When Volunteers Quit

Confession time: Fantasy football is one of my guilty and more nerdy pleasures. I’m a 37-year-old, mortgage-paying father of three who loves nothing better at the end of a long day than to fire up my laptop and check my fantasy roster.

I know — grown men pretending to be the general managers of imaginary sports franchises is reason #53,024 that America is losing its competitive edge in the global market. And I admit it; it’s a nerdy pastime.

What attracts me to the game? It’s volunteer management with instant gratification. It’s an escapist daydream that airbrushes away the messiness that comes with leading people. There’s never a volunteer shortage. If a player breaks an ankle, you bench him and sign his replacement off waivers. Fantasy football league players are rarely MIA on a Sunday morning. Players don’t squabble with others on your imaginary roster. They can’t quit or decide on Sunday at 8:30 a.m. that they’d rather have brunch at the beach than teach children.

So if you catch me obsessively tweaking my fantasy roster, you’ll forgive me.

Gratefully, though, life operates nothing like fantasy football. Instead of calling us to steward columns of sanitary stats, God offers us the privilege of dealing with the messiness of leading people — wonderful people made in God’s likeness. People who occasionally demonstrate levels of chaotic behavior normally only found in a tied burlap sack of angry ferrets. Perhaps we’re unprepared to deal with our volunteers’ quirks and shortcomings because we buy into the illusion known as “Sunday best.” We see shiny volunteers and assume their lives are as sharp as the pleats on their pants.

But as the hymn states, each of your volunteers came to Jesus “Just as I Am.” Friend, if that’s how they come to Jesus, they aren’t coming into your ministry any better. So let’s set aside our fantasies and learn how to deal with it when our volunteers quit, flake out, or just can’t get along.

When Volunteers Quit

Fewer words have the power to torpedo a children’s minister’s mood faster than a phone call or e-mail with the words “I quit.” A volunteer’s abrupt departure forces you to reprioritize your week; now you have to find a substitute for the weekend and a long-term replacement. The briefest volunteer tenure I ever encountered was a woman I recruited on a Tuesday who quit that Friday. Her criminal background check hadn’t even cleared before she bailed on the ministry, but I was sure she was guilty of having the attention span of a fruit bat.

I’ll admit. I was too busy judging her lack of follow-through to try to understand what was behind the sudden reversal. I later learned the woman was in an abusive marriage. I suspect her husband lost his cool when he learned his wife was about to build a stronger connection to the church.

The truth is that volunteers quit for a number of reasons, and irresponsibility is only one of several possibilities. Remember — just like the children you serve, you only encounter your volunteers for up to three of the 168 hours that make up the week. Odds are you’re unaware of the marital struggles, emotional or mental health issues, financial pressures, or parenting challenges your volunteers face.

  • False Marketing — Volunteers also quit because they underestimate the commitment involved with their volunteer post. Perhaps they believed the recruiting pitch: “It’s not hard” or “It’ll only take a few minutes to prepare.” But when false pitches give way to the actual demands of ministry, some volunteers feel justified walking away.

  • Disorganization — Volunteers quit for another surprising reason. The children’s ministry is run with a level of chaos that your volunteers imagined was only possible in a sack of angry ferrets. Volunteers quit organizations that are poorly run, uninspiring, and devoid of community.

And yes, volunteers quit because they’re irresponsible.

So when a volunteer fires off the words “I quit,” your first duty is to discern why he or she is stepping down. Take a deep breath and set aside your frustrations. Resist the urge to judge. Instead, ask probing questions to understand why the volunteer is unwilling or unable to go on. Remind your volunteer of the commitment he or she made. Help your volunteer articulate the exact source of frustration, and both of you brainstorm a solution.

If the volunteer insists on stepping down, ask the person to continue for two weeks so you can find a replacement. If you discover that the person needs personal support, help provide the appropriate pastoral or professional care.

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