Imagine if Peter had been a business leader and had come to Jesus about an “ill-performing servant issue” and asked Him, “Lord, how many times should my servant mess up on the job and I should forgive him? Would three times be enough?” What would Jesus say? You may think this an amusing comparison on the subject of grace and work expectations of employees, yet I often encounter the belief that businesses, para-church ministries and their leaders should operate their businesses under the exact same Scriptural principles as personal relations. But should the same principles we apply to personal relations also apply in business without deviation? Should a servant be able to mess up 70 times 7 and leaders still let them off the hook categorizing our response as expected and “applied grace at work?” What is a reasonable measure of applied grace in the workplace?
When I first was promoted as a manager in my first really large corporate management position, I had one staff member who seemed to have a knack for messing up. I was a Christian and had been trying to “let my light shine” and dearly wanted to show all the worldly members in my company how to do things Christianly… or “right!” So when it became obvious I had to do something about the situation I wrestled with sleepless nights and long agonizing prayer times trying to figure out how to respond to the fellow in a just and Christian way. I tried everything I knew and was very concerned that the wrong response would label me “worldly” by fellow Christians or worse, that my faith would be seen as just cheap talk by others. When it became clear the person’s actions were demoralizing the rest of my group and causing them to lose confidence in me as a leader, (and costing our company money) I realized I had to act.
I called a meeting and amid his tears and his pleas for mercy I had to let him go. I am not sure who felt worse! afterward I had just as many sleepless nights worrying about whether I had done the right Christian thing with my action or if I had totally disqualified my Christian witness. I know many who are going through that same struggle right now. So let me share what I have learnt in this regard over the years.
First, in Scripture, you have Jesus noting that the principles of servant and master relations (we shall call employee and manager) have different dynamics as compared to personal relations. Though we must practice grace in all of life, it is not always best for a business or even a ministry that “pays for services” to an employee to apply all those same limitless “grace” principles to employee relations. A business or ministry should have expectations and standards of work that they expect and receive. Sometimes it is called the expectation of making a “profit.” After all, a business, or even a church that goes bankrupt has no value to anyone. A business owner or corporation that has invested all their savings and capital into a business that generates employment has every right to expect a return on their investment, even if they are Christian owners. That is not a “worldly” expectation. And therefore they can expect that staff submit to the policies, performance expectations and standards of that business, and work for the profit of the entity. And if they are not “working out” you may apply grace to help that person perform to expectations, but in the end, poor work performance must be brought to account.
Over the years I have become convinced that good business principles, when practiced in the model that most businesses apply them today, are as much God’s principles as they would be if taken right out of Scripture. As a Christian leader we have the advantage of the Spirit of God to give us special insights to situations and to guide our decisions and responses, but some final decisions will always look “hard!” I worked with a leader who I first thought was a little too harsh or secular when he used to say about selecting staff and keeping them, that “we should be slow to hire but quick to fire” (I think the Christian word for fire might be “dismiss”). I always understood the benefit of that maxim, but did wish there was a more sanctified way to put it. But the bottom line was, “he was right.” Best to select employees carefully and if a person is not working well in your organization you are often doing them a favour by letting them find a new workplace.
Jesus was clear about a servant who was lazy or “unprofitable.” They were to be “dismissed.” Some unprofitable servants were chastised or even cast into darkness. It does not mean they were not given grace, or “chances.” But Paul was clear that masters and servants each had rules and responsibilities. And though grace should always be an operating principle it should also have limits. The Bible has much to say about honesty, fair trade, reasonable wages and work conditions, but also expectations of servants.
When you are fretting over the way to handle an ill performing employee you should do all you can to bring them to a state of performance. But if it isn’t working, for the sake of the other employees and the sustainability of the entity, it may be just as graceful to dismiss that person as to extend them unlimited grace.
There is no difference between businesses that exist for profit vs. not-for-profit. My old boss also used to say “we are not-for-profit but we are also not-for-loss!”
I believe sincerely that the well-developed principles of a business are in perfect accord with Biblical principles. We need to use a business model that is godly, good, perfected, effective, efficient, fair and yes, graceful! And about that fellow I had to let go. I ran into him years later. I expected a chilly response-if any. But he thanked me for letting him go so gracefully! What?! Yes he knew he was messing up and said he also knew he just didn’t belong there. But his pride and fear kept him from making a leap to a new business. I had done him a favour! You never know when you are administering God’s grace. Even accidentally!
“We need to use a business model
that is godly, good, perfected,
effective, efficient, fair and yes,