tell them “no”, or pick up the work themselves.

    As a result, the families left the church. (Neither of these people were the kinds of people you would want your children around.) All the church had left were the older people who were empty nesters. Eventually, they died off. The funny thing is the church members were very well aware the problem in the church was they couldn’t attract younger families. This was a problem for 25 years. But no one was willing to address the issue of the Nuts.

    (Just for clarification: Nut #1 was a woman who wanted to be a little girl in the 1970s. She was continuing to wear 1970s little girl clothes though out the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s….until she was 50+ and still wearing 1970s little girl clothes. No contentious parent would leave a child with her. Nut #2 was a man, and more of a generalized doofus. He was not the sort of individual teenagers respect, and that was the problem).

  23. Malarkey01*

    Churches do have very different dynamics, but this particular situation is already incredibly toxic and way outside the bounds- an employee accused the pastor at a committee meeting of embezzlement and calls his wife a “loser” to her face?? Churches (and non profits in general) often gloss over how serious and out of bounds some behavior is, and in this particular situation everyone’s norms have become warped if this wasn’t immediate grounds for action. Having a general low bar of we will not baselessly accuse our pastor of crimes or call people names to their face is something that any organization must meet.

  24. Wondering If This is Cognitive Decline*

    Without negating anything others have articulated already, I wonder about another possibility: could the change to more extreme behaviors be an indicator of cognitive decline? Sounds like someone who has always been unfriendly is now hostile — it might be worth asking what is causing that acceleration. With brain disease like Alzheimer’s, loss of one’s filter can be a thing. Some people do get nastier as the disease develops. Or, with gaps in their memory and a self-view that they are good, they find increased fault in others or blame others because it doesn’t seem possible that *they* would make those mistakes. In that case, working with the family toward a humane resolution that preserves their loved one’s dignity might be a way to proceed.

    1. Observer*

      How does this change the advice for the OP? Obviously, regardless of WHY the admin is acting the way she is, firing should be done with as much kindness as is practical. But ultimately, she simply cannot be allowed to continue the way she is.

    2. PT*

      We had an employee like this at my work. He struggled with a lot of the job to begin with and being polite/friendly/respectful to coworkers in their 20s were definitely his areas of weakness. But we were short-staffed and he was available to work a ton of hours so my boss limped him along with a few of our other low performers.

      He took a medical leave for surgery, came back after a few months, and was snappish and screaming at people over tiny things, pacing back and forth angrily talking to himself in ways that scared people, refusing to follow simple directions, and building little forts around his work area. It was time to retire.

  25. Robbie*

    I am eternally grateful as a minister for my M&P committee (equivalent of HR within the congregation) that has actual HR professionals and people who understand how to deal with toxic behaviour has been such a blessing.

    This is the problem with so many congregations (not that non-profits and businesses don’t have these problems as well). Churches run on families and internal politics, where the stakes are not just a community, but the emotional and mental wellbeing of people involved. Everything is taken personally in a way that would never, should never, be acceptable in the workplace.
    When the are running smoothly, they are fantastic. But it takes a lot of upkeep to keep it going well.

  26. In my shell*

    I’ve heard “take her family and friends with her” from employees/co-workers and it basically never happens and the person is typically unknowingly overplaying their hand!

  27. fhqwhgads*

    she spoke over them, asking, “Oh, so we have to do what they say?”
    Yes? Like that’s the literally the job of the governing board. They do the deciding. WTF, this employee is the embodiment of “that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.”

  28. Ames*

    Like you said, she might take some people with her but it will be offset by gaining new people. I can’t imagine how many people you are losing because there is no way I would put up with her. She is abusive and it should have been nipped in the bud straight away. Get rid of her. You might be surprised, her connections will most likely know her difficult nature and some might not be willing to jump to her tune.

  29. Baska*

    I’m the office manager at a small (150-member) liberal church. While I try very hard to maintain the lines of professional / personal boundaries, my predecessor was closer to the employee mentioned by the OP. Not quite as bad, but certainly very “prickly” and hadn’t kept up with newer technology. She would also make unilateral decisions to say “no” to things because they would cause more work to her, even if they were initiatives / partnerships that would have been in line with the church’s mission, and which might have brought in new members or volunteers.

    While it is always painful to let an employee go — especially one who is as central to running the organization as a church administrator — sometimes it’s the best choice. There are other excellent candidates out there, and the benefits you’ll get to your community by *not* having a “prickly” person in this role is well worth the short-term pain. ESPECIALLY if there’s friction between her and the pastor — you really can’t have a healthy church organization if the pastor and the administrator don’t work well together. I’d say to call her bluff and let her leave with her friends / family. You might lose a bunch of members… but you’ll probably gain a bunch of new ones.

  30. Mellie Bellie*

    Oh, man, I really needed to read this reminder today. Not dealing with a church situation (which, yes, are The Worst, as my childhood church’s constant employee turmoil can attest), but a non-profit with a similar dysfunctional dynamic and, well, like I said, I really needed the reminder that no organization can be held hostage by one employee.

  31. TheUnknown1*

    Church worker here (teacher at a school attached to a local church). While working on my grad degree (in religious org management), I had a professor who was fond of saying that working for a faith is all about discernment: where can one’s gifts and talents best be used? She’d always follow this up by reminding us that sometimes, as faith leaders, our job is to help our employees discern OUT of the job they’re [not] doing [well]. That line has helped me make a lot of tough personnel decisions. What’s best for the community and its future comes first, and sometimes, what’s best for the community is a pleasant surprise in that it’s best for the thorny employee, too.

  32. StoneColdJaneAusten*

    It’s possible I missed this, but do we know if the LW works for the church? I mean, to some degree it’s normal to be up in your church’s staffing business but it seems like this problem is the minister’s problem to deal with and the LW is asking on the minister’s behalf.

  33. Anonymous Hippo*

    As a person that went through a number of churches crashing and burning because of this sort of thing, let her go. The church will not survive her, and it might survive her leaving.

  34. staceyizme*

    One of the difficulties with many churches, especially small to midsize ones, is the question of line-of-sight and authoritative supervision for staff other than the pastor. But a staffer who is so emboldened against leadership that she accuses him/ her of misappropriation has run OUT of room to do anything other than resign or be terminated. She evidently hasn’t been managed at all, whether by the pastor or by other staff. It shouldn’t be a matter of more than a few weeks and maybe two meetings to “eliminate her position due to a restructuring of responsibilities”. She can then be thanked for her years of faithful service and punted out to pasture. Changed locks, computer access, bank account access and updated telephony greetings/ security should be accompanied by a review of all recent financial records. No matter how adept staffers are in their skills, working at least tolerably well with leadership is a BFOQ that can’t be skipped.

  35. TurtlesAllTheWayDown*

    This is why you never ever ever hire a member as the church secretary.

    Also, think about the people she could be driving away and how your congregation might change for the better without her.

  36. learnedthehardway*

    Are you actually sure her family would leave with her? I mean, my guess is that she’s equally unreasonable in her personal life as she is in her work life. In fact, I would venture a guess that she’s on the abusive side of unreasonable, given that she doesn’t shy away from insulting the pastor’s wife to her face.

    I bet her family wouldn’t leave.

  37. Nonprofit Lifer*

    I’d strongly recommend a policy of hiring non-member staff. I worked at my religious organization and it was very difficult.

    One resource for others involved in leadership in religious communities is the book “Antagonists in the Church” by Kenneth C. Haugk. While not addressing specifically the issue of a staff member who has become an antagonist, it goes into the way some people can try to cause trouble and what can be done about them.

  38. Ellyfant*

    My boss was similarly “held hostage” to a bad employee who spent most of their time online shopping and not actually working. He cited multiple work related reasons for not being able to fire the employee but ultimately it came to: “I feel guilty about firing anyone and I can’t live with this guilt.” In other words, the problem was his anxiety/guilt and not much to do with work.

    When I hear “We cannot fire Person because of Reasons”, it often indicates it’s the manager’s anxiety that’s the biggest problem. While outwardly it may seem the manager is exercising compassion it’s actually poor management because they are prioritising their guilt ahead of professionalism, other employees who have to keep working with an incompetent or rude colleague, the company’s financial loss in keeping someone who doesn’t contribute to the organisation, etc. I hope the church takes Alison’s advice and lets this person go.

    1. Middle Aged Lady*

      In these cases, I think of all the talented, hard-working people out there who need a job and could do this one well. Instead, everyone suffers a petty tyrant because management lacks a spine. Or there is no money to pay someone properly so the tyrant is all you can afford. In that case the church has other problems…

  39. Ajee*

    We had a similar situation at our very small church a few years ago. She wasn’t a bully or hostile but just awful at her job. We felt stuck though as this woman volunteered a lot of her time at the church doing things nobody else was willing to do. We stuck it out until she decided to leave for another job. Ironically, shortly after she dropped everything she was volunteering at the church and we had to figure things out without her.

  40. agnes*

    A lot of churches have wisely decided that the pastor’s assistant should be somebody who doesn’t attend the church. Lots of good reasons for this, not the least of which are problems like these.

  41. Who Plays Backgammon?*

    Ooooh boy I feel for you. I have worked for two church organizations, once as a computer technical person in the headquarters of a small denomination with global presence and once as a temp admin in a large, socially prominent, wealthy congregation of a major denomination.

    On the tech job, there was a real hierarchical divide between member employees and nonmember employees, regardless of your position. Strange dynamics in that place.

    On the temp job, there was a “secretary” whose main qualification was that her daughter had a top position in the church’s business office. We both worked for the events manager. She and a couple of others (nice people, not gossipy) warned me the secretary was prickly with people she didn’t like or think should be there. That woman was always ordering me around (which I ignored per my manager) and treating me like an intruder. Then my manager said she wanted ME to supervise the secretary. I told my agency and said, sure I’d do it, but I’d expect to be paid appropriately for supervising. Boom! End of assignment. Missed the paycheck but not the job.

  42. OhBehave!*

    She needs to go.
    Her threats may be real but what will really be lost? People in her life know what she’s like and I bet they’re sick of hearing her complain. I wouldn’t count on her friends leaving with her. I bet they don’t.
    Bottom line is that you cannot keep a toxic employee because she’ll take everyone with her. That’s allowing you to be held hostage. You can bet that you’re losing congregants because of this most unchristian of women.

  43. Chickaletta*

    Curious about OPs say in the matter other than them being a member. But, depending on the HR structure of the church, the secretary’s boss needs to be the one to deal with her. In many churches it’s the pastor themself, but it may be someone else in OP’s. Her boss is the one who needs to be convinced to have a conversation with her or let her go.

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