What? Do you really want to fire a volunteer? There are times when someone is so troubling in their role that you
wish they weren’t in that position of responsibility. It may be just an annoyance or it may be toxic. Volunteers are especially difficult because unlike paid workers they are there out of the goodness of their heart and the last thing you want to do is discourage volunteerism. Yet if you are at a troublesome spot, chances are that either you skipped some steps or you are putting off the inevitable. So what are those steps? In order of priority:
1. Paint the big picture first and often.
Also known as connecting the dots for people to what is bigger than themselves. It is often the case that people are simply not aware of how their work or ministry fits in with the big picture. They haven’t taken the time to think about how their serving in Sunday school or counting the money or putting on a VBS or any other activity will add to the “bottom line” of making disciples. It is the job of the leader (ordained or not!) to clarify this vision or preferred future for their people including volunteers and key volunteers (also known as unpaid staff!). This needs to happen when people are recruited, during their orientation, when they are actually doing the work and also when they are appreciated and thanked. Connect the dots! Say, “we want to accomplish (blank) for God’s kingdom and the (blank) ministry that you will be doing helps us get there. So don’t minimize what you are doing for the Lord nor how much we appreciate you!
2. Keep in touch with your volunteers
The most powerful thing you can do is to stop by, give a phone call, be interested and first ask, “How is it going?” The worst thing you can do is send the message that they are on their own or out of sight, out of mind. People need to know there is a safety net or support system behind their work. That means checking in. Then in that check in you can find out what their challenges are, how they are operating (and how it may diverge from your church or ministry's mission, vision and values) and how the volunteers and volunteer leader(s) are holding up. Along the way you can publicly state the values and standards of how they are to behave, involve and treat other people and volunteers. Stating it publicly will eliminate the excuse that people didn’t know, but more importantly it publicly elevates its importance to all your volunteers.
3. Ask, “How can I help?”
As you keep in touch and check in on them the worst thing to do is make assumptions about what they are capable of doing or what they should do. We often steal responsibility and creativity (and thus ownership) from people when we assume things and impose our solutions and will at those times. Instead ask, “how can I help?” Sure they may want to hand over all key decisions or even responsibility to you but a wise leader manages that and instead helps them grow in dealing with issues themselves. Support where you can. Listen deeply. Help them think through their options. Ask, “what do you think?” Only as a last resort do you tell them what to do and almost never do you let them off the hook and do it for them. That only comes in times of personal crisis like a death, and then it is an opportunity for another volunteer to step up (rather than you finding room to do it on your plate).
4. If necessary help them find a better fit
Often times a volunteer struggles simply because what they are doing is just not a good fit for them. They may be a great “doer” who is passionate about the ministry but they are not a good administrator and planner. Help them transition to being more of a “doer” instead of a planner (then another opportunity arises for someone to step up - see #3). Maybe they have lost passion in that particular area of service. If you have checked in with them and kept in touch and asked how you can help, chances are they will trust you enough to be honest with you and speak to their frustration. Then you can assure them that this is not a failure but that you love them and want to help them succeed by helping them find a better fit for them. They will thank you!
5. Fire them
Sometimes a person’s presence and work is so toxic that it affects others. It teaches a negative example that this kind of dysfunction is tolerated or even celebrated! Not the message you want to send. If you have followed the first four steps well this step will rarely be needed. Yet there are times when it is necessary. Are you at this crisis point because someone has been allowed to “hoard” a ministry? Are you here because someone is an influential member or family member or big giver or a friend of the in crowd so you have to put up with their toxicity? Are they that valuable that you turn a blind eye to this negativity? Sure we need to be wise as serpents (Matt 10:16) but we also don’t want to “create or allow” this toxic element to affect the whole ministry (1 Cor 5:6-8). So step up to the plate and deal with it. Minimize the fallout by not doing it alone but with and through other lay leaders whose job it is to provide oversight. Meet with the individual, share your concerns much like steps 1-4 and patiently work with them to improve. Work diligently and don’t shove it under the rug or hope it will go away or drag your feet. Follow the process much like Matthew 18 and if there is no progress then ask for their resignation. You will feel relief. Yet your work is not over. You must keep in touch with them (step 2) and ask how you can help (step 3) and continue to be a pastor (or caring Christian friend) to them. You want to eliminate the charge that you shoved them out the door and didn’t care. It may not be fun but it is the loving thing to do. Be a shepherd to them. But establish and keep and enforce a standard of values and behavior for your volunteers. It is a privilege to volunteer and serve. We are not beggars for any warm body.
The challenge is not to avoid problems hoping they will go away and in our distance ignore people or voice our discontent with or about other people. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31) fits well here. Have the maturity to talk to them and break the ice and find out what is going on. Be concerned for them as people and the tasks they do and their behavior will often take care of themselves.
In TV land they put people on the “hot seat” and declare “you’re fired!” But that’s not how we do it. Besides that’s not how we would want to treat anyone, even if they were paid staff. Love them and the larger church enough to deal with problems early.
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Scott Gress is called by Lutheran Counseling Services and partners with the FL-GA District of the Lutheran Church as an independent contractor. He specializes in Leadership Training, Consulting, Coaching and Coach Training. Contact Scott to continue the conversation or experience a free sample coaching session. 561-542-4472, email@example.com or scottgress.com
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