This is Part 4 of a series I wrote with Ed Stetzer on Church Discipline.

Although church discipline is reserved for the shepherds of God’s people within the church, what about Christian organizations? Should they, like Christian schools or non-profits, exercise church discipline? The short answer is no. However, we believe there are some principles Christian organizations can extrapolate from the biblical purpose, pattern, and practice of church discipline.

In this article, we want to highlight three overarching principles (and practices) for how Christian organizations can apply the concept of church discipline to create healthy organizational cultural environments.

1. Create covenantal expectations for the organization

Regardless of whether it’s Christian or not, every organization should set clear expectations for their employees (or volunteers).[1] This is simply good leadership.

We also believe Christian organizations should go a step further and create a covenantal document. This document should highlight the most critical and vital expectations for those working in the organization and ask each employee to read and sign. [2]

Here are a few things such a document and practice do:

  • It communicates to the employee your seriousness about these expectations
  • It immediately creates accountability
  • It outlines your expectations for their character, conduct, behavior, and work ethic.

In addition to the covenantal expectations, every organization should have a personnel manual or staff handbook that details more expectations of the employee and the organization. The handbook is a living working document providing an overview of policies, procedures, and guidelines. In other words, the handbook offers a framework for protecting both the company’s rights and the rights of its employees. [3] The covenantal document should be found in the handbook and be consistent with the current employment laws of a given state.

2. Determine the levels of infraction for those who fail to meet expectations.

To review, we’re suggesting Christian organizations have a covenantal document. Every employee should sign this document as part of a staff handbook (personnel manual) that every staff member must-read.

Within the staff handbook, there should be a section noting the levels of infractions for those staff who fail to meet the organization’s expectations. Three levels corresponding to the various levels of church discipline can be employed:

  • (Level 1) Catastrophic or scandalous behavior affecting the organization
  • (Level 2) Critical or damaging behavior to the mission and purpose of the organization
  • (Level 3) Carnal or detrimental conduct to the effectiveness of the organization

Level 1 is zero tolerance and would mean immediate dismissal of the employee by the organization. Examples could be those who walk away from the Christian faith, for an organization employing only Christians, or a change in basic beliefs, moral practices, etc. Zero tolerance and dismissal of an employee who engages in abusive behavior, who was stealing or embezzling from the organization, etc. Of course, offering counseling or other support for the terminated employee [4] who repents should be considered well, keeping with the hope of restoration.

Level 2 would at least warrant clearly defined levels of warning before dismissing the employee. This warning level could include drunkenness, disorderly conduct, sowing staff division, or lying to a supervisor.

Level 3 would take place over time as supervisors provide feedback about an employee’s consistent conduct or sub-par work ethic that is detrimental to the organization’s effectiveness. [5] This feedback can take place both informally and formally (through quarterly and yearly performance reviews). [Keep in mind that a good and healthy organization should provide coaching for such individuals who are struggling.]

3. Create policies or procedures on how to confront unmet expectations.

Whether stated in the staff handbook or not, every organization should create a working document for how they will confront unmet expectations.

Level 1 infraction, how will you handle this situation warranting immediate dismissal. Obviously, you will not want to dismiss anyone before the infraction is proven. Thus, you will need to work through various scenarios and procedures based upon each infraction when dealing with Level 1 infractions.

Level 2 infraction, an organization might follow the pattern and spirit of Matthew 18. The supervisor of the employee meets with the offender and levels the claim against them. If the behavior and conduct continue, the supervisor and her supervisor might together confront the individual.[6] Still, if no change or improvement is seen within the employee, then that employee will be terminated by the appropriate party.

Level 3 infraction, the process towards termination might be lengthier than a Level 2 scenario because you are trying to discern whether the offense is a character, competency, or coaching issue.[7] Over time, through intentional coaching sessions, you can often discern a character vs. competency issue. If it is a character issue, you will probably want to terminate the relationship. If it is a competency issue, there may be options to transition the employee to another position to better fit their giftedness. If it is a coaching issue, you will want to observe growth to keep them in their current role.

A Paper Trail and Grace

We’ve outlined above how a Christian organization can plan and put in place a framework for terminating employees based upon poor behavior unbefitting of a Christ-follower which left unchecked could jeopardize the organization’s reputation or effectiveness. However, we also think it’s important for Christian organizations to exercise wisdom in this practice by embodying grace and embracing a formal paper trail.

Grace should be a spiritual marker of every Christ-follower and every organization that seeks to minister in the name of Christ (Rom 11:6; Titus 2:11-14; Col 4:6). Especially when dealing with challenging cases involving sin, grace should be present in both the leader and the organization.

Wisdom is another element of a Christ-follower (Eph 5:15-17; Col 3:16; James 3:17). In dealing with difficult situations like terminating an employee, a marker of wisdom (and the law) will involve a leader and organization keeping a paper trail.[8] Many employees may not understand why they are being terminated. Many might want to fight it. Some might even want to take it to court. Thus, to have a paper trail documenting the process of how you as a leader and organization arrived at this decision will be extremely wise and necessary.

In closing, we don’t believe Christian organizations are called to practice church discipline—that is a function of the church. However, there are principles and patterns Christian organizations can borrow and utilize from the biblical teaching on church discipline. And as they adopt such principles and practices, they will always need grace and wisdom to guide them.

[1] Victor Lipman, “The Best Managers – Always – Set Clear Expectations,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, October 19, 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2016/01/21/the-best-managers-always-set-clear-expectations/?sh=12ec2628355f.

[2] Cam Caldwell and Zuhair Hasan, “Covenantal Leadership and the Psychological Contract: Moral Insights for the Modern Leader,” Journal of Management Development 35, no. 10 (2016): pp. 1302-1312, https://doi.org/10.1108/jmd-02-2016-0027.

[3] Keith Mishler, “Why Are Employee Handbooks Important? Here’s 7 Reasons,” Insperity, December 24, 2020, https://www.insperity.com/blog/why-are-employee-handbooks-important/.

[4] Forbes Human Resources Council, “Council Post: 11 Ways To Gracefully Handle Employee Termination,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, June 18, 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2018/06/18/11-ways-to-gracefully-handle-employee-termination/?sh=1db7d4603729.

[5] Carolyn O’Hara, Peter Cappelli, and Emma Seppala and Kim Cameron, “What Good Feedback Really Looks Like,” Harvard Business Review, June 13, 2019, https://hbr.org/2019/05/what-good-feedback-really-looks-like?registration=success.

[6] J.D. Lisa Nagele-Piazza, “12 Tips for Handling Employee Terminations and Disciplinary Actions,” SHRM (SHRM, July 30, 2020), https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/legal-and-compliance/employment-law/pages/12-tips-for-handling-employee-terminations.aspx.

[7] Amy Gallo, “How to Help an Underperformer,” Harvard Business Review, November 2, 2014, https://hbr.org/2014/06/how-to-help-an-underperformer.

[8] Shrm, “Understanding Employee Discipline,” SHRM (SHRM, November 5, 2020), https://www.shrm.org/ResourcesAndTools/tools-and-samples/toolkits/Pages/Understanding-Employee-Discipline.aspx.

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