When a Volunteer Isn’t Working Out: A Four Step Plan

That dreaded situation – when a volunteer isn’t meeting expectations and is potentially even creating a toxic environment for other volunteers or guests – is just no fun. But if you’re involved in managing volunteers for any length of time, you will encounter it. So, what do you do? How do you remove a volunteer from a position that isn’t a good fit for them?

1 – Clarify Expectations for the Role
It is significantly easier if you’ve spelled out your expectations and the requirements for each position beforehand. You may have inherited some volunteers, though, and are left holding the responsibility for addressing a situation you didn’t create. If that’s the case, start by outlining in writing your expectations for volunteers and how they are rooted in the church's purpose. Include the responsibilities for the role, expectations in attitude, behavior, and time commitment. Then communicate those expectations clearly to all volunteers in that role and share that it’s designed to help them understand requirements of the role and allow them to ask any questions. If the expectations you outline are different from what was already unspoken, share why you’re making a change. If you’re just clarifying pre-existing expectations, tell them so.

2 – Have a Face-to-Face Conversation to Communicate the Disconnect between Expectations and Performance
After clarifying your expectations, give the volunteer a few weeks to adjust their behavior and attitude. If there’s no change, you need to have a face-to-face conversation. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary. You might start by asking how the volunteer feels about their role, or how they think it’s going. I’ve had volunteers admit to me, when asked this question, that they don’t think it’s the right role for them or that there are circumstances in their life that were keeping them from showing up consistently, which opens the door to a much easier conversation. If that doesn’t happen, share that you’ve observed some things that don’t meet the expectations you previously communicated. If you don’t honestly tell the volunteer that there’s a disconnect between the expectations and their performance, you can’t expect them to improve. Don’t make the conversation about their personality or character, but about the specific attitudes and behaviors required in the role; and be ready to share concrete examples of how they have missed the mark. Offer to work with them and provide coaching, so they can adapt to the expectations. At the same time, help them understand that your expectations are not optional in this role – they are required, for the sake of the church's purpose – so if they feel they can’t meet your expectations, maybe there’s a different role for them.

3 – Provide Coaching and Feedback
If they agree to adapt, and are willing to be coached, great. Serve with them and model the behaviors/attitudes you expect. Share real-time feedback with them as they serve, in a kind and respectful manner. If they seem to be adapting, great. Continue observing for a while and try to catch them doing it well. Offer copious praise and affirmation. What you praise will get repeated. If they adapt and begin meeting expectations, celebrate that with them.

4 – When All Else Fails, Remove the Volunteer
If they don’t (or can’t) change their attitude or behavior, you’ll need to have another face-to-face conversation. I’d encourage you to have a co-leader present for this conversation, and/or a pastor nearby in case the volunteer needs care. Always refer back to your clearly communicated expectations and be prepared with recent examples of how they haven’t met those expectations. Remember, it’s not about them, it’s about their behaviors and/or actions. At this point, give them a deadline for when you need to see improvement, or they’ll need to step down. After that deadline, meet again and either affirm their recent performance or tell them it’s time to step down. If they are creating a toxic environment, you may opt to ask them to step down from their role immediately during the second conversation.

This conversation may be one of the hardest ones you’ll ever have. The person may cry, or be angry, or go totally quiet. In my experience, they will blame you. Don’t get angry in return, or respond to criticisms – except to say it’s truly not personal; it’s about the requirements for the role. Be kind and compassionate, but firm. For the good of the ministry, all volunteers must meet the expectations of the role. If this conversation is too hard for you, bring in your supervisor to assist. What you cannot do is allow the behavior to continue. That demoralizes other volunteers and does damage to the church’s ministry.

The departing volunteer may tell their side of the story to others in a way designed to make you look bad. Be the bigger person – give dignity to the departing volunteer by telling others who ask that they decided to step back from their role for now. No real explanation is required. What you’ll find afterwards is a healthier team with a better serving environment.

Remember, you are the leader. Your volunteers will be proud to serve with a leader who cares enough about their team to handle difficult situations and who calls them to a higher standard for a worthy purpose.

Yvonne Gentile is our Guest Experience & ShareChurch Lead Director, a former retail industry executive, and co-author of four books. She and her husband Frank have been part of Resurrection since 1996. Together they enjoy movies, road trips, and spending time with family.