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How to have tough conversations with church volunteers

Once upon a time, there was a church volunteer who was frustrated. She was beyond frustrated. She was angry. And she was angry with me.

I was serving as a church communications director and a new volunteer had completed a ministry project. Unfortunately, the work was late and missed the mark. It wasn’t terrible, but it needed a few revisions.

From her perspective, she had poured her heart into the project and was furious that we would want to change it. For her, the rejection wasn’t about the project. She felt rejected as a person. We had a tough and uncomfortable conversation. She cried during the conversation. I cried after the conversation. It was hard.

Recently, a church staff member shared with me that they had a greeter who was really grumpy. They weren’t sure what to do. He was scaring away their newcomers but they didn’t want to hurt his feelings. What’s the best way to handle these rough spots?

Here are five tips to help you navigate tough situations with your volunteers:

  1. Avoid villainizing the volunteer.
    We all like being right. Sometimes, it can be tempting to make volunteers the “bad guys.” Frankly, it’s easier on our ego. They are 100% wrong. We are 100% right. Watch for this in your own life or within your team and give each other permission to call it out when you see it. Get to the heart of the problem and work toward a resolution.

  2. Wade into the mess.
    As you review your to-do list, it’s easy to delay the dreaded “Have hard conversation with volunteer” line. I love harmony. Maybe you do too. But, artificial harmony isn’t real harmony and the longer we ignore the mess, the bigger it gets.

    A disgruntled volunteer can be disruptive or even toxic to a ministry team. Sometimes, individuals don’t realize the impact they are having on others. Keeping them in the dark, or avoiding the problem isn’t fair to them or the ministry. Tell the volunteer what you’re seeing and invite feedback.

  3. Sort the baggage. Pick up your own.
    In my situation, I took some time to analyze what went wrong. It’s important to ask, “How did I increase the possibility of this situation? What can I learn?”

    I realized that in my enthusiasm to recruit volunteers quickly, I failed to provide clear expectations about roles and to emphasize that project work might be subject to revisions in order to accomplish ministry objectives. When you find your part, own it and apologize.

    It was also important for me to understand this volunteer was in a tough season. She hoped her role would satisfy her hunger for personal affirmation. Unfortunately, anything short of an “atta girl” just felt devastating. After I apologized and clarified the expectations, she decided that she wasn’t up for it. She opted for a volunteer role that allowed her to serve as a part of a large group effort. This removed the spotlight from her individual contribution, which was better in the long run.

  4. Be truthful and kind.
    Proverbs 27:6 tells us that “wounds from a friend can be trusted.” Develop relationships and care for your volunteers so that you’re encouraging their spiritual growth and not using them as free labor. Be candid and let them know that you will only give them projects that matter. If they don’t follow through, then that will matter also. Something important will be missed. Give them regular feedback and help them see how their role is important and connected to the overall work of the church.

  5. Choose the right time and the right place.
    Finding the right place and time for these tough conversations is crucial. This is a time for face-to-face, heart-to-heart conversation. No breaking up via text or email. Pick a spot where you can have an uninterrupted conversation. Be on time and mentally present. Ask others to pray for you and the volunteer.

    Ultimately your goal is to help them grow - whether in your ministry area or another. If they decide to transition to another ministry, help them make the necessary connections and follow up to see how it’s going.

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About the Author

Jamie Shafer

Storyteller. Dreamer. Encourager. Wife. Mom. Lover of words, roller coasters and road trips. Former church communications director. Loved. Redeemed.

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