Volunteer Dilemmas Solved

Volunteer Dilemmas Solved
Marlene Wilson

No ministry is immune to challenges. And when working with volunteers, challenges can multiply if not dealt with. Find out how a longtime expert in volunteer management addresses three real-life pressing problems.

When I reviewed these three volunteer ministry dilemmas, the first thing I realized was that they all have one thing in common. And that one thing is a problem I’ve encountered over and over again in my 35 years of directing, consulting, and training in volunteerism: a lack of clearly defined policies. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how much grief and conflict can be avoided when good policies are in place. What written policies and procedures do for you:

* Establish standards of behavior and a common body of knowledge.
* Provide stability and consistency.
* Support unpleasant but necessary requirements, such as background checks for children’s ministry volunteers.
* Strengthen your defense if you’re sued.
* Help resolve problems and eliminate hazards.

I like this story from Volume 5 of Group Publishing’s new Volunteer Leadership Series, Volunteer Orientation and Training: A friend of ours is a lifeguard at a city pool. When he was hired he thought his job would be to sit on a platform diligently watching the water, ever prepared to toss aside his whistle and clipboard and dive in to drag out a drowning swimmer. His supervisor straightened the young man out. “Your job is first and foremost not to rescue people who are victims of accidents or stupidity,” the supervisor said, “Your job is to keep people from having accidents or doing anything stupid.”

During the course of his summer the young man never once dove in to save someone. But more times than he could count, he kept children from running on slick cement around the pool and enforced rules that kept weak swimmers out of deep water. The lifeguard discovered that the pool policies he’d at first thought were silly actually kept people safe. Volunteer ministry policies accomplish the same thing; they keep volunteers safe from slipping and getting into deep water.

Problem #1

I had an amazing volunteer who’d been ministering to kids for about three years in a variety of ways (dramas, nursery, and teaching). His first year in college (while he was still heavily involved in our ministry), he decided he was gay. He spoke with me about it, and at that point he said he didn’t want to act on his feelings but he wasn’t interested in getting help. He really felt that this was who he was and that God was okay with it. My dilemma: did I still let him volunteer with kids, and if so, in what capacity?

The Expert Says…

I’m impressed that he had the courage and honesty to inform you. Yet this is a complex issue since so many denominations, and even congregations within denominations, vary in their views and policies on the issue of homosexuals in the church. In some, homosexuals are accepted and can even be ordained. In others, churches have difficulty even ministering to homosexuals. Start by checking your own denomination and congregation’s policies.

Problem #2

We had a man at our church who was using church money to buy items such as diapers and formula for his own kids while on youth trips. He felt it was okay since his family came along on the trip and that these were “expenses” related to the ministry trip. He was instructed not to continue the practice, but on the next trip, a similar issue with church funds used for personal expenses came up.

The Expert Says…

I see two problems here. One is that there should be a uniform and published policy regarding allowable expenses. The policy should clearly define what allowable and reimbursable expenses are. This should be enforced. Another simple procedure is having a supervisor sign off on submitted expenses before passing them on to the bookkeeper. A good bookkeeper should not issue checks without some kind of authorization.

The question arises, though, that if a person brings his or her older children on youth trips, does the church pay for their food and lodging? If so, there would be a potential argument for reimbursement of formula expenses, since that’s what infants eat. The second problem is that this person was told (I’m assuming by his supervisor) to stop submitting these expenses, but he did it anyway. His supervisor needs to follow up and hold him accountable. If there is a policy about this, it makes it much easier to enforce. Accountability is a critically important, but frequently neglected, component of volunteer ministry programs. We need to hold one another accountable for our actions in the vitally important work of the church.

Problem #3

I had a volunteer who’d been teaching for 15 years when I took over the children’s ministry position. Everyone loved her and she was committed, dependable, and a bit abrasive. She liked to have a classroom that was controlled and where kids were memorizing up a storm. I decided to change the curriculum and she refused to change, asking to do her “own” curriculum that she felt was more in-depth. She also said she desired to have only select children in the class. When I explained why I didn’t want her to do this, she went to the top and complained. She had a band of parents who backed her, and her personality overtook my office staff, resulting in a great administrative assistant resigning because she couldn’t deal with this volunteer.

The Expert Says…

Two things I’m not clear about from this story: Do the kids like this teacher and are they learning about Christ? If the teacher is driving kids and parents away with her “abrasive” personality, then my choice would be clear: She is no longer effective as a teacher and I’d hope your church could find a better fit for her gifts. In other words, I’d terminate her as a teacher. Her desire to have “select” children in her class concerns me. It sounds discriminatory.

This story also doesn’t explain why you decided to change the curriculum. I wonder if you made this decision on your own without getting group input or support. This is asking for trouble, particularly when you’re new to the church. Planning with people not for people is the most effective way to introduce change. If you had gotten more parent/staff support with the new curriculum first, you might not have this problem now.

Another concern is the struggle for power and control. The time and place to confront this was when this teacher caused the administrative assistant to resign. This was an issue worthy of demonstrating who’s in charge. I strongly believe in viewing volunteers as unpaid staff, and as such, they deserve the respect and consideration of paid staff. But that also means they need to be held accountable for the results of their actions. In situations like this I ask myself, “If I were paying this person, what would I do?” Then I do it!

A policy outlining appropriate grievance procedures and periodic performance reviews of volunteers would probably have prevented the teacher from going over your head. I truly believe that as you put into practice sound volunteer management principles and policies, your volunteer personnel problems will become fewer and fewer.

Marlene Wilson is the author of Visionary Leadership in Volunteer Programs (Energize, Inc). Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

This article “Volunteer Dilemmas Solved” by Marlene Wilson was published in January-February, 2004 in Children’s Ministry Magazine. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

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.”