Volunteers are human. They get stressed, fall ill, and have bad days. Life happens. Circumstances change. Any number of human factors can hamper a volunteer’s ability or desire to perform at full potential. And when a volunteer is clearly underperforming, the leader becomes discouraged and stressed and often feels disrespected. Pressure builds on the volunteer and the leader. It’s not a fun place to be.
As a leader, you must manage a variety of complicated situations involving people with diverse personalities. It’s an amazing, rewarding role. It’s also challenging and, at times, exhausting. There will inevitably come a moment when you must confront a volunteer for problematic behavior. This isn’t easy or fun, but it is part of volunteer management.
Prevention Is Retention
The best way to avoid conflict with volunteers is to prevent it when possible. Build these habits to head off unnecessary conflict—and retain your hard-won team members.
1. Make a personal connection.
Actively seek to build strong, individual relationships with your team members. Reach out to volunteers, whether new or established. Ask them how they’re doing. Build a friendship based upon respect.
2. Listen to concerns and ideas.
As you interact with your team, remember to listen more than you talk. Listen to what they like, what they don’t, and what they wish to change.
3. Provide volunteers with constructive feedback.
People respond better when they hear what they’re doing right. Guide, mentor, and encourage those who need improvement. And take time to help when they seek your advice or counsel.
4. Empower volunteers to become leaders.
Educate, train, and include them. Invite volunteers into your decision-making process when possible.
5. Most importantly, appreciate them.
Thank volunteers and remind them often that they’re making a real difference. Your team members need to know you hear, see, and appreciate them.
For the Conflict-Averse
It’s normal to shy away from confronting an underperforming volunteer. Maybe because volunteers aren’t paid and we’re afraid of losing them. Maybe because we lack confidence in handling tricky or unpleasant conversations. Whatever the circumstances, volunteer management goes smoother if we meet conflict head-on in the most loving way possible.
6. Remember that you work for God.
Biblical stewardship requires you to confront a person in need of correction or discipline in a loving manner.
7. Recognize that God uses conflict for good.
I had two volunteers who couldn’t agree on the best method to perform a particular task. At first, I tried not to get involved because one was a personal friend. In the end, though, I had to make the final call on which method to implement (it wasn’t my friend’s). Now, I look back on that situation and see God used it to foster a stronger relationship between all three of us.
8. Deal with conflict in small doses.
Volunteers work for free because they’re passionate about the ministry. This can naturally lead to different opinions about what’s best. Don’t micromanage, but also don’t avoid stepping into smaller-scale conflicts. The more you engage in conflict management, the better you’ll get at it. As they say, practice makes perfect. We’re all called to be peacemakers, not just peacekeepers.
9. Don’t set unreachable standards.
Don’t set standards that are impossible to achieve, like instituting a zero-absenteeism policy for new teachers for their first year. Perfectionism is time-consuming, extremely counterproductive, and doesn’t work in a team. It’ll inevitably cause unnecessary conflict between leaders and volunteers.
10. Understand that “no” isn’t a negative word when used effectively.
There are times when saying “no” is in the best interest of your ministry and team. Don’t be afraid to say it because it may provoke disagreement.
11. Always pray for God’s guidance and direction.
When you’re facing conflict, confrontation, or problems, ask the Holy Spirit to give you the right words and the wisdom to make prudent decisions.
12. Handle leading in distress.
Here’s a tough truth: If the very notion of handling conflicts is extremely distressing to you, pay attention. If addressing poor performance, correcting a volunteer, or settling disputes keeps you awake at night and gives you ulcers, then you may need to consider recruiting a volunteer coordinator or even serving the ministry in another capacity. The reality is that leading volunteers requires dealing with conflict, sometimes often.
The good news is, while you may not be a conflict pro now, you can be. Ask your pastor for coaching. Read books on conflict management. Find a mentor. Sign up for classes that teach conflict-management skills. These resources will help you begin to view conflict management as a tool and skill rather than something to dread or fear.
Volunteer Management: Approach and Coach
But before it reaches the point of dismissing someone, use volunteer management to ensure you’re doing everything possible to salvage the situation.
13. Don’t delay communication.
When you see signs that a volunteer isn’t performing well, discuss it. Don’t delay. Find out the underlying reasons for the person’s unsatisfactory performance. Create a coaching plan you both agree on and stick to it.
14. Be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19).
Always keep an open mind. Don’t make assumptions about what the other person will say. You may discover that a problem lies within the ministry rather than the volunteer.
15. Do a load-check.
Even hardworking people can collapse under the burden of a too-heavy load. The volunteer may be physically, mentally, or emotionally exhausted. If that’s the case, try to work out a more flexible schedule or let the volunteer take time off.
16. Look for burnout.
If the volunteer has performed the same role for an extended period, you may be dealing with boredom or burnout. Consider assigning new responsibilities. A change of pace provides new challenges and a renewed sense of accomplishment.
When to Say Goodbye
When it’s inevitable that a volunteer must go, handle the situation with extreme care.
If a volunteer resigns, ensure the person leaves with a certificate of appreciation or, if preferred, a letter of recommendation (or both). Depending on the situation, mark the event with a celebration.
Whether the result of conduct problems, performance issues, or financial cutbacks, firing a volunteer is an unpleasant task. Every ministry needs written procedures that delineate a volunteer’s responsibilities and outlines which behaviors are grounds for dismissal. When it’s necessary to dismiss a volunteer, follow these guidelines.
18. Schedule a private meeting.
Ensure the volunteer understands your conversation is confidential and it’s a safe environment. This allows the volunteer to open up—even about issues that may stem from the ministry itself.
19. Be prepared, honest, and loving.
Consider your words carefully beforehand, with the understanding that what you say will leave an impact. Thank the person for serving. Speak the truth in love. If the volunteer is being dismissed due to performance or conduct, be clear about it.
20. Answer questions.
Offer open, honest responses to the person’s questions. He or she should already know the reason for dismissal due to your coaching efforts but may still have questions. Follow your church’s protocol for dismissal, including completing documentation or having a third party sit through the conversation with you.
21. Don’t make personal comments.
Base your statements only on the volunteer’s performance. Ephesians 4:29 is the example to follow: “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.”
22. Gather passes, keys, or badges.
This important security step protects the ministry and the volunteer.
23. Afterward, reach out to those affected.
Listen to people’s concerns and address their needs. Remedy any remaining issues promptly.
There are black-and-white situations that call for a volunteer’s dismissal. Follow your church’s procedure for reporting and handling any of the following offenses.
24. Illegal Behavior
This includes engaging in illegal activity such as embezzlement, misuse of funds, criminal behavior, abuse, or use of drugs.
25. Unethical Behavior
This includes making sexually suggestive remarks, engaging in behavior that makes others feel physically threatened or uncomfortable, rude or disrespectful behavior, sexual misconduct, and improper use of church-owned materials or supplies.
26. Chronic Absenteeism
Absentee volunteers create a host of problems for the ministry. They also create a stressful environment for others who must step in at the last minute and take on extra work and hours.
27. Disregards Rules
At the very least, volunteers who don’t follow rules discourage those who do. At worst, they put others in danger. For instance, a volunteer at a nursing home was told not to put her face close to patients. The volunteer, wanting to greet an elderly lady, got close enough to be rewarded with a slap across the face. That volunteer was me, and I’ll tell you that elderly lady had one powerful slap. Rules are in place for our protection. If you have a volunteer who consistently breaks rules or ignores expectations, he or she could bring harm to themselves or others.
28. Toxic Behavior
Volunteers who are disruptive, divisive, argumentative, or unkind quickly turn a pleasant ministry into a toxic environment.
Except in extreme cases, volunteer management still includes a responsibility to volunteers when they resign or are dismissed. We’re called to love one another in all situations. Here are good aftercare habits to establish.
29. Check in.
Call, email, or write a note. Make sure the person understands you’re praying for him or her and that you truly care.
30. Invite back.
If the situation permits, invite the person to stay connected to the church or ministry. Send invitations to ministry functions. Keep the relationship warm and friendly. Ask the person for coffee. Send a birthday card. Whatever the outcome of the situation, ensure the person knows communication lines are open with you.
31. Follow up.
If the person left due to illness or a family situation, stay in close contact. The person might need help but is scared or embarrassed to ask. Make the first move. Ask if there’s anything you or your ministry can do. Jesus said, “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ ” (Matthew 25:40)
Lee Ann Mancini is executive producer of Sea Kids TV, a board member and adjunct professor at South Florida Bible College and Theological Seminary, author, speaker, wife, and mother of two.
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