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Firing a Volunteer

Jay Hostetler

After you've done all you can to equip an ineffective volunteer, have you got what it takes to move -- or remove -- the person if necessary?

Fire a volunteer? You've got to be kidding!

In all my conversations with children's ministers, we rarely talk about getting rid of volunteers! Instead, we talk about getting volunteers. After debating the style we use to acquire staff, we end up agreeing that volunteer apathy and busyness have left us a little short on our volunteer rosters. Firing a volunteer rarely comes up!

Unfortunately, though, every person chosen for ministry may not fulfill our goals for ministry to children. Some people may only understand the basic mechanics of a classroom, while our goals include a deeper commitment to discipleship and relationship. In these cases, people are minimally harmful. In other cases, though, an ineffective volunteer may adversely affect many aspects of children's spiritual growth and our programs.

We have to deal with the long-range implications of the wrong people leading our kids. To do this, let's look at the three approaches often used to fire a volunteer: the passive approach, the aggressive approach, and the balanced approach. Which best describes your approach?

The Passive Approach

The passive approach basically takes a pass on responsibility. And the cost of such avoidance is high for your program, staff morale, and children's welfare. Passive volunteer managers use any of these three tactics.

1. Waiting for God -- I know God cares about ministry to kids and is interested in our ministry teams. However, throughout my ministry life I've heard people flippantly say, "Let God take care of it." In other words, "So I won't have to." Passive leaders think, "If I just pray hard enough, maybe the person will leave."

I used this tactic early in my ministry. Parents told me that their kids wouldn't come back as long as I had a certain person as a helper. I sought God for guidance and prayed aggressively -- for a while. When I finally got up enough courage, I made an appointment to ask this person to take a break. I remember having a hard time sleeping beforehand because he was bigger than I was and I wasn't sure what his reaction would be. An hour before our scheduled meeting, my office phone rang. He called to inform me that he needed a break to sort things out.

Disaster averted, but no thanks to me! It's easy to hide behind this spiritual wall. It's much harder to face the fact that someone needs to go and it's our responsibility to make the change.

2. Setting Up to Fail -- I've been surprised on occasion to hear ministry leaders speak of some team members as incompetent, uncommitted, and ineffective. In reality, perhaps these people were placed in ministry positions and set up for failure. For example, one person can't handle 30 3-year-olds, and it's difficult to run a snack time for 200 kids with no budget! These people were set up to fail. Rather than identifying the actual problem, a passive leader will blame the person. The passive leader would rather a person continue down the road to failure than to intervene and help the volunteer succeed. This tactic allows failure to intensify and frustrate people so they quit.

3. Leaving Them Alone -- The passive leader may isolate a volunteer to a "ministry island." The leader stops communicating, sharing vision, and building any type of nurturing relationship. Finally, the volunteer steps aside, and whatever problem the leader perceived is seemingly solved.

Current recruiting can be short-circuited in a church where this type of isolation is being or has been used. When volunteers are wounded as they serve, they'll be hesitant to return to ministry -- even with a new leader in place.

The Aggressive Approach

There are two kinds of aggressive firings that happen in churches. Both are destructive.

1. In Your Face -- Shouting, flailing hands, stomping out of the room -- there's no place for behavior such as this in the church, is there? Yet this behavior exists in some ministries. An angry leader who uses this tactic -- and these leaders do exist in churches -- alienates volunteers by the "you do it my way or no way" stance.

2. Behind Your Back -- Most of these aggressive actions happen behind the scenes. Call this gossip, backbiting, forming cliques, or plain old sin. With this tactic, the leader complains about the volunteer to others. The leader may even rally the troops to take his or her side against the volunteer. Eventually, the volunteer hears about the leader's disapproval and ends up leaving (or forming an opposing alliance).

The Balanced Approach

While passive leaders may wait too long to let someone go, aggressive leaders wound people in their wake. Finding a balanced approach to firing a volunteer requires using the following management principles with God's help.

1. Clear Communication -- As children's ministry leaders, we must clearly communicate our vision, our core values, and the means to accomplish our ministry. Lack of communication of expectations is a consistent issue in struggling children's ministries.

Many possibilities exist for poor communication, such as: We undersell our expectations to get the person on our team. The person's busyness (or ours) blocks our efforts to clearly communicate. We assume our volunteer understands the things we do. Our communication models are out of date and weak. Or our new volunteer has a preconceived and uncorrected idea of ministry that's quite different from our approach.

This communication disconnect is often the main reason for ineffective ministry performance. In the balanced method of firing a volunteer, it's wise to explore if communication was an issue, and then take responsibility for this misunderstanding.

2. Honesty and Integrity -- A balanced approach to letting someone go needs to include an honest discussion. We might be tempted to stray from the real issues, but this only distorts our task.

In my experience in relating to volunteers, honesty is always the best way to proceed. This is critical because you want the person to clearly understand the reason for the action that's being taken.

3. Opportunity for Growth -- A balanced approach helps the volunteer recognize lessons for improvement. A casual visit about the issues that brought you to this point is necessary, but don't spend your entire time discussing shortcomings. Identify the person's contribution and help him or her look forward.

4. Focus on People Succeeding -- Almost 20 years ago, I accepted a position as a children's pastor at a church in San Diego. My senior pastor took time to tell me in those first hours of our relationship that I could be successful, and he outlined levels of support that existed for me. I spent 17 years working with him and realized his words were true.

A balanced approach to asking a volunteer to leave a ministry position is to explore ways you can help the person succeed in another ministry role or beyond your ministry. Rather than using this opportunity to injure the person and then walk away, discuss the person's interests and suggest other places to serve as you help through the transition.

Firing Finesse

Confronting an ineffective volunteer is always one of the toughest moments for any leader. In a Fast Company article titled "Good Ways to Deliver Bad News," cancer specialist Dr. Robert Buckman shares the following insights to ease the way: start by listening instead of talking; explore perceptions before you try to define reality; and don't get emotional. Placed in a children's ministry perspective, these concepts look like this.

  • Start by listening. When you're letting a volunteer go, take time to ask how the person is doing -- and listen. You'll build trust as you discuss feelings. Delay the urgency to "get down to business." Communicate that this is a process; it wasn't a snap judgment.
  • Explore perceptions before you try to define reality. Ask the volunteer to relate his or her understanding of responsibilities and relationships. This may give you significant insight into how the failure occurred. In most cases, the more in-depth comments will help you understand why you're at this point. Don't blow past this part of the discussion to lower the boom. Take time to define reality by using some of the volunteer's perceptions to illustrate your point.
  • Don't get emotional. This is always an emotional situation, but control your emotions. People have complex motivations for joining your team. They may have come to faith as children in a similar program or their children may be part of the ministry. You can acknowledge that the firing may be difficult, but stay focused on your purpose -- the welfare of children and the best interests of the volunteer.

Anatomy of a Firing

If you're looking forward to firing a volunteer, you're not ready to do it. You've got to have heart. I believe that on occasion people in our ministry are mistreated by us because we've been pressured to provide the best ministry programs, and we've forgotten that people are the ministry.

Be careful to consider your heart response to your team members. Use compassion in dealing with the issues addressed in this article. Consider that your response to people sets the tone for their present and long-term commitment to the children's program and to the church as a whole.

On the other hand, if you don't have the "guts" to fire an ineffective volunteer, you need to have a "backbone." Are you providing a baby-sitting service or a critical educational and discipleship ministry to the youngest people in your church? Is "good enough" good enough in your ministry? Are you content with children being harmed physically, spiritually, or emotionally? You've got to have the courage to answer no to all these questions and embrace the uncomfortable task of removing or moving an ineffective volunteer.

Our ministry to children is significant! We must have the heart and backbone to stand up for the ministry direction we believe that God has given us.


Jay Hostetler is the founder of Church Team Connections, providing ministry evaluations, training, and placement opportunities (www.churchteamconnections.com). Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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