How to Remove a Volunteer

I hate to even write on this subject, but it’s one of the most frequently asked questions when I teach on developing volunteers. Always, someone sheepishly asks, “Uh…well…I have this one leader…and…well, she’s been there a long time…and…uh…well…”

Since I’ve heard the same scenario a thousand times I’ll say, “And you want to get rid of her but you don’t know how…right?” The crowd laughs awkwardly, but question-asker sighs with relief when he finds out he’s not alone.

In 30 years youth ministry leadership I have had to ask people to step away from their volunteer positions. Often, the volunteer was relieved to go, but most of the time I faced a sweaty-palms, intense, conflict-filled, difficult conversation. And every time our ministry was healthier once this person was removed.

Here are some principles for managing volunteers that I’ve found helpful:

● If God your church has given you the mantle of leadership, then lead. You don’t have to be mean-spirited to lead; you just need to be willing to lead. Leaders have to make decisions and take actions that aren’t easy. Letting a volunteer go is one of these decisions. Your ministry is too important to lower your standards and overlook someone who is causing problems. Difficult volunteers damage morale, hurt kids, cause continual grief, and hinder your ministry from growing.

● As the leader, it’s your responsibility to put a team together that’s going to pursue health and move in the right direction. Not every volunteer is willing go there with you. Remember what Paul and Barnabas fought about in Acts 15? They went their separate ways because Paul didn’t think John Mark had what it took to minister with him. You’re not the first leader in the history of Christianity to make a tough decision about who makes up your ministry team.

● It’s always easier to bring people onto the team than to move them off. Remember this when you’re about to say yes to a potential volunteer who gives you an unsettled feeling. Trust your gut and say no.

● Realize the difference between a person who’s a chronic problem and a person who needs immediate intervention (moral failure, a nonnegotiable rule broken.) Volunteers who just aren’t cutting it are going to need more tenderness, grace, and opportunities to grow and change than those who knew the consequences of their choice and choose poorly.

Removing a volunteer is your last resort, a step taken ONLY AFTER you’ve done everything you can to help the person succeed.

Before you remove a volunteer leader:

● Have a conversation with your supervisor. Tell your supervisor what you’re planning to tell the person. Ask for advice, coaching, and prayer. Don’t make important decisions in isolation. Get a second opinion. Support from your supervisor is crucial since backlash is common.

● Pray. Pray. Pray.

● Have strong evidence and anecdotes to support your decision.

● Proactively approach problem volunteers and confront them with specific issues before removing them It may be an issue related to attitude, performance, or team chemistry. Be honest. Tell the person you need to see specific changes (tell them what these are) or else you may ask them to step away from the ministry. Tell the person you’ll give her or him a month to make necessary changes. During this time, check the person’s pulse regarding their commitment. I’ve found that some people will confess, “I’m just not into it anymore.” Give volunteers the opportunity to step aside gracefully.

● Set a date to meet and review again in a month.

When you remove volunteers:

● Be tender but strong. Grace and truth are needed when having this difficult conversation. Grace says, “I care about you.” Truth says, “You’re not working out in this ministry, and here’s why…”

● Don’t beat around the bush. Be clear. “Sandy, things haven’t change since our last meeting, and I need you to step away from the ministry for a season.” The season can be six months, a year, two years, or the rest of the 21st century. The length of “the season” doesn’t need to be decided right away.

● Don’t ask the person to stay until you find another leader. Think through this ahead of time. Be ready to accept the responsibilities the person will leave behind.

After you have removed the volunteer:

● Immediately after the meeting, spend time alone. Review, reflect, and pray. Do some activity in which you can relax and express the emotions you have. I’m always so stressed before the meeting and so relieved after the meeting that my emotions are very tender.

● Follow up with a letter. Tell the person that you’re thankful for their period of service and that you’re sad things didn’t work out and that you’ll be praying for peace (and reconciliation, if necessary).

● Don’t avoid the person. As the leader of the ministry, it’s likely that you have developed a relationship with the person you’ve removed. The basis of this relationship (at least on your part) should not solely have been based upon their service to your ministry. So, as you are able, attempt to maintain your relationship. (But don’t be surprised if the person you’ve removed creates distance or breaks off your relationship altogether, depending on the circumstances that led to his or her removal from the ministry team.)

● If it’s appropriate, offer the person’s name to another ministry in the church.

● Expect some removed volunteers (and possibly others) to be angry. This is natural, and it can take time to heal.

● Talk about the meeting with a trusted friend, your mentor, or a ministry peer who can relate to what you’ve gone though.

● Don’t obsess over it. You made the right decision. Move on. Lead your team. Hopefully it will be a long time before you do it again. Yes, the reality is that you’ll have to do it again someday.

Here are two lifesavers when managing volunteers:

1. Require a signed commitment. Establish standards by having volunteers sign a commitment each year. Each leader agrees to attitude, direction, participation, unity, and certain lifestyle standards that go with the commitment. As the team signs these commitments (typically, during your first leader’s meeting of the new school year) say something like, “My prayer is that everyone here will outlast me as a ministry leader at this church. I want to be honest though and let you know that I will be candid with you if I feel like you’re not living up to your commitment, and I’ll ask you to make changes.” The clearer your expectations are from the beginning, the easier a removal conversation will be.

2. Plan periodic volunteer reviews. A few times a year, meet with leaders individually to discuss their attitudes, performances, and fit with the team. When reviews are frequent, it’s easier to address potential trouble before it gets out of hand. If things are going well, the review is a great opportunity to affirm the leader.

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Doug Fields

Doug Fields

Doug is the senior director of HomeWord Center for Youth and Family. Doug speaks to thousands of leaders, teens and parents each year. He teaches youth ministry at APU, and provides leadership and resources as a part of the Youth Specialties Team. He has authored 50 books and blogs at Download Youth Ministry. Doug, Cathy and their three children live in Southern California.

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