Maybe you haven’t yet decided whether your volunteers are the greatest…or the most splintery, rough-hewn part of your ministry. (For the record, I think they’re great. It might just take some sanding down and polishing to get them there.)
Reality is, your volunteers are exactly what you need to make ministry successful. Another reality is that they can be at the root of the most perplexing problems and frustrating fiascos. Volunteers running amok can make you want to quit—or leave you dreaming they’ll quit.
What can you do with tough situations? How can you handle ongoing issues with volunteers? First we have to acknowledge four (sometimes hard) truths. And then we have to remind ourselves of these truths every time we take a deep breath and prepare to deal with a challenging volunteer situation head-on.
Truth 1: Leaders aren’t always right. Sometimes our volunteers are right. And at times, they may even know better what to do than we do.
Truth 2: If we decided to simply fill a volunteer position in our ministry area and not fit the volunteer to the role, we made the mess ourselves.
Truth 3: There are times our volunteers are flat-out wrong. We hate it because now we have to deal with it. And we know what that means: Someone may end up not liking us. It’s rough, I know. I’ve gotten plenty of emails from angry people over the years…but as leaders, we must lead.
Truth 4: Leaders do what’s biblical. Always. Even when it’s really hard.
These are the four truths to keep at the forefront of your mind. They give us good context for handling tricky volunteer situations, and they keep us as leaders in check. So with that in mind, let’s dig into five of the most challenging volunteer characteristics in ministry.
Tim is always late for every occasion, event, class, and program. Everyone knows Tim will show up [insert number here] minutes late while others wait. It delays the program OR class, puts your team in a bad mood, and communicates to kids that they’re less important than whatever Tim is doing.
Solve It: You can roll your eyes every week, or you can address it. And let me help you out: Address it. If you don’t, this is one problem that’ll spread like wildfire. If other volunteers watch the same person coming in late all the time and you do nothing about it, then it’s a free pass for them not to watch their clock.
There are a couple of things to try. First, regularly use your weekly team huddles to remind volunteers of role expectations and being on time is of key importance. (Even if this seems to help, don’t stop saying it. Communicate continually that promptness is an ongoing expectation.) Second, encourage volunteers. Give them positive reinforcement when they’re prompt—maybe a gift card to Starbucks or a simple verbal acknowledgment.
Now if these things don’t work for Tardy Tim, it’s time for a blunt conversation. Keep it simple. Share with Tim that you notice he has a hard time with the schedule and offer specifics (“You’ve been 15 minutes late the past four Sundays.”) Ask why and if there’s something you can do to help. Never accuse him (“You must not care about this ministry”), and watch your wording. Tim may have something big going on and a legitimate reason for being late. Once you hear the answer, move to find a resolution together.
Option 1: You allow Tim to be late and discreetly explain to the rest of the team so it doesn’t become problematic.
Option 2: Be clear and let Tim know he must be on time for the role. If it’s not going to work, help Tim find another place of ministry that works better with scheduling or his current life situation.
Pearl is a peach of a person. She’s so sweet she can’t stand the thought of disciplining for any reason ever. Ever, ever. Her group of kids runs amok, creating a smoking chaos from their room down the hall. Some kids leave in tears, frustrated with the lack of structure, while others capitalize on the situation, running their own fiefdoms of misbehavior. Pearl is perplexed—but ever-pleasant—and believes just one more piece of candy will help Andy stop slapping and Annie quit swearing.
This is yet another issue that, left neglected, spreads like a virus. Kids push boundaries all the time, and if they see another child getting away with poor behavior, they’ll join in.
Solve It: Your first step is talking to Pearl to help her see what’s going on. You must also determine whether she actually enjoys the role. Some people who don’t know what else to do in a bad situation will continue to smile no matter how bad it gets. For all you know, Pearl may be aware she can’t handle the kids, hates it, and wants out. Talk to the volunteer to find out how she views the situation and the role. When you understand more, you’ll know what to do: Pair the person with a volunteer who knows how to manage a group of kids well…or offer the person a role that allows her to spend time one-to-one with a child.
Eddy says he’ll be there Saturday night, but when Saturday night rolls around, Eddy is nowhere to be found. Eddy volunteers to cut out construction-paper cats for Sunday crafts, but Sunday morning he calls to say he just can’t. Eddy signs on for a year of serving, but halfway through, he sends a note to say he’s off to Sarasota for an extended stay with his sister Sue.
Solve It: Eddy is the one that can make you want to say goodbye to leading every time you come across such unreliability. An unreliable volunteer puts you and the rest of your team in an awful position. The reality might be that the unreliable volunteer doesn’t see much value in the role and therefore doesn’t take it seriously.
The first time someone bails on a commitment, deal with it gently. Remind Eddy of the vision for your children’s ministry and how important his part is in reaching that vision—even when the part seems as small as cutting out paper cats. If direct communication doesn’t spark more reliability, then it’s time for another conversation and time to ask why. You need to get to the core of what’s going on in the volunteer’s mind. Again, there may be something going on in Eddy’s life that you don’t know about.
Listen carefully.Explain that for the good of the ministry and the kids, it’s important that Eddy follows through. Describe for Eddy what happens and who’s affected when he doesn’t come through. If the volunteer is willing to give it another go and you are, too, share specifically what you expect (“I expect you to deliver 100 paper cats by 8 p.m. Saturday night in the church office”). If the person can’t do it, then together you can look for another role or a compassionate release of duties. (Yes, that means you might need to fire Unreliable Eddy.)
Meet Hallie. Hallie isn’t happy. She has a lot of experience in [insert legitimate area of expertise here]. Hallie can see right through you. She questions every decision you make–whether it’s new curriculum or cancelling a worn-out event or instituting background checks. She has sideline conversations with other volunteers to get them on board…with her disapproval. Hallie is quite good at her role, but she’s also quite good at derailing your leadership by spreading the seeds of dissent.
Solve It: Deep breath. This volunteer can make you question your abilities and make you want to yell, “Do you want to do my job?!?”
The first thing to do with a volunteer like Hallie is to regularly remind her why you all do what you do. (Hint: It’s not for your glory or for Hallie’s glory.) Next, have a private meeting (with a witness, if the situation is that serious) that’ll likely be uncomfortable. Be prepared with specific examples of behavior. Invite Hallie to air her grievances directly with you from this point forward. Be ready to have an open conversation to talk through the issues you’re aware of. Know you may be criticized. Listen. Offer factual reasoning behind specific decisions if need be. But don’t cave in to win favor, and don’t grow defensive. Let Hallie know you want to work together and strengthen your relationship, but direct communication and respect for your leadership are critical. Remind the volunteer that the ministry as a whole expects volunteers’ behavior choices to align with the vision of the ministry. Also note that you expect all volunteers to help unite—not divide—the team.
If there’s a real issue with curriculum or programming, and out what it is. If you can make changes, work together to do so. For example, if Hallie thinks the activities that go along with the Bible passage for the day are pointless, encourage her to and a different, better activity that reinforces the concept. Give the volunteer opportunities to step up and make things even better.
If Hallie isn’t up for the challenge of making things better, explain why her actions cause issues for the team. If the behavior continues, it’s time to get real. Meet with the volunteer and a witness. Ask whether Hallie is okay with doing the role she has committed to. Outline acceptable versus unacceptable complaint-handling. If she agrees to continue in the ministry, write out clear boundaries and have her sign. If she is unwilling to continue or you deem it’s not a workable situation, it’s time to help Hallie and another ministry area to serve in…or to say goodbye.
Headstrong Hallie has a cousin, and his name is Negative Neil. Neil’s irritation isn’t directed only at you. He’s got a lot to say about the kids, the parents, the team, the ministry, and the church… and believe me, none of it’s good. Neil brings down the team, undermines successes, and perplexes the kids.
Solve It: Start with you: Always model a positive attitude to your volunteers. Keep backstage stuff backstage. If you’re unhappy with something that’s happening in your church, don’t broadcast it. Your job is to focus on moving your ministry forward. This doesn’t mean you can’t acknowledge when something doesn’t go as planned or that you can’t apologize for an error, but always be quick to point out the things that are going well. Others will usually follow suit.
But if Neil can’t come around with a positive attitude, it’s time to talk. Before sharing your concerns, thank Neil for being a part of the team and encourage him with something you see going well or a positive characteristic you noticed. Some people are dealing with temporary negativity and others seem to live there, but for the best results, this is a situation to approach gently and with love. Let Neil voice any concerns. Ask him to talk about specific things that aren’t going well, starting with the question, “I’ve noticed you feel that the way we’ve restructured the supply room isn’t good. Can you tell me what you think would work better? I’d love to hear your thoughts.” Again, if you hear concerns that you can deal with, do so in the near future and reconnect with Neil to talk through the changes.
If Neil is simply negative and nothing helps, you may need to consider moving him into a support role where he doesn’t interact with kids, parents, or the public in representing your ministry. In any case, continue making an effort to regularly connect with Neil and pour positivity into his empty cup.
• • •
Volunteers are the foundation of any ministry. We all know how essential they are. But we’re all human, and we’re dealing with other flawed and splintered humans. Rather than throwing your hands up, getting angry, or trying to ignore the issues, work for reconciliation. Roll up your sleeves, and begin to sand and polish—yourself included. Strive to lead a ministry where great things are happening and all people can use their gifts to serve and build on their human strengths and weaknesses. Go in with positive assumptions about your team. Remind yourself that most people have a true desire to be part of what God’s doing. And lead your team by facing head-on the challenging conversations that can eventually build a more positive and successful ministry.