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When to redeem or replace church volunteers

By Wes Olds

Volunteer lay servants are the catalysts that make local church ministries reach their full potential of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Volunteers can be difficult to enlist, and finding the right person to assist or lead a ministry is a true answer to prayer. A congregation with empowered lay leadership puts a smile on every face!

But what about when you have a volunteer who is ineffective, misplaced, controlling, or immature? Moral failures, policy violations, lack of competency and other issues can be damaging to people and congregations. Ministries can stop or become toxic for all involved.

Addressing these issues is about as fun as a root canal, but it's also necessary. One of the most painful experiences in ministry occurs when removing a volunteer from leadership in ministry becomes unavoidable. These four insights may help a difficult process unfold in a healthy way.

1. Try to prevent problems before they occur

Just as a dentist advises patients to floss and brush regularly, preventive steps reduce the chances of needing to remove a volunteer leader. Healthy volunteer enlistment includes the following:

  • Setting and sharing clear guidelines and expectations
  • Giving excellent constructive criticism
  • Assessing spiritual gifts
  • Allowing the volunteer to "test-drive" a ministry for a specific period to determine if the person fits the needs of the role
  • Conducting a background check of any volunteer who will be working with minors or other vulnerable people and insisting that all child-protection policies be followed
  • Giving volunteers time to grow into greater responsibilities (remember, it is easier to promote than to demote)
  • Providing time and opportunities for leaders to be mentored and trained with honest feedback

2. Try to redeem before you replace

In loving yet direct conversation with the volunteer, attempt to discover together the root cause of the behavior of concern. Then, perhaps, repeat some missing key tactics from the "prevention" category above. Here are additional options to consider.

  • Clearly identify the problem and invite the volunteer to explore solutions
  • Provide a ministry Sabbath for renewal and reflection
  • Provide an opportunity for additional or advanced training
  • Explore an opportunity to serve in a different capacity
  • Invite the volunteer to seek appropriate counseling or professional intervention

3. Identify if the volunteer accepts coaching

If you choose to provide additional training as stated in step two, be sure to pay attention to how the volunteer responds. Do they welcome guidance and accept constructive criticism? If so, then your role is to continue either training in the position they previously held, or direct them to another position of leadership, better suited to their strengths.

For example, if a music director isn't setting clear expectations or communicating well with musicians, kindly share your observation and graciously ask them to work on these leadership skills. Commit to keeping them accountable. If they are open to coaching, they will accept critique and work to support the desired outcome.

If the volunteer is "closed" to improvement, then they may damage others and the mission. If they tend to transfer the blame for their problems to others or make excuses, don't engage in a debate, just keep your focus on the goal at hand. If problems and blame-transfer continue, a leadership position is probably not a good fit. You may have to ask the person to step down or ask if they are willing to find a better place to serve. Be sure to set clear limits. Don't be surprised if they choose not to serve at all for a while or even leave your church.

4. Remember these tips before replacing a volunteer

Should it become necessary to remove the volunteer from leadership or service, remember to:

  • Assure the volunteer of God's love for each person and his/her sacred worth
  • Focus on the problem with specific examples
  • Clearly state the decision for the volunteer to step down from leadership
  • Avoid engaging in debate or arguing about the decision
  • Offer opportunities for the person to remain connected to the church as a participant

When problems arise with volunteers, vital church leaders must take action for the good of the ministry.