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When Volunteers Quit

Larry Shallenberger

Confession time: Fantasy football is one of my guilty and more nerdy pleasures. I'm a 37-year-old, mortgage-paying father of three who loves nothing better at the end of a long day than to fire up my laptop and check my fantasy roster.

I know -- grown men pretending to be the general managers of imaginary sports franchises is reason #53,024 that America is losing its competitive edge in the global market. And I admit it; it's a nerdy pastime.

What attracts me to the game? It's volunteer management with instant gratification. It's an escapist daydream that airbrushes away the messiness that comes with leading people. There's never a volunteer shortage. If a player breaks an ankle, you bench him and sign his replacement off waivers. Fantasy football league players are rarely MIA on a Sunday morning. Players don't squabble with others on your imaginary roster. They can't quit or decide on Sunday at 8:30 a.m. that they'd rather have brunch at the beach than teach children.

So if you catch me obsessively tweaking my fantasy roster, you'll forgive me.

Gratefully, though, life operates nothing like fantasy football. Instead of calling us to steward columns of sanitary stats, God offers us the privilege of dealing with the messiness of leading people -- wonderful people made in God's likeness. People who occasionally demonstrate levels of chaotic behavior only normally found in a tied burlap sack of angry ferrets. Perhaps we're unprepared to deal with our volunteers' quirks and shortcomings because we buy into the illusion known as "Sunday best." We see shiny volunteers and assume their lives are as sharp as the pleats on their pants.

But as the hymn states, each of your volunteers came to Jesus "Just as I am." Friend, if that's how they come to Jesus, they aren't coming into your ministry any better. So let's set aside our fantasies and learn how to deal with it when our volunteers quit, flake out, or just can't get along.

When Volunteers Quit

Fewer words have the power to torpedo a children's minister's mood faster than a phone call or email with the words "I quit." A volunteer's abrupt departure forces you to reprioritize your week; now you have to find a substitute for the weekend and a long-term replacement. The briefest volunteer tenure I ever encountered was a woman I recruited on a Tuesday who quit that Friday. Her criminal background check hadn't even cleared before she bailed on the ministry, but I was sure she was guilty of having the attention span of a fruit bat.

I'll admit. I was too busy judging her lack of follow-through to try to understand what was behind the sudden reversal. I later learned the woman was in an abusive marriage. I suspect her husband lost his cool when he learned his wife was about to build a stronger connection to the church.

The truth is that volunteers quit for a number of reasons, and irresponsibility is only one of several possibilities. Remember -- just like the children you serve, you only encounter your volunteers for up to three of the 168 hours that make up the week. Odds are you're unaware of the marital struggles, emotional or mental health issues, financial pressures, or parenting challenges your volunteers face.

  • False Marketing -- Volunteers also quit because they underestimate the commitment involved with their volunteer post. Perhaps they believed the recruiting pitch: "It's not hard" or "It'll only take a few minutes to prepare." But when false pitches give way to the actual demands of ministry, some volunteers feel justified walking away.
  • Disorganization -- Volunteers quit for another surprising reason. The children's ministry is run with a level of chaos that your volunteers imagined was only possible in a sack of angry ferrets. Volunteers quit organizations that are poorly run, uninspiring, and devoid of community.

And yes, volunteers quit because they're irresponsible.

new breed Learn more about adapting to
the changing world of volunteer
management from the book:
The New Breed: Understanding and
Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer

So when a volunteer fires off the words "I quit," your first duty is to discern why he or she is stepping down. Take a deep breath and set aside your frustrations. Resist the urge to judge. Instead, ask probing questions to understand why the volunteer is unwilling or unable to go on. Remind your volunteer of the commitment he or she made. Help your volunteer articulate the exact source of frustration, and both of you brainstorm a solution.

If the volunteer insists on stepping down, ask the person to continue for two weeks so you can find a replacement. If you discover that the person needs personal support, help provide the appropriate pastoral or professional care.

When Volunteers Flake Out

We've all been at this meeting; your team reconvenes for progress reports for a major ministry event. When it's Sally's turn to report (every church has a Sally or Sal), she offers a lengthy monologue filled with excuses as to why she failed to reserve the inflatable games. Or she might even say that she wasn't aware the team expected her to do so. Worse yet, she might've "just noticed" that her family vacation is scheduled the same week as the ministry event. If disorganization were an Olympic event, Sally would be a gold medal decathlete.

As she rambles on, you mentally block out evenings you'll need to work on the project to make up for her inactivity.

How do you deal with a Sally?

Privately.

Just as with the quitting volunteer, find out whether she's unwilling or unable to fulfill her commitment. If you discover she's hopelessly unfit to complete the task or overwhelmed by personal issues, offer her the opportunity to graciously step down. Or find a partner to help guide her.

Chances are, though, you can prevent project management disasters by using the following preventative steps.

  • Only choose volunteers with a proven track record of excellence and faithfulness to join a planning team. Have a volunteer who you think has potential? Sign that person on as an apprentice.
  • Test for fit. Does your Sally excel at starting new ministries but is awful at staying with one task for extended periods of time? Your Sally isn't flakey; she's got entrepreneurial leadership gifts. Use her when you need someone to be a visionary catalyst for fledgling ministries. Have your team take a class such as S.H.A.P.E. or Network to help them discover their spiritual gifts. Flakiness is often a symptom of volunteers being shoehorned into the wrong positions.
  • Delegate, don't dump. Check in with your volunteers to see how they're progressing with assignments. Ask what challenges they're facing and if they need any extra support.
  • Use action plans. Don't hope your team members know what you expect of them. List every task to be accomplished, who's responsible for the task, and when the task is due. Send every team member home with a copy of the action plan. Clear expectations reduce the likelihood of nasty surprises down the road.

When Volunteers Just Can't Get Along

My greatest leadership flaw during my first four years as a children's pastor was not dealing with volunteer conflict. During my freshman year of ministry, I allowed a tyrant -- we'll call him Bob -- to rule. Bob didn't like the changes I made. Bob dealt with his displeasure by bullying volunteers and me in an attempt to return the ministry to the prehistoric days when flannelgraph freely roamed the earth. My response? I countered with non­responsiveness and just hoped he'd go away. No such luck.

On another occasion, I allowed my first leadership team to be torn apart by two volunteers who were engulfed in a sharp, bitter conflict. One team member eventually retreated to another church and the other retreated to her individual ministry. And I stood by silently and watched it happen.

I've since learned that one of my primary roles as children's minister is to vigilantly shepherd the emotional health of the relationships within the ministry. The greatest part of building a healthy culture is promoting healthy relationships within my ministry. A primary metaphor used to describe the church is "family"; and if we aren't diligent, we'll be stuck with "family" -- the murderous, jealous, usurping families that populated the book of Genesis. But it doesn't have to be that way. Here are lessons I've learned on the way that'll serve you well.

  • Address relational problems when they're small. If you sense that volunteers aren't getting along, pull them aside and address it. When conflict ferments, it turns to vinegar, never wine. If you even suspect discord between volunteers, address it.
  • Promote the Matthew 18 principle. Jesus instructed us to go directly to the person with whom we're in conflict. Bring third parties into the disagreement sparingly and to help restore unity. Encourage your volunteers to go directly to the person with whom they're angry. If a volunteer comes to you with a grievance against another team member, politely interrupt and ask that person if he or she has ever talked directly to the person. If not, steer the person in that direction.
  • Accommodate personal brokenness. Paul told Timothy to "correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching" (2 Timothy 4:2). Remember how unaware you are of all the personal dynamics going on in your volunteer's life. Is a volunteer sullen? Perhaps he's going through a dark season in his marriage. A volunteer's brusque communication style may've been developed growing up in an abusive home. Commit to showing grace and mercy. Kindness erodes many poor communication styles in time.
  • Remove the morale destroyers from your teams. There comes a time when patience isn't enough. Occasionally you'll encounter a volunteer who's built his or her communication style around verbal bullying and intimidation. These people have their poor behavior reinforced by peers cowering to their wishes. The most loving thing you can do for a volunteer at times is to fire him or her and clearly say why.

When you have a morale destroyer on your team, and you aren't sure whether to act, remember this: Someone is going to leave your team. Do you want it to be your best volunteers who'll eventually want to escape the bully? Or do you want to remove the bully? It's your call.

Final Instructions

Back to my fantasy football hobby. In every league there's one player who obsesses over the columns of stats sheets in search of a winning formula for managing his roster. When Paul closed 1 Thessalonians, he offered no such formula to solve all our volunteer frustrations. Instead Paul advocated situational management:

"Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are lazy. Encourage those who are timid. Take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone" (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

It's no fantasy. You can address any volunteer situation through God's power. Assess what type of intervention is needed and speak truth into the situation with patience.

How Not to Hear "I Quit."

  • Don't "low commit." Be up front with your recruits. Tell them exactly what children's ministry involvement will cost them.
  • Use signed job descriptions. Put your expectations in print and have your volunteers sign on the dotted line. You'll be able to appeal to their sense of responsibility when they consider bailing.
  • Mind your culture. Create a winning culture that'll make your volunteers want to stay. Be affirming and fun. Banish disorganization.
  • Give breaks. Your volunteers shouldn't have to quit to get a break. Create a system that allows your volunteers to take time off.

Larry Shallenberger writes on volunteer management at www.churchvolunteercentral.com and is the author of Lead the Way God Made You: Discovering Your Leadership Style for Children's Ministry (Group). Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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