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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Dealing with Volunteers

When almost everyone you work with is a volunteer, what do you do when the job isn't being done well (or at all!)? Our question this week comes from a minister wrestling with this very delicate issue:

Dear ATM- here’s something they didn’t teach us in seminary……how to (don’t like the word ‘fire’) ummm- find new opportunities to serve….yeah, that’s the ticket!   Someone who has served the church well, but is too old/too tired/too divisive in their volunteering and ministry….any thoughts?

-- Rev First Call

Jennifer writes:

You are so right! Not every volunteer is a good volunteer, and sometimes ministry needs change and it’s time for a new direction, and sharing that news is not always easy.

It’s always good, I think, to make these decisions with others. Doing so alone renders you too powerful and too vulnerable (plus it’s just not fair to make the pastor do all the dirty work)  Gather the appropriate people who should make such decisions with you, and determine what you, collectively, and by the Spirit’s leading, would be most helpful. They’ll have good ideas about what’s best and most fitting in this situation.

You’ve said an important thing—this volunteer has served well. Whatever your plans, I think it’s important to share with the person privately what’s unfolding, so that he/she can get used to a new plan. It’s important publicly thank and bless the person for his/her service to the church. After church coffee hour in their honor, words in worship or wherever this person’s ministry has been most visible are great places to thank them and God for their gifts. From there, move with care but speed to work with the appropriate persons or group to chart a new course. 

RevAbi offers:

Ya know, I vote with Jennifer, because she says it so well.

We don't call them volunteers at this church, we call them members in ministry. We also are working on getting everyone to identify their spiritual gifts along with their strengths so that they are putting those to work, not just volunteering to volunteer.

However, in a small church people feel like they have to volunteer for everything or not and consequently are not always happy or get burned out.  Then you can also have people who are controllers.  Then if the system allows unhealthy people to control others then it is hard to help them move on or to be in ministry where they best fit. That then means the whole system needs some treatment to help it get healthy to allow all to be in ministry where they best fit and to be able to deal with the ill health.  (This can happen in large churches too.)

What about the rest of you? What is your experience in dealing with this tricky issue? Many churches struggle to fill all their volunteer roles and are ready to take anyone willing to do the job - regardless of ability or temperament. How do you manage such situations? Share with us in the comment section!



  1. We recently had a very disgruntled volunteer threaten to quit (for the 100th time) her committee. This last time, the committee chair calmly looked at her and said, "well, thank you for your service. We wish you well." And that was that. She couldn't renege on her threat, so she had to move on. Whereas they had been placating her for years beforehand, and just finally had enough. That works.

    I've also occasionally used a line something like this, "we're so grateful that you've been doing this for such a long time. You have such a great history and you know how far we've come. I have a volunteer who is really interested in this kind of work, but we could use your help in easing her in; would you be willing to help me train her? It would be great to have some of our more experienced volunteers share their wisdom with new folks, so we can get more people involved."

    A little brown-nosing can go a long way. Then meet with the soon-to-be-ex-volunteer one time and go through the 'training,' and pass on any helpful info to the new person. And find something else for ex-volunteer to do. Tricky, but it can work.

    Good luck!

  2. I've been thinking about Term Limits for committee members, or something like that, even for good volunteers. We have a committee which is really hard working, but it is the same people all the time. New blood is really needed.

    As a volunteer myself, I've been on a certain committee most of over 25 years. I've tried to get off, but they want me on it. So I guess that they do like my work there, but again, I think that new blood, new thoughts are needed.

    More to the point of the posting: I was (somewhat) pushed out of a volunteer position I had in my church in which I worked very hard, did well administering the details, gathering and encouraging 30 volunteers under me. But after awhile, I was in a bad time in my life, and tired of the job. I knew I needed out. However, before I could resign, the pastor and other interested people set up a meeting without notifying me and my committee, but we found out and attended. They wanted things done differently. I knew my strengths didn't match their goals, so bowing out was the easy part, but I also knew that their plan was poor. And it hurt deeply that they tried to do an end run around me. The worst part of all was that the program absolutely nosedived, and was actually pitiful for the next ten years.

    The morals of this story are two: One, watch out how you ease somebody out of a position. Two, make sure that who takes over has the skills and commitment to do a good job.

  3. Oy. I have no good answers and the same issue. Only I have a NUMBER of volunteers who are actually doing things in such a way that they are actually shooting themselves in the foot so to speak. While I am grateful for their willingness to take on jobs no one else wanted, it's hard to help them see that what they are doing is counterproductive.

  4. The only way this dilemma could be "stickier" is if you are actually PAYING a member of the congregation to do a job and you need to make a change. ARRG!


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