It’s one of the toughest conversations to have, as a ministry leader. But it’s also one of the most important. When those of us who lead teams and serve alongside others notice a team member shouldn’t be serving anymore, it’s up to us to guide them to their exit.
But, hopefully, it’s just an exit from our ministry and not an exit from all ministries. Or the church. Hopefully.
That’s why, this month, we’re sharing the fundamentals of firing a volunteer (with the secret subtitle: in hopes that they’ll still keep serving, just somewhere else).
Now, we’re not talking about the person who has a couple of “off” interactions and might need a reminder as to the expectations of their role. Nor are we talking about the person for whom an extra accommodation or two might be needed because they really are made to serve in a particular area of ministry. This is also not a guide for when a volunteer poses a threat, danger, or risk to others and needs to be removed from a role immediately. That should be done swiftly and in full knowledge of pastoral leadership (and, potentially, additional authorities).
No. We’re talking about those individuals who we (or someone before us) thought were a fit for a role that, frankly, they aren’t. These are the volunteers who have seen a clearly defined job description, know the vision and goals of the team, been trained, partnered with, guided, redirected, encouraged, resourced, supported and, yet, still, aren’t a good match for the ministry.
How do you fire that volunteer? (in hopes that they’ll still keep serving, just somewhere else.)
By encouraging reflection through honest conversation with a thoughtful invitation.
(1) Encourage Reflection
Let’s be clear: you can fire someone just by saying, “Hi Steve. Thanks for meeting up today. It’s not easy for me to say this but, it needs to be said: I’m going to have to ask you to step back from this role. It’s just not working out. But thank you for serving.”
Such an abrupt approach leaves “Steve” with a bunch of questions and makes you look like a leader who doesn’t care. And neither of those outcomes are very Kingdom. (Nor will they keep a person serving, just somewhere else.)
Instead, it’s important to approach this interaction as a conversation. A conversation involves more than one voice, more than one stream of thought, and, often, more than one way of looking at things. (Otherwise, it’s a lecture.)
You, ministry leader, will enter this conversation already certain of your voice, your thoughts, and your point of view. Your volunteer, most likely, will do the same.
That’s why it’s going to be vitally important to keep this mantra in mind as you enter this conversation: Maintaining a relationship is more important than being right.
Say that out loud. “Maintaining a relationship is more important than being right.”
It’s likely you’ll spend eternity with this person. So, let’s not start the conversation with a posture of proving a point, citing example after example of the volunteer’s flaws and failures, or believing the most important outcome is the one where they step down.
Sure. That’s the ultimate end-goal when firing someone. But, again, doesn’t seem very Kingdom, does it? What if there can be more to this than that? What if, by the end of the conversation, you and the volunteer left more in agreement than in disagreement?
It’s possible, if you encourage reflection.
Start with sharing the what
YOU: “Hey, Steve. Thanks for meeting today. I’ve been thinking about our team and wanted to talk with you because I’ve really been wondering if this role is the right fit for you.”
Give room for reaction
STEVE: “Really? I love getting to do what we do! I wouldn’t trade it for any other job in the church!”
Continue by sharing the why
YOU: “Well, I’ve noticed you…” (Insert actual examples you’ve witnessed or consistent characteristics you’ve experienced with Steve that speak to why he isn’t a fit. Stay clear of citing stories from others. You’re the leader. Share what you’ve seen.)
Gauge their page and aim for the same
YOU: “Do you see how that doesn’t really match what we’re trying to do here?”
With this question you’ll discover the depth of your volunteer’s awareness of self, others, and environment. This kind of space is unpredictable but bursting with opportunity to meet your volunteer where they’re at and begin to guide them somewhere else.
(2) Honest Conversation
“Thou shalt not lie” made God’s top ten list for a reason. Not being completely honest in this conversation hurts your credibility, misleads your volunteer, and hinders both of your abilities to move forward. If you’re worried that, in the moment, you’ll try to smooth over a point that is pivotal to why you’re asking them to step back or you’ll present a false promise that they can return someday, practice your words.
Seriously. Write down what you need to say and ask someone you trust to roleplay the conversation with you. Firing someone is difficult enough. You don’t want to have a second conversation down the road because you weren’t completely honest in the first conversation. Embrace the grace of our Lord and speak honestly.
(3) Thoughtful Invitation
One of the most fascinating features of the body of Christ is that we all are significant. It’s a truth that doesn’t translate to the world but none of us are disposable to Jesus.
It’s a humbling and peace-giving reality in the Kingdom of God. It can also be a real source of tension when we’re trying to fire a volunteer.
But, not if we’re prayerfully thoughtful about extending an invitation to something different.
If someone asked me if I’d rather lose a fingernail or an ear, I would choose to keep the ear. But the loss of that nail wouldn’t be without pain and inconvenience.
Playing the analogy out, it’s because the nail has a function an ear can’t accomplish. The nail is positioned in a place where an ear doesn’t fit. The nail and ear are both designed for specific purposes – and those aren’t interchangeable.
And, if I saw an ear trying to be a fingernail, I’d want to put it out of its misery and guide it to where it best serves the body. Where it can do what it was made to do.
The same is true with a volunteer who needs to move on. Your conversation will come with some pain and inconvenience. But, remember – that person still has a function, place, and purpose within your local church body. And, hopefully, you’ve spent enough time with them that you can share what gifts and strengths you see in them.
Remind your volunteer that just because they’re not a fit for their current role doesn’t mean they aren’t a fit anywhere! Invite them to a next. Guide them to where they can best serve others. (And give their new ministry leader a heads up.) Don’t just leave them hanging like, well, a nail.
By encouraging reflection through honest conversation with a thoughtful invitation, firing a volunteer from your ministry doesn’t have to end with them serving nowhere in the church.
Hopefully, they’ll consider your words, recognize the truth, and take a step in a new direction.
Renée Wilson has served churches in rural, urban, and suburban settings, currently calling the east side of Columbus, Ohio home. Renée knows the value of building healthy teams and loves creating approaches around the vision of seeing more and more people come to know Christ.