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The Best Tips for Handling When a Volunteer Quits

It’s that time of the year—people are re-evaluating commitments. And they may resign from your ministry. Learn what to do when volunteers quit.


You’re winding down after the busy holiday season and enjoying a bit of a lull in your ministry when the phone rings. It’s one of your preschool volunteers. Casual chitchat opens up a conversation you’d rather not have.

“I’ve prayed a lot about the upcoming new year,” she says. “And one of my resolutions is to cut back on my commitments. I’m sorry, but I need to quit volunteering in the preschool ministry.”

High volunteer turnover is nothing new when the midyear blues hit. In reality, a resignation may be a good transition for a volunteer who’s not happy or comfortable in a position. The volunteer’s exit doesn’t make your job any easier, though. Read on to learn the key reasons volunteers quit midyear and how you can prepare for this potential volunteer drought.

The Resolution

The new year is a common time for people to reflect on their lives and re-evaluate their commitments. As a result, some people find they’re overcommitted or focusing their energies in misguided directions. Reasons for resolutions are endless—a volunteer may have a “service addiction” (spending too much time giving to others and not enough time caring for themselves or family). Sometimes volunteers realize their personal faith growth has stagnated. Or a volunteer may come to the conclusion that he or she simply needs a break from volunteering. This type of New Year’s resolution is usually a positive thing in the volunteer’s life—even if it puts you in a bind to find a replacement after the volunteer quits. Here’s how to respond.

Support the person.

As a rule, don’t react negatively any time a volunteer quits, but be especially compassionate when someone steps down with the intent to grow healthier spiritually or emotionally. Offer help and guidance in this new journey because there’s an obvious need for personal growth. Consider that a resignation of this nature may actually be a leave of absence, not a permanent separation. Use these pointers to encourage these volunteers.

Spiritual Growth

Equip the person who’s resolved to grow spiritually with a devotional book or suggestions for spiritual growth classes. A volunteer stepped down in our ministry to pursue personal growth opportunities, so to demonstrate that I supported her and appreciated her contributions to our ministry, I paid for her Bible study book fees and gave her a journal to record her journey.

Service Addiction

Provide family-strengthening ideas and family ministry opportunities for the person who’s resolved to spend more time with family. Alert other staff members when someone is struggling with over-involvement so they’ll respect that person’s desire to cut back for personal growth. Stay in touch with your former volunteer to offer support and encouragement. Should the time come when the volunteer is ready to return to your ministry, help set guidelines to avoid the pitfalls that caused the person to leave the volunteer position initially.

The Reality

The new year is a convenient time for volunteers to step down if they feel overwhelmed or out of place. Perhaps the volunteer committed to your ministry before considering the match potential or praying about the position. Or maybe the person is fleeing from a position of high responsibility that he or she wasn’t prepared for. The new year is a natural, midway point in ministry when reality sets in and volunteers take action based on a realization they aren’t right for the job.

Explore options.

Meet with your volunteer to assess what’s happening. Do this in a private, welcoming environment where your volunteer will feel comfortable speaking freely. Follow these steps to retool a position or reassign your volunteer.

Overwhelmed

For an overwhelmed volunteer, tweaking the position may be a suitable alternative to quitting. Follow these steps.

  1. Discern: Ask questions to determine why the person is overwhelmed, such as “What do you enjoy about your ministry? Are there things you don’t enjoy? What would make your experience more enjoyable? If you could create the perfect ministry experience, what would it look like?”
  2. Create: With your volunteer, create a position or situation that’ll diminish the pressure. For example, perhaps the volunteer needs to serve with others instead of alone. Simply reassign this person to a mentor or add people to the team. Perhaps, though, the volunteer would be happier doing a smaller part of the role, such as preparing the craft only instead of teaching the entire lesson. Carefully listen to your volunteer to help you determine the right changes needed.

Out of Place

If someone feels out of place in your ministry, determine whether the person has been prematurely assigned to a position.

  1. Explore: Dig to see whether there’s a better place in your ministry for this person. Begin by asking the volunteer to describe what feels wrong about the position he or she is in, and encourage the person to speak frankly.
  2. Compare: Juxtapose what you hear with what you already know about the person. Maybe the person says he doesn’t feel comfortable teaching, but you know he connects well with the kids. Express the talents you’ve observed.
  3. Offer: Come up with an alternative. Ask if he’d rather be in a different position that could access his gifts, such as being a greeter for your ministry. Give specific reasons you think this would be a better fit such as, “You really connect well with kids and help them feel comfortable and welcome.”

If you discover during your conversation that children’s ministry isn’t a good fit, look for another place in your church to keep this person serving. If you can’t find a place somewhere, the person may not serve—period. Guide your volunteer toward a place of successful service and enjoyment instead of feeling burdened by the commitment.

I had a mom who felt she should serve in children’s ministry because her kids participated. Every Sunday she dreaded the experience because she didn’t click with young children. When she told me she wanted to quit, I asked if there was another place she’d rather serve. She said she loved teenagers, so I connected her with our youth director. Within the week she plugged in as a youth leader and she’s now thriving.

The Rationalization

Some volunteers just want out. They may not offer any reason for leaving, but they use the new year as a convenient excuse to walk away. I’ve had people call and leave a message over the holidays (when they know I’m out of the office) to say they won’t be returning after the first of the year. It’s easy to take this kind of resignation without offering any follow-up or response to the person leaving—especially because of feeling abandoned with this kind of exit.

When volunteers resign for a reason, the follow-up conversation regarding their experience comes naturally. But it takes courage to contact the person who just wants out-no reasons offered. To show appreciation for the person’s contribution and to find out whether something’s gone wrong, it’s important to have a potentially difficult conversation.

Ask the question.

One volunteer sent me an email to let me know he wouldn’t be teaching our preteens any longer. I followed up with a phone call and discovered his wife no longer wanted to attend the church. I conveyed how grateful I was for his dedication to the kids and let him know he’d be missed. Curious, I also asked if they’d found a new church home and gave him recommendations to local churches that complemented their specific needs.

For the health of your volunteer ministry, follow up with volunteers who quit seemingly without reason. Use these tips.

Interview

Conduct an exit interview with the volunteer and ask questions that’ll help you do a better job in the future. Use these questions:

  • How did you feel supported in your volunteer position?
  • How can we help new volunteers be successful in their positions?
  • What areas of our volunteer program need work?
  • If you could change something about your volunteer experience, what would it be?
  • What was your favorite aspect of your experience?

Appreciation

Release your volunteer with gratitude and appreciation. Have kids create thank you cards for the departing volunteer. Personally thank the volunteer with a gift or appreciation certificate and a sincere expression of thanks for his or her contribution to your ministry. Be friendly whenever you bump into the person at church to ease awkward feelings and avoid giving the person a guilt trip.

The Prepared Leader

Don’t let volunteer resignations catch you off guard—no matter the time of the year. Make a resolution for the new year to be better prepared for volunteer turnover by taking these preparation steps.

Prevention

Avoid a midyear volunteer drought by providing training and adequate care throughout the year. Use these tips to prevent untimely resignations due to unhappy and unprepared volunteers.

Training

Conduct a thorough training prior to your program kickoff, and hold monthly training sessions to help volunteers stay up-to-date and refreshed. Give training options such as a once-a-month round-table discussion on specific topics or a lunch-break training after church, complete with a meal and ministry updates. Give volunteers a schedule of training opportunities for the year and require they attend at least six during the year.

Teamwork

Assign mentors who can offer support, advice, and prayer for new and inexperienced volunteers. I once had a struggling volunteer approach me about quitting. I asked her to stick with it for one more month and assured her I’d team her up with someone who’d check in with her for support on a weekly basis. Providing my volunteer with a mentor not only kept her on the volunteer team, but it also sparked a wonderful friendship between the two that continues to this day.

Appreciation

Show your volunteers appreciation year-round. People who are happy and feel appreciated are more committed to their area of service. Walk around during the service and peek in on each class or a small group—a simple smile and hello acknowledges to volunteers that their presence is noticed and appreciated.

Caring

Another important preventative measure is to give volunteers an occasional break (one they aren’t expecting). Organize a parent substitute rotation for parents to take a class once every nine weeks. This gives volunteers a free weekend to relax and brings them back refreshed and rejuvenated for the kids they serve.

Constant Recruiting

The best way to avoid the stress of a sudden volunteer shortage is to be prepared. Don’t settle into the school year with the mindset that your recruiting is finished. Seek out new volunteers on a continuous basis.

Promote.

Host regular volunteer information meetings where interested people can have questions answered and an opportunity to sign up for involvement. Regularly ask current volunteers for a list of potential friends or parents they think may be good volunteer prospects. Ask your volunteers to keep a watchful eye out for new recruits. Attend membership classes to promote your ministry and cast a vision for newcomers to get involved.

Groom.

Borrow from baseball and create a “bullpen” of individuals ready to accept a volunteer position of greater responsibility. These are people who are trained and ready to be sent to play. Your bullpen should consist of people who are currently serving in your ministry at some level. When a volunteer resigns, send prepared volunteers from the bullpen to the majors. If they’ve been trained and prepared, these folks will eagerly step into their new responsibilities.

Double-up.

Staff your classes or small groups with two capable leaders, and avoid having married couples serve together (when you lose one, you’re likely to lose the other). Staffing two qualified people ensures the class will resume with quality while you search for a replacement for one.

Persevere.

Don’t let the midyear blues get you down too. It can be easy to become discouraged and take it personally when a wave of volunteers quits at the same time. Make sure you’re spiritually healthy to weather the rough patches. Pray continuously for God to lead new people to serve in your ministry. And when a volunteer resigns, thank God for the contribution the person made-even for a time—to the lives of children and eternity.

Carmen Kamrath was the associate editor for Children’s Ministry Magazine.

Revolving Door Recruiting

Ever wonder how many children’s leaders have resigned because volunteer recruitment was like a big, fat elephant sitting on their chest? Recruiting stress can literally cause shortness of breath!

You can avoid the toxic stress often associated with volunteer recruitment by establishing a plan that includes variety, team involvement, and constant action. Use these ideas for a continuous recruitment plan.

The One-to-One Plan

Ask a resigning volunteer to pray for and recruit his or her replacement. Have the volunteer introduce you to the recommended replacement and, if appropriate, write a letter of reference for the recruit. When a background check is completed, invite the person to shadow the retiring volunteer for a few weeks to grow familiar to the children and staff, the schedule, and your curriculum. And who better to partner in prayer with the new volunteer than the person who did the recruiting?

The 1:5 Ratio Plan

Every volunteer deserves supervision. In successful volunteer organizations, there’s one supervisor for every five volunteers. Well-supervised volunteers are typically happier and serve longer. Supervisors can recruit their own teams, allowing them to concentrate on building and encouraging a smaller group of volunteers for success.

The Child-for-a-Day Plan

Prepare a preschool or elementary classroom and invite parents to be kids for a day. Keep your regular classroom schedule: music, snacks, lesson time, playground, crafts, or games. Parents participate just as the kids do in the classroom. When parents realize what’s involved and how much fun the class is, they’ll often sign up on the spot.

The Volunteer News Plan

Everyone loves to share cute stories about kids—especially teachers. And who doesn’t like to see their name in print? Publish a biweekly newsletter packed with stories, classroom happenings, special events, birthdays, anniversaries, and quotes. Ask volunteers to contribute, and assign parents and preteens as reporters and photographers. The positive press can be a draw for new ministry volunteers.

Use your continuous recruiting plan faithfully for six months and see what happens. Marketing experts say a new idea must be heard repeatedly for people to get on board, so your recruitment prospects may need time and lots of exposure before they bite. It took Jesus three years to recruit 12 devoted followers, and their commitment changed the world. So be patient! Work your plan, and you’ll see results.

Pat Verbal
Dallas, Texas

For more great information like this in every issue, subscribe today to Children’s Ministry Magazine!


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