Yes, We Can Fire Volunteers

At a recent church meeting, someone complaining about the lack of commitment among her church volunteers summed up her frustration with this proclamation:  “And we can’t exactly fire volunteers.”

Actually, we not only can but should if:

  • They are serving in an area in which they are not gifted (e.g. The Sunday School teacher who hates kids)
  • They are killing the program/event/activity they are supposed to be supporting (e.g. Their attitude sucks the life out of everybody’s energy and passion.)
  • They are not committed, enthusiastic, or aware that what they are doing is ministry.  (e.g. The choir member who blows off practice or the Usher who offends people instead of welcoming them.)
  • They have established for themselves a little fiefdom, even if they complain  (“How long, O Lord!“) as they serve.  (e.g. The Treasurer who has controlled the church financial records for as long as anyone can remember.)

In these days of giving kids “Certificates of Participation” even if they missed half their Little League games or awarding everybody a “Hurrah You Read 3 Library Books” trophy, it’s at least as important to tell people that something is actually not their gift.  Or even if it is their gift, it’s a disservice to the church for the same person to volunteer to chair something or run something for decades.  It’s important for the church offices and other roles to be shared so that more than one person is “an expert” in each position.

God deserves our very best.  And this includes offering the most excellent ministry possible to God’s people.

How exactly do we fire volunteers?

Sometimes the best way is to keep them from volunteering in the first place for specific ministry positions.

  • Don’t pick mere “people with pulses” to serve.  Do we really want to have to beg someone to watch our babies in the nursery?  Do we want slackers to run our congregation?  Do we want immature, irresponsible people to be our spiritual leaders?
  • Not everybody is called to do everything.  God bless the volunteer who says “yes” to baking cookies but “no” to singing in the choir – or whatever he/she simply cannot do.
  • If nobody volunteers to staff a specific ministry, don’t offer that ministry.  If it’s really important to the congregation, someone will step forward to serve.  If it’s not important and nobody volunteers, let it go.
  • If someone wants to be a volunteer, and you know he/she would not be a good match for a particular position, the best thing to do – especially if you are the pastor charged with equipping the saints for ministry – is simply say, “This is not your gift.”  If they leave in anger, let them go.  The purpose of volunteering is not for us, to satisfy our own personal egos.
  • If someone seems miserable in her/his volunteer position, give that person a way out.  Meet privately and ask, “Are you loving this?  Because it doesn’t look like your calling at this time.  You’ve got other things going on.”  Or – “I think you’d be great at ______.”  The person might be extraordinarily relieved to relinquish this job.
  • If worse come to worse, pull the volunteer aside and say, “This is not working out.  This is not your gift.”  It could be the healthiest thing you say for the sake of both the volunteer and the congregation.

Yes, we can fire volunteers.  But we need to consider call, gifts, and pastoral care as we manage our volunteer staffs.  God deserves nothing less.

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4 responses to “Yes, We Can Fire Volunteers

  1. Wonderful, Jan! I worked in organizations reliant on volunteers most of my life — the key is careful selection and placement and everything else you mentioned — and yes, we can and in some cases MUST fire volunteers.

  2. I love this part: “Meet privately and ask, “Are you loving this? Because it doesn’t look like your calling at this time. You’ve got other things going on.” Or – “I think you’d be great at ______.” “

  3. Amen!! It is also ok to ask someone to do a very small task. Thank you notes to teachers at the end of the year, serve on a clean up crew or organize the supply closet! We had a former educator who didn’t want to teach ever again….but every August she scoured sales and supplied the Sunday school resource room for almost nothing!! It was a gift!

  4. I think this leadership skill, as well as giving permission to let a ministry ‘die a dignified death’ so that that energy may be resurrected are ones I wish I’d heard about in seminary. I don’t think I used these very well in my former situation.

    Of course, I once knew a church where the job of slicing pie one day a year became an idol, and someone left the church over it. And another where the authority over re-arranging furniture in the fellowship hall became the thing that split the church wide open,spraying shrapnel and leaving scars that took years to heal.

    So, leadership is risky. Thank you for reminding us what discipleship is all about.

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