How to Gracefully Correct — or Fire — a Church Volunteer

Sometimes, a volunteer doesn’t work out. And churches tiptoe around the problem.

Churches often put up with ineffective volunteers because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, says Lory Beth Huffman, a pastor in Western North Carolina. She describes how to help volunteers succeed, but also how to remove a dysfunctional volunteer with grace and honesty when necessary for the sake of fruitfulness in God’s Kingdom.

One of the hardest dilemmas we face in leading a church well is handling volunteers who are not fruitful in their leadership or service position. What do you do when you have the wrong people on the bus? Maybe they are just in the wrong position. It’s a tough situation to face, especially when they are volunteers. And often, churches are the worst at facing volunteer dysfunction. Why is that?

Churches are supposed to be places that model grace and tolerance. Because of that, churches often put up with behavior that is detrimental to fruitful ministry because people don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Pastors are very often conflict avoidant. How many times have I heard, “That is just so-and-so”? “Everyone knows he is just grumpy. His heart means well.” But that is not a reason to enable or allow hurtful behavior to continue.

Sometimes your discernment on a possible leader is wrong. It happens. And then we must decide how to handle this situation. Oftentimes we avoid dealing with a difficult volunteer because we are afraid they might leave the church. Sometimes we think we can just ride out the damage and then put the pieces back together again after they leave the position. But what message does that send to the other fruitful volunteers?

Here are some suggestions for removing volunteers who aren’t working out. These steps will help with officially nominated positions that persons are asked to fulfill as well as service positions people are invited to fill or maybe they just volunteered to serve.

Training and Expectations

Part of successful volunteer management is creating the best possible environments for volunteers to succeed. Make sure you have a process in place for your official leadership that includes job descriptions, basic training, setting expectations, and, when possible, create a volunteer covenant that people sign that states group norms and expectations. When volunteers are trained and prepared for what is being asked of them, odds are better that they will succeed or self select out when they realize it is not a good fit.

Coaching and Tooling

Although this takes time, it is an important step to help volunteers who are struggling to try and right the situation. Sometimes patience and an investment of someone’s time to model, share best practices, redirect negative behaviors and help people understand that what they are doing is not fruitful or maybe not even acceptable, depending on the situation, allows people to grow and positively change.

Action Plan and Documentation

Just like with an employee, if you have a volunteer in a nominated leadership position who is not working out despite your best efforts at training and coaching, then intervention becomes necessary. Start with an action plan that lays out some goals for behavior modification over the next couple of months. This can be formal or informal, but it is important to communicate the behavior changes that are needed in order for the person to continue in their seat on the bus. Give them a chance to self correct or self select back out. And always document! Keep a record of specific incidents that show unacceptable behavior or less than ideal execution of their role. However, make sure you are not dependent on hearsay, and do the research to make sure your information is accurate. Document all attempts at coaching, retooling and setting an action plan of behavior changes.

Shifting Positions

Sometimes the easiest step to take is to find another position they can fill or a better suited role they can take on. Instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, you move them to another service opportunity.

Removing a Volunteer

When all of the other options have been exhausted, and a volunteer is still causing disruption or dysfunction, then the last resort is removing a volunteer. This is difficult work that most churches will avoid. If you have done the above to no avail, then you have the information you need to have the tough conversation. Here are some tips to remember when removing a volunteer:

  • Speak with grace and truth. Convey love and concern for the person first and foremost. But speak with truth and name the issues that led to this conversation. Honestly but lovingly discuss the behaviors that have caused this difficult decision.
  • Use examples from your documentation and remind them of the attempts at retooling or redirection that have not rectified the situation. If you have confronted the person along the way when there have been unacceptable incidents, then this should come as no surprise. If you have not addressed previous concerns, then this conversation is much more difficult and will more than likely end in a bad outcome.
  • Be prepared for a range of emotional reactions. Some people will be relieved because they know it hasn’t been working out. Others may be calm in the moment and react strongly later after they have processed it. Others may become volatile during the conversation and direct their anger at you.
  • Always have someone else present for this conversation. They don’t have to speak but having an observer helps verify how the situation was handled.
  • Some helpful phrases to use might include: “Things have not changed since we last met so I need to ask you to step away from this ministry.” Or “You’re not working out in this ministry and here’s why.” “I care about you but I also care about this ministry. For that reason, the best thing for you and us is to find another place of service for you.”

These conversations are never easy. Moving forward, do everything in your power to help the person feel welcomed and cared for and not embarrassed. Leave the door open. Treat the situation with confidentiality, especially if there is a pastoral reason behind the unbecoming behavior of a church member. But be honest about it in a way that doesn’t cause people to speculate. You can state what action was taken without going into the details. Put the ministry first so it becomes less about power and personalities. Fruitfulness in God’s Kingdom should always be the driving motivation behind these difficult decisions and actions.

Please note that if a moral breakdown occurs or a non-negotiable rule is broken, sometimes there is no luxury to take all of these steps, and immediate action is necessary for removal of a volunteer. These are the exceptions, but it is imperative that leaders be prepared to act decisively if needed. Be able to discern the difference.

This is never easy work but, in actuality, it is much more difficult to work around volunteer dysfunction than to address it head on. Bathe these difficult situations with prayer. Trust that if fruitful ministry is the heart of why you are acting, then God will find a way to bless the situation or calm the reactionary storm. Creating a consistently and intentionally healthy and supportive environment will pay off. And there is nothing better than getting the right people in the right seats on the bus and seeing God’s Kingdom thrive through volunteers serving out of their passion and giftedness.

Article originally published on the Lewis Center for Church Leadership website.

Published: Wednesday, March 22, 2017