Can You Fire a Ministry Volunteer? 5 ways to deal with “the Heat”
By Darleen C. Walter
Donald Trump, the bad-haired, wheeling-dealing entrepreneur, seems to have succeeded in an unlikely forum: reality TV. On NBC’s hit show, The Apprentice, Trump weeds through eager young professionals by throwing odd business challenges at them on the unforgiving streets of New York City. Every show ends with a climactic visit to the boardroom where Trump eliminates another player with the simple words: “You’re fired.” The words coolly spring from his lips without even trace amounts of emotion. He makes it look effortless, even fun.
In Trump’s world, firing is easy and fun-no big deal. But in the church, firing any-one is a big deal, and it’s never easy or fun. For church leaders, those words may be easily rehearsed in our minds but they often stumble their way across our lips, holding tightly to our tongues as we try to spit them out. Letting goof a church volunteer is perhaps even more difficult. Can it be done? Can you fire a volunteer? The answer is “yes,” but it’s rarely an easy yes.
In spite of the challenge, church leaders are called to fight the volunteer fires that can flame up when you least expect them. Some volunteers are hard to work with and frighten away others. Some have negative attitudes and try to spread their discontent like wildfire. Infernos that need extinguishing can range from something as consuming as a moral indiscretion to the more common scenario of a volunteer whose gifts don’t match the ministry’s needs.
We spend a lot of time discussing how to involve more volunteers in ministry, and with good reason. Yet we seldom share the insights learned by plowing through sticky volunteer situations. So let’s set aside, in a place of honor, the 99 percent of church volunteers who make serving a joy. For this article, let’s hone in on five practical ways to deal with the difficult one percent.
1. Spark their interest in another area. Redirecting volunteers whose gifts and abilities aren’t meshing with the area of ministry is a strategy that usually succeeds in the long run. Many times volunteers feel obligated to serve in an area they’ve committed to, even when they aren’t passionate about that ministry or aren’t particularly gifted for it. They could be unaware of their own gifts and of other ministries that would be a better fit for them. When volunteers’ gifts and interests lock tightly with a ministry that needs them, everyone wins.
Ask volunteers to evaluate -their gifts and abilities. Have they ever thought about serving in a different ministry area better suited to their gifts? Clearly communicate the congregation’s goal for them to serve God with joy in a ministry that best matches their gifts and abilities.
2. Let the flame die out. If the situation doesn’t war-rant immediate attention, a designated length of service could be the answer. Allowing a difficult volunteer’s term of service to run out without asking for a recommitment to another term of service might be better than an immediate firing. Limited-term commitments are a great way to make sure that the right people are in the right places. When a volunteer first commits to serve, take time to establish the details of the role. Communicate clearly what success in this volunteer position looks like. Spell out expectations and length of service. Many churches use a one-year term for ministry opportunities. If you’re unsure about how someone will do in a new role, establish a trial period of three months, after which you’ll meet to evaluate the volunteer’s performance in the ministry area. Decide together if this new role has been a good fit for the volunteer and the ministry.
3. Let them take their matches and go home. Early in my ministry, I usually tried to talk volunteers out of their decisions to step down. Now I realize that in most cases it’s best to let them go. For example, you don’t want someone serving in the nursery who’s no longer passionate about that important ministry. You may think you really need that small-group leader to stay put, but is it worth having someone lead a small group when she’d rather serve elsewhere? Perhaps the volunteer leader needs a break to recover from burnout, and then he can return with renewed excitement after a well-deserved rest. In any event, it’s wise to affirm their decisions to step down or to take a break.
When confronted about improving their attitudes or following through with ministry guidelines, volunteers may threaten to step down as leverage for permission to continue with their inappropriate behavior. They may say, “Well, if you feel that way, maybe I’ll just quit!” Frequently they’re waiting for you to say, “No! Please don’t!” But it’s okay to let them go or to have them step down for a while. Accept the resignation quickly. But be equally as quick to follow up with redirection or encouragement: “Dave, I accept your desire to step down from the worship team. I agree it would be best for now. However, don’t misunderstand me. We love you. We appreciate your service, and I’m happy to work with you to find another ministry that may be a better fit. If you need time, let’s schedule a meeting in a few weeks to discuss it.”
4. Relight the flame later. A leave of absence (or probation) from serving is another viable option. Sometimes very able, energetic volunteers simply hit a snag. They’ve been a valuable part of the team in the past, and once they get help or work through the difficult time in their lives, they can easily rejoin the team. In these situations, a specific leave of absence or probation might be the best answer.
Pay close attention to how volunteers respond to your request for them to “push the pause button” on serving. Do they welcome your advice and reach out for assistance? Or do they resent the idea that they should temporarily walk away from their role to regain perspective or receive help in working through a difficult time?
Regardless of what caused the problem and resulting probation, it’s important that we care for the individual. The volunteer is more than just someone who helps fold the bulletin or drives the church van. In addition to ministering to others, they’re people who need ministry, too. You may need to extend some help to those who are experiencing a moral failure, addiction, or personal crisis. A drastic change in behavior is usually a clue that there are private stresses and difficulties in the volunteer’s life that may need prayer, counseling, accountability, or assistance.
5. Say “You’re fired.” There are times when probation, redirection, or time off isn’t going to work. Asking someone to step down indefinitely is sometimes the only option. For example, if Rob has been confronted about being rude to guests, and continues to do so after making a covenant to be welcoming to them, it’s time to take action. Asking someone to resign should be the last of several efforts you’ve personally made to help the volunteer.
Sharp and witty rebukes toward Rob may fly from your lips when you’re standing in front of the mirror preparing for confrontation, but when you’re in the same room with Rob and tension is mounting, the words are anything but easy. After all, you’ve been called to serve with Rob and to serve him. Unless he leaves the church, it’s likely you’re going to see him at worship, study, and elsewhere around the church.
Make certain your focus centers on what’s best for the church and the ministry area. You should also be equally motivated out of a love and concern for the volunteer. If you lunge toward firing the volunteer out of a personal grudge or because you think it may be easier than working through a conflict, you need to reevaluate your own motives.
As you seek God’s direction:
-pray, but don’t procrastinate.
-evaluate, but don’t evade.
-soul-search, but don’t skate around the issue.
Trade in your anger for appropriate action. Exchange fear for faith. God will provide you with the words and the courage to do the right thing. Ignoring the fads, overlooking unacceptable behavior, or sweeping moral missteps under the church carpet are always destructive. Failing to deal with problems ultimately causes more discomfort and chaos than the tension-filled meeting to ask the volunteer to leave the area of ministry. It won’t be easy or fun, but that’s why it’s called leadership.
During the opening scenes of NBC’s The Apprentice, amid images of the New York City skyline and icons of wealth and success, two phrases flash on the screen: “It’s not personal.. it’s business. That attitude may work in Donald Trump’s boardroom, but it’s not the way the church should operate. The church has a heartbeat… it’s personal. The church isn’t a business… it’s about the soul, focusing on the interaction between a loving God and his needy creation. You’ve been called to interact on the heart-and-soul level. Love characterizes who we are. That love, however, doesn’t excuse the leader from initiating the difficult conversation or making the hard calls. But it does require that every step of our mission and strategy be done within the delicate balance of grace, truth, and love.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat, throw away the bones.”