How to Fire a Volunteer

You may not want to do it, but sometimes you need to let volunteers go.

Roberta was driving me nuts. Put in charge of an important fundraising event when no one else volunteered, she quickly spiraled out of control. It started to become “her” event rather than a communal church fundraiser. She ignored repeated requests to give the church board a budget, tried to secure a glamorous yet pricey off-site location, and allowed the price per person to become too steep for a church our size. At this rate we were going to lose money in our attempt to raise money for the organ fund!

With Roberta running amuck, something had to be done. But here was our dilemma. We couldn’t lay off a volunteer by eliminating the position; someone had to plan the event. We couldn’t fire the well-meaning volunteer and have her simply go away, as paid workers in business settings do. Firing Roberta would not be easy; it would be painful, with fallout. While we must occasionally remove lay leaders from their ministries for the health of both parishioner and parish, that would be our last resort. I hoped we could reason with Roberta.

I called the fundraising committee chairman. We agreed to meet with our wayward worker to bring things back to the more modest original concept. When we sat down with Roberta, it became clear she either didn’t understand or care about our vision. “Why do you keep asking me for a budget?” she asked. “It’s more important that everything looks good.”

“Roberta,” I replied, “don’t forget the purpose of the event is to raise money to repair the organ.”

“Well, no one’s going to come if we don’t have shrimp.” She was defensive, unresponsive, and unenthusiastic about our gentle suggestions to amend her ideas.

So I fired her.

1. Identify the cause for failure.

No one volunteers for leadership in the church without good intentions, and no pastor commissions someone for ministry thinking they may one day need to be removed. Volunteers are the church’s greatest resource. But just because someone raises a hand to take on a project doesn’t mean she’s the right person for the task. As church leaders, we’re usually so thrilled that someone has volunteered to do something that we don’t consider whether or not they are truly called to the ministry. Sometimes it’s only after the fact that we realize an individual isn’t right for a job.

Then it’s too late. We have rushed to anoint someone without any communal reflection or prayer.

When confronted with situations where termination seems to be required, a key pastoral question is this: Are there unstated reasons for the person’s failure to thrive in a position? It may be an issue of competence, negative attitude, burnout, differing visions, or a personality conflict with the pastor or committee members. If these subterranean issues are clarified, the presenting problems—such as absenteeism—are likely to correct themselves.

2. Offer options to the failing volunteer.

In some cases, the person would succeed in the position with additional training. Church leaders must train, equip, and support their lay leaders for the work of ministry. Successful volunteers are empowered for their service, not only by giving them a “long lead” to accomplish their work, but by giving them the tools and skills required. This may mean teaching volunteers how to run committee meetings, generate enthusiasm, or delegate responsibilities. If this isn’t the pastor’s particular gift, it is well worth the investment to bring in an outside consultant to work with both the pastor and the lay leaders on techniques of effective church leadership.

3. Terminate with grace (and face-to-face).

When determining whether a volunteer should be released, it’s important to be aware of scapegoating. If a ministry or event is spiraling toward disaster, it’s easy to point fingers and lay blame. It may well be the volunteer who is hurting the effort. But situations are always more complicated than they appear.

If, after thoroughly examining the situation, you still feel that a change is necessary, then it’s time to act. This is no time to send off a brief e-mail. It is the pastor’s duty to confront the person in a straight-forward manner, out of love, and with the whole congregation’s best intentions at heart.

And remember, you’re still the person’s pastor. She may well be hurt, angry, confused, or embarrassed. It is vital to keep in face-to-face contact with this person during the transition out of a particular ministry role. This is an opportunity to reach out to this person, remind her that she is a valued member of the church community, and re-focus her energies toward an area of ministry better suited to her gifts.

4. Create space for recovery, but not departure.

There may indeed be a period of “stepping back” from the business of ministry in order to reevaluate and heal. Give the person space, time, and a chance to just come to church to worship. But keep communicating throughout this process. This is especially crucial if the individual fails to show up to church on the Sunday following your conversation.

In our cast, after a brief withdrawal, Roberta returned to worship and is slowly getting involved in other activities. After giving her some time to work through her feelings of hurt, anger, and embarrassment, I personally asked her to take on a small project at the church. It was one that fit her gifts, was visible, and would lead to an easy victory. The project involved helping to frame and hang a parishioner’s artwork at the church.

She agreed to take it on and everyone was thrilled with the result. I was able to publicly thank her and the accolades helped heal the wound of the fundraising fiasco.

Roberta has a wonderful set of gifts and abilities that simply aren’t geared for certain projects. My prayer is that she will be led to jobs that amplify her gifts for ministry rather than expose her weaknesses. And I know that we as a church community must play a role in leading her towards ministries that better reflect her particular calling.

Adapted from, “Leader’s Insight: Firing Volunteers,” which first appeared in our sister publication, Leadership Journal.

To learn more about what to do when dismissing someone, purchase the downloadable resource Dismissing Employees and Volunteers.

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