Volunteer Dilemmas—Solved

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No ministry is immune to challenges. And when working with
volunteers, challenges can multiply if not dealt with.

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When I reviewed these three volunteer ministry dilemmas, the
first thing I realized was that they all have one thing in common.
And that one thing is a problem I’ve encountered over and over
again in my 35 years of directing, consulting, and training in
volunteerism-a lack of clearly defined policies. I can’t emphasize
strongly enough how much grief and conflict can be avoided when
good policies are in place.

What written policies and procedures do for you:

  • Establish standards of behavior and a common body of
    knowledge.
  • Provide stability and consistency.
  • Support unpleasant but necessary requirements, such as
    background checks for children’s ministry volunteers.
  • Strengthen your defense if you’re sued.
  • Help resolve problems and eliminate hazards.

I like this story from Volume 5 of Group Publishing’s new
Volunteer Leadership Series, Volunteer Orientation and Training: “A
friend of ours is a lifeguard at a city pool. When he was hired he
thought his job would be to sit on a platform diligently watching
the water, ever prepared to toss aside his whistle and clipboard
and dive in to drag out a drowning swimmer.

“His supervisor straightened the young man out. ‘Your job is
first and foremost not to rescue people who are victims of
accidents or stupidity,’ the supervisor said, ‘Your job is to keep
people from having accidents or doing anything stupid.’

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“During the course of his summer the young man never once dove
in to save someone. But more times than he could count, he kept
children from running on slick cement around the pool and enforced
rules that kept weak swimmers out of deep water. The lifeguard
discovered that the pool policies he’d at first thought were silly
actually kept people safe.”

Volunteer ministry policies accomplish the same thing; they keep
volunteers safe from slipping and getting into deep water.

Problem #1

I had an amazing volunteer who’d been ministering to kids for
about three years in a variety of ways (dramas, nursery, and
teaching). His first year in college (while he was still heavily
involved in our ministry), he decided he was gay. He spoke with me
about it, and at that point he said he didn’t want to act on his
feelings but he wasn’t interested in getting help. He really felt
that this was who he was and that God was okay with it. My
dilemma-did I still let him volunteer with kids, and if so, in what
capacity?

The Expert Says…
I’m impressed that he had the courage and honesty to inform you.
Yet this is a complex issue since so many denominations, and even
congregations within denominations, vary in their views and
policies on the issue of homosexuals in the church. In some,
homosexuals are accepted and can even be ordained. In others,
churches have difficulty even ministering to homosexuals. Start by
checking your own denomination and congregation’s policies.

Problem #2

We had a man at our church who was using church money to buy
items such as diapers and formula for his own kids while on youth
trips. He felt it was okay since his family came along on the trip
and that these were “expenses” related to the ministry trip. He was
instructed not to continue the practice, but on the next trip, a
similar issue with church funds used for personal expenses came
up.

The Expert Says…
I see two problems here. One is that there should be a uniform and
published policy regarding allowable expenses. The policy should
clearly define what allowable and reimbursable expenses are. This
should be enforced. Another simple procedure is having a supervisor
sign off on submitted expenses before passing them on to the
bookkeeper. A good bookkeeper should not issue checks without some
kind of authorization.

The question arises, though, that if a person brings his or her
older children on youth trips, does the church pay for their food
and lodging? If so, there would be a potential argument for
reimbursement of formula expenses, since that’s what infants
eat.

The second problem is that this person was told (I’m assuming by
his supervisor) to stop submitting these expenses, but he did it
anyway. His supervisor needs to follow up and hold him accountable.
If there is a policy about this, it makes it much easier to
enforce.
Accountability is a critically important, but frequently
neglected, component of volunteer ministry programs. We need to
hold one another accountable for our actions in the vitally
important work of the church.

Problem #3

I had a volunteer who’d been teaching for 15 years when I took
over the children’s ministry position. Everyone loved her and she
was committed, dependable, and a bit abrasive. She liked to have a
classroom that was controlled and where kids were memorizing up a
storm. I decided to change the curriculum and she refused to
change, asking to do her “own” curriculum that she felt was more
in-depth. She also said she desired to have only select children in
the class. When I explained why I didn’t want her to do this, she
went to the top and complained. She had a band of parents who
backed her, and her personality overtook my office staff, resulting
in a great administrative assistant resigning because she couldn’t
deal with this volunteer.

The Expert Says…
Two things I’m not clear about from this story: Do the kids like
this teacher and are they learning about Christ? If the teacher is
driving kids and parents away with her “abrasive” personality, then
my choice would be clear: She is no longer effective as a teacher
and I’d hope your church could find a better fit for her gifts. In
other words, I’d terminate her as a teacher. Her desire to have
“select” children in her class concerns me. It sounds
discriminatory.

This story also doesn’t explain why you decided to change the
curriculum. I wonder if you made this decision on your own without
getting group input or support. This is asking for trouble,
particularly when you’re new to the church. Planning with people
not for people is the most effective way to introduce change. If
you had gotten more parent/staff support with the new curriculum
first, you might not have this problem now.

Another concern is the struggle for power and control. The time
and place to confront this was when this teacher caused the
administrative assistant to resign. This was an issue worthy of
demonstrating who’s in charge. I strongly believe in viewing
volunteers as unpaid staff, and as such, they deserve the respect
and consideration of paid staff. But that also means they need to
be held accountable for the results of their actions. In situations
like this I ask myself, “If I were paying this person, what would I
do?” Then I do it!

A policy outlining appropriate grievance procedures and periodic
performance reviews of volunteers would probably have prevented the
teacher from going over your head. I truly believe that as you put
into practice sound volunteer management principles and policies,
your volunteer personnel problems will become fewer and fewer.
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Marlene Wilson is the author of Visionary Leadership in
Volunteer Programs (Energize, Inc). Please keep in mind that phone
numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change. Originally
published in January-February, 2004 in Children’s Ministry
Magazine.

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