Letting someone go is tough. But here are 9 reasons you must fire a volunteer—and how to do it.
After a month, it was apparent trouble was brewing in the fourth-grade class. The teachers and students weren’t getting along. Students complained and parents demanded a replacement for the teacher.
After the Christian education committee discussed the problem, a staff member talked with the teaching couple. The situation was potentially explosive. Firing the teachers could lead to hard feelings and the possible loss of a good church couple.
So how did it turn out? The teachers conceded they were mismatched for the class. They knew it and so did the kids. They agreed to look for another volunteer position in the church that better matched their talents. Thankfully, everyone ended up happy. But it doesn’t always turn out that way.
Grounds for Firing
The thought of having to fire a volunteer brings shivers to any leader. Without volunteers, Christian education ministries would die.
But quite honestly, volunteers need to be fired in some situations. Terminating a volunteer in a loving, Christian way (and I like Paul’s comment in Galatians 5:26 about not becoming conceited) can usually mean the restoration of someone to a more meaningful volunteer position.
The Top 9 Reasons to Fire a Volunteer
1. Mismatched talents
Just like the teaching couple described earlier, when talents don’t jibe with the job, replace the volunteer. This isn’t as much of a firing as an adjustment of roles. You may find another area for this volunteer to serve.
Signs indicating a mismatched volunteer: volunteer complaints within a short time of beginning the job, concerns expressed by several people who are led by the volunteer, a low energy level from the volunteer and below-average performance.
2. Personal Crises
When volunteers face unexpected crises in their families or personal lives, monitor those events and respond with caring. Some people will try to complete their tasks, not wanting to let the church down. If volunteers are stressed out from a crisis, they’ll welcome a release. Again, this isn’t as much of a firing as a possibly temporary reprieve from responsibilities during a difficult time.
Some crises that warrant a volunteer being terminated, at least for the short term: the death of a spouse or child, job loss with a prolonged out-of-work period, chronic depression and suicidal tendencies.
3. Poor performance
Frequently, the church endures sloppy performance on the assumption: “We don’t want to offend anyone.” But children’s ministries should expect the best from volunteers, because children’s welfare is at stake.
Signs of poor performance: bragging about not needing to prepare for class, making verbal commitments and never following through and consistently having excuses for missing meetings or activities they’re responsible for.
4. Theological or philosophical differences
Volunteers who have theological or philosophical differences with the church may “dump” a barrage of nonsense on unsuspecting targets. Teachers who throw away your church’s curriculum in order to teach “what I want” are setting a dangerous precedent. While it’s okay to allow teachers freedom in their classrooms, all curricular changes should have prior approval by you and possibly the Christian education board as well.
I once attended a weekend retreat with several church groups. Saturday night, one of the other church’s volunteers asked me to watch his group while he went out drinking with some friends. Fire that guy.
There are many situations in the church where parents or others trust volunteers to be responsible. Any circumstance of volunteer negligence where a child’s life is endangered is grounds for termination.
6. Sexual misconduct
The church used to be immune from having to deal with sexual misconduct on the part of volunteers. Not any more. You need to immediately terminate volunteers who fall prey to sexual temptations. This can include anything from inappropriate touching to more serious sexual activity.
Don’t assume everyone has a pure motive for volunteering. Many churches now screen all volunteers who work with children or youth. Don’t endanger children because of ineffective screening methods. Confront any suspicious volunteers.
7. Emotional Abuse
Fire volunteers who are consistently mean to others. All of us get a big enough dose of emotional battering during the week without going to the church and dealing with an overbearing, cruel volunteer.
Church antagonists constantly undermine anything positive in the church. They’re dangerous and conniving. Antagonists often use influential volunteer positions as a launching platform to criticize. Remove these people immediately. Their attitude is poisonous to your ministry.
Volunteers are crucial to spreading the good news; they don’t need to be agents of bad news. When they are, the church needs to confront them and make a change. In Romans 12:18, Paul told the Christians to “live at peach with everyone” (NIV). Gossip never leads to peace in the church.
Leading the Firing Squad
Terminating someone is never easy for me, but occasionally it has to be done. When I approach the volunteer prayerfully, the outcome is positive and redemptive. When I’m insensitive, there’s disaster and hard feelings.
Use these tips for terminating a volunteer in a positive way:
- Don’t be judge and jury. When you suspect a volunteer needs to be terminated, get the volunteer’s perspective on the problem.
- Inform your pastor or Christian education board about your concerns. Get their input before taking action and decide how to proceed together.
- Fire a volunteer in person. Never fire someone over the phone or through a letter unless it’s absolutely necessary.
- Take along someone you trust to act as a supporter and impartial observer.
- Respond to the children who lost the volunteer. Visit the children after terminating their volunteer. Be open, honest, and age-appropriate about the reasons and allow questions. This will eliminate gossip and a lot of hard feelings.
- If appropriate, place the volunteer in another position. The volunteer might feel a sense of failure after being fired. Having options available will show that you still value the person as a church member. Of course, this may not be appropriate in more serious situations.
The “Burn Cycle” of Getting Fired
Some volunteers will simply feel relieved when terminated. Others may go through the following stages of grief, as outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:
- Denial “No way! How could they fire me? There must be some mistake!”
- Anger “See if I ever do anything for that church again—if that’s the thanks I get!”
- Bargaining “If I talk to the pastor, maybe I’ll get my position back.”
- Depression “How embarrassing. Everyone must think I’m the worst Christian.”
- Acceptance “Even though I wasn’t the greatest at that job, I bet there’s something I could do well in the church.”
Mike Gillespie is a Christian education director in Kansas.