Henry Neufeld’s feature last summer (Aug. 29, 2016, page 4) about the firing and layoff practices of some Mennonite organizations touched a nerve. Only one Canadian Mennonite story last year was viewed more times online, and numerous people responded with letters to the editor. (See “When your services are no longer required.”)
Some people shared their own stories of hurt resulting from termination experiences. Some expressed dismay. One person, former Mennonite Church Canada staff member Elsie Rempel, told of healing steps that had been taken by her former employer following a painful layoff due to downsizing.
Some of the examples in Neufeld’s feature were layoffs as a result of budget shortfalls and others were individual dismissals for other reasons. The two are distinct, but both can be highly traumatic and often awkward. It is highly uncomfortable when, within our community of faith, someone is fired for a misdeed or job performance deemed inadequate. Feelings among friends, family, co-workers and fellow church members can be intense. Layoffs can likewise create turmoil.
In most cases, the organization firing or laying off cannot comment publicly for professional and legal reasons. Sometimes no one talks, except in hushed tones. It can get messy. It scars lives and tarnishes the reputation of organizations.
Removed from the constraints of discussing any single case, I asked Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and MC Canada to comment on what this discussion looks like from their perspective. They have faced serious allegations from numerous people, and MC Canada will soon face another round of layoffs.
Both organizations say they have learned from past experience. Rempel’s comments of healing attest to that in the case of MC Canada.
At MCC, Karen Grace Pankratz says, “MCC has certainly learned from these cases,” referring to controversial dismissals. She notes that she was not personally involved in any of the cases raised by Neufeld or in subsequent letters, but says MCC has “really worked hard to use mediation before and after terminations.” She also says the previous informal understanding that MCC would generally move people on after three three-year terms is no longer the case, nor are the three-year terms themselves. Pankratz also says that practices around counselling for staff and their families during terminations are more generous than in the past.
Pankratz points to the recent Wineskins restructuring process during which numerous jobs were lost or moved. She says people affected were informed about 10 months in advance and were given generous severance packages. Of course, not all church organizations have the financial capacity to offer that.
She also says it can be frustrating at times that MCC cannot comment publicly on difficult personnel issues.
Dan Dyck, director of church engagement-communication for MC Canada, says that since releasing five staff due to funding shortfalls in 2015, the organization has increased frequency of all-staff meetings to bring updates regarding the Future Directions process. Senior staff have also encouraged other employees to discuss concerns with supervisors. Dyck says leadership is trying to “be more sensitive to stressors staff may be experiencing,” given the knowledge that more layoffs lie ahead, presumably some time after an expected October assembly to decide on a Future Directions proposal.
Staff can also use work time to access professional vocational counselling services through the MC Canada benefit plan.
Dyck says leadership has had “departure conversations” with staff since last September. “We want to give as much notice as possible” he says, noting that some would prefer working notice and an “opportunity to finish well,” while others would prefer “immediate release and severance.”
Dyck says he is “extremely proud” of each of his colleagues. “Their love of the church and their continued willingness to work in it in the midst of long-term uncertainty is exemplary,” he says, adding that “they are putting others first, and are trusting that their own situations will work out.”
When it comes to job uncertainty, Dyck notes that executive staff such as him “are in the same boat” as all staff. “We have to do staff releases,” he says, “and then quite likely face release ourselves.”
Dyck reflects on his own process. “Personally, I have been on a journey of entrusting to God the future of MC Canada, my colleagues and myself,” he shares. “We have a fantastic and supportive staff community here. I will dearly miss colleagues and my work, should my work end. But God is much bigger than my work, my workplace community, or my personal vocational hopes and dreams.”