Many churches have volunteers running important ministries. This can put leadership in an awkward position when they have to deal with a ministry that’s being mismanaged. How do you go about relieving someone from a position they’re filling out of a desire to serve? To make matters more complex, letting a volunteer go may result in hurt feelings and estrangement.
As an executive pastor, how do you navigate this potential minefield?
Reposition, if at All Possible
Sometimes people are just trying to operate outside of the area they’re gifted in. Maybe the position requires more attention to detail than they’re able to give, or perhaps it requires someone more extroverted.
If you’ve noticed that they’re not in their element, they probably have as well. Helping them pivot into a position with more appropriate expectations is a win for everyone—and can offer a potential solution that doesn’t need to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Make Them Aware of Expectations
The lax nature many churches have when dealing with volunteers at the outset can create huge problems later. Because volunteers are giving their own time and resources, it can feel uncomfortable to place expectations on how they perform—but it’s incredibly important to do so.
Letting volunteers know what you expect increases their opportunities for success. It also makes it easier to have discussions about their performance in the future.
If you must remove someone from their voluntary position, it should never be a surprise to either of you. This difficult discussion should be prefaced by performance appraisals and reminders of expectations.
If repositioning isn’t possible, and you’ve made expectations clear, but the volunteer still isn’t meeting them, then it’s time for the painful—but necessary—removal process. Here are four guidelines for removing a volunteer:
1. Schedule a private meeting
There’s more at stake here than simply removing a volunteer, so you need to handle this situation very carefully—and never relieve a volunteer of their responsibilities in front of others. Set up a check-in meeting with the volunteer in private. You want to be able to let the individual save face without jeopardizing the morale of staff and other volunteers.
PRO TIP: It’s a good idea to have a third party present for your meeting. This will help mitigate any misunderstanding about the discussion. If the volunteer being relieved is of the opposite gender, make sure the third party is the same gender as the volunteer.
2. Explain why they can no longer be on the team
As I said earlier, this conversation shouldn’t be a total surprise. There should be some conversations about areas that need improvement or behaviors that are inappropriate. While you want them to understand why this decision has been made, this shouldn’t be a debate between you and the volunteer. If it’s possible for them to return to this position in the future, let them know what needs to happen to facilitate this change.
Remind them that the love the church has for them doesn’t depend on this position. Their importance to the body of Christ isn’t undermined just because they aren’t suited to this one role.
PRO TIP: Have regular performance discussions with all staff and volunteers. Let them know where they’re exceeding expectations and where they could improve, and make sure you document these discussions. If you need explicit examples of infractions in the future, you’ll be thankful that you kept a record.
3. Come prepared with specific examples
If you’ve been communicating well, you probably won’t have to defend your decision to remove this volunteer from their position. But it’s helpful to be able to reinforce the decision with concrete examples of infractions or unmet expectations—as well as a history of discussions about expected improvement.
PRO TIP: Church leadership should have a clearly spelled out policy and code of conduct for volunteers. This will help make it clear when infractions have taken place. This policy should include:
- Which staff member is responsible for disciplining or firing volunteers?
- What the process looks like:
- How many strikes are there before a volunteer is removed?
- What constitutes a strike?
- What kind of paper trail is required?
- When and how can someone volunteer again?
- How will you differentiate between moral issues and work ethics? It’s important to discriminate between a volunteer who is in a marital affair and another who is habitually late.
4. If appropriate, give them next steps
Unlike a business, you have a commitment to your volunteer that goes beyond your work relationship. This means that you’re not just cutting them loose and telling them, “Good luck!” You want to help them as much as possible.
If they’re struggling with a moral issue, help them understand what the next step is and how the church will work alongside them in their restoration. If there’s an issue that requires counseling, make sure they have the resources to get the help they need.
PRO TIP: The best thing you can do is help them find a place where they can shine.
Maintain Team Morale
While you’re talking with the volunteer you’re removing, ask them how they would like to let the team know. As far as it’s up to you, work with them to inform the team about the change in a way that respects their dignity.
That said, don’t let too much time go before this decision is shared with the staff. If you allow this news to spread on its own, it will pick up misinformation and rumors. Taking charge of this discussion and protecting your team dynamic is an important part of effectively letting someone go.
Letting a Volunteer Go Is Never Easy
It’s never easy to remove someone who has sacrificed their time and energy to serve your church, but sometimes it has to be done. But the most important stage begins before anyone needs to be let go. If you’ve done your work up front to ensure policies are in place and everyone knows how they’re performing, it doesn’t have to be a nightmare.