Firing a Volunteer

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After you’ve done all you can to equip an ineffective
volunteer, have you got what it takes to move — or remove — the
person if necessary?

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Fire a volunteer? You’ve got to be kidding!

In all my conversations with children’s ministers, we rarely
talk about getting rid of volunteers! Instead, we talk about
getting volunteers. After debating the style we use to acquire
staff, we end up agreeing that volunteer apathy and busyness have
left us a little short on our volunteer rosters. Firing a volunteer
rarely comes up!

Unfortunately, though, every person chosen for ministry may not
fulfill our goals for ministry to children. Some people may only
understand the basic mechanics of a classroom, while our goals
include a deeper commitment to discipleship and relationship. In
these cases, people are minimally harmful. In other cases, though,
an ineffective volunteer may adversely affect many aspects of
children’s spiritual growth and our programs.

We have to deal with the long-range implications of the wrong
people leading our kids. To do this, let’s look at the three
approaches often used to fire a volunteer: the passive approach,
the aggressive approach, and the balanced approach. Which best
describes your approach?

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The Passive Approach

The passive approach basically takes a pass on responsibility.
And the cost of such avoidance is high for your program, staff
morale, and children’s welfare. Passive volunteer managers use any
of these three tactics.

1. Waiting for God — I know God cares about
ministry to kids and is interested in our ministry teams. However,
throughout my ministry life I’ve heard people flippantly say, “Let
God take care of it.” In other words, “So I won’t have to.” Passive
leaders think, “If I just pray hard enough, maybe the person will
leave.”

I used this tactic early in my ministry. Parents told me that
their kids wouldn’t come back as long as I had a certain person as
a helper. I sought God for guidance and prayed aggressively — for
a while. When I finally got up enough courage, I made an
appointment to ask this person to take a break. I remember having a
hard time sleeping beforehand because he was bigger than I was and
I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be. An hour before our
scheduled meeting, my office phone rang. He called to inform me
that he needed a break to sort things out.

Disaster averted, but no thanks to me! It’s easy to hide behind
this spiritual wall. It’s much harder to face the fact that someone
needs to go and it’s our responsibility to make the change.

2. Setting Up to Fail — I’ve been surprised on
occasion to hear ministry leaders speak of some team members as
incompetent, uncommitted, and ineffective. In reality, perhaps
these people were placed in ministry positions and set up for
failure. For example, one person can’t handle 30 3-year-olds, and
it’s difficult to run a snack time for 200 kids with no budget!
These people were set up to fail. Rather than identifying the
actual problem, a passive leader will blame the person. The passive
leader would rather a person continue down the road to failure than
to intervene and help the volunteer succeed. This tactic allows
failure to intensify and frustrate people so they quit.

3. Leaving Them Alone — The passive leader may
isolate a volunteer to a “ministry island.” The leader stops
communicating, sharing vision, and building any type of nurturing
relationship. Finally, the volunteer steps aside, and whatever
problem the leader perceived is seemingly solved.

Current recruiting can be short-circuited in a church where this
type of isolation is being or has been used. When volunteers are
wounded as they serve, they’ll be hesitant to return to ministry –
even with a new leader in place.

The Aggressive Approach

There are two kinds of aggressive firings that happen in
churches. Both are destructive.

1. In Your Face — Shouting, flailing hands,
stomping out of the room — there’s no place for behavior such as
this in the church, is there? Yet this behavior exists in some
ministries. An angry leader who uses this tactic — and these
leaders do exist in churches — alienates volunteers by the “you do
it my way or no way” stance.

2. Behind Your Back — Most of these aggressive
actions happen behind the scenes. Call this gossip, backbiting,
forming cliques, or plain old sin. With this tactic, the leader
complains about the volunteer to others. The leader may even rally
the troops to take his or her side against the volunteer.
Eventually, the volunteer hears about the leader’s disapproval and
ends up leaving (or forming an opposing alliance).

The Balanced Approach

While passive leaders may wait too long to let someone go,
aggressive leaders wound people in their wake. Finding a balanced
approach to firing a volunteer requires using the following
management principles with God’s help.

1. Clear Communication — As children’s
ministry leaders, we must clearly communicate our vision, our core
values, and the means to accomplish our ministry. Lack of
communication of expectations is a consistent issue in struggling
children’s ministries.

Many possibilities exist for poor communication, such as: We
undersell our expectations to get the person on our team. The
person’s busyness (or ours) blocks our efforts to clearly
communicate. We assume our volunteer understands the things we do.
Our communication models are out of date and weak. Or our new
volunteer has a preconceived and uncorrected idea of ministry
that’s quite different from our approach.

This communication disconnect is often the main reason for
ineffective ministry performance. In the balanced method of firing
a volunteer, it’s wise to explore if communication was an issue,
and then take responsibility for this misunderstanding.

2. Honesty and Integrity — A balanced approach
to letting someone go needs to include an honest discussion. We
might be tempted to stray from the real issues, but this only
distorts our task.

In my experience in relating to volunteers, honesty is always
the best way to proceed. This is critical because you want the
person to clearly understand the reason for the action that’s being
taken.

3. Opportunity for Growth — A balanced
approach helps the volunteer recognize lessons for improvement. A
casual visit about the issues that brought you to this point is
necessary, but don’t spend your entire time discussing
shortcomings. Identify the person’s contribution and help him or
her look forward.

4. Focus on People Succeeding — Almost 20
years ago, I accepted a position as a children’s pastor at a church
in San Diego. My senior pastor took time to tell me in those first
hours of our relationship that I could be successful, and he
outlined levels of support that existed for me. I spent 17 years
working with him and realized his words were true.

A balanced approach to asking a volunteer to leave a ministry
position is to explore ways you can help the person succeed in
another ministry role or beyond your ministry. Rather than using
this opportunity to injure the person and then walk away, discuss
the person’s interests and suggest other places to serve as you
help through the transition.

Firing Finesse

Confronting an ineffective volunteer is always one of the
toughest moments for any leader. In a Fast Company article
titled “Good Ways to Deliver Bad News,” cancer specialist Dr.
Robert Buckman shares the following insights to ease the way: start
by listening instead of talking; explore perceptions before you try
to define reality; and don’t get emotional. Placed in a children’s
ministry perspective, these concepts look like this.

  • Start by listening. When you’re letting a volunteer go, take
    time to ask how the person is doing — and listen. You’ll build
    trust as you discuss feelings. Delay the urgency to “get down to
    business.” Communicate that this is a process; it wasn’t a snap
    judgment.
  • Explore perceptions before you try to define reality. Ask the
    volunteer to relate his or her understanding of responsibilities
    and relationships. This may give you significant insight into how
    the failure occurred. In most cases, the more in-depth comments
    will help you understand why you’re at this point. Don’t blow past
    this part of the discussion to lower the boom. Take time to define
    reality by using some of the volunteer’s perceptions to illustrate
    your point.
  • Don’t get emotional. This is always an emotional situation, but
    control your emotions. People have complex motivations for joining
    your team. They may have come to faith as children in a similar
    program or their children may be part of the ministry. You can
    acknowledge that the firing may be difficult, but stay focused on
    your purpose — the welfare of children and the best interests of
    the volunteer.

Anatomy of a Firing

If you’re looking forward to firing a volunteer, you’re not
ready to do it. You’ve got to have heart. I believe that on
occasion people in our ministry are mistreated by us because we’ve
been pressured to provide the best ministry programs, and we’ve
forgotten that people are the ministry.

Be careful to consider your heart response to your team members.
Use compassion in dealing with the issues addressed in this
article. Consider that your response to people sets the tone for
their present and long-term commitment to the children’s program
and to the church as a whole.

On the other hand, if you don’t have the “guts” to fire an
ineffective volunteer, you need to have a “backbone.” Are you
providing a baby-sitting service or a critical educational and
discipleship ministry to the youngest people in your church? Is
“good enough” good enough in your ministry? Are you content with
children being harmed physically, spiritually, or emotionally?
You’ve got to have the courage to answer no to all these questions
and embrace the uncomfortable task of removing or moving an
ineffective volunteer.

Our ministry to children is significant! We must have the heart
and backbone to stand up for the ministry direction we believe that
God has given us.


Jay Hostetler is the founder of Church Team Connections,
providing ministry evaluations, training, and placement
opportunities (www.churchteamconnections.com). Please keep in mind
that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to
change.

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