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What to Do With Toxic Volunteers

Adult volunteers are so important to our ministry programs but toxic volunteers are a unique poison all on their own.

Adult volunteers are so important to our ministry programs but toxic volunteers are a unique poison all on their own. They are our small group leaders, our mentors, our drivers and our students’ advocates. We need them. They bring us balance. We get wacky ideas sometimes, and it’s nice to have someone talk us (or in some cases, wrestle us) down from the ledge.

A few years ago, I was teaching weekly in a youth ministry. It was fun to get up in front of the students and lay out a biblical message they could apply to their lives. I loved teaching, but one thing was ruining the experience: Someone kept talking during my lesson. You’re probably picturing an immature boy. If so, you’re on the right track. But it may surprise you to learn that this was a 40-year-old boy—an adult volunteer. Every week he was talking and making snide comments, all so students would like him. He needed to be the center of attention. I needed him to shut up! When I sat down with him to explain the situation, he was surprised. He didn’t even realize the problem he was causing.

That’s just one of the many types of toxic volunteers who might be damaging your ministry. Chances are, you’ve seen at least one of these damaging volunteers:

  • The Class Clown. Like the man from my story, these volunteers crave a spotlight. They steal the group’s attention away from where it should be to focus solely on them. In many cases, these adults simply want to earn some relational currency with the students, so they do whatever they can to make students like them. But if you’re taking students into the emotional crux of a lesson and an immature joke from an adult brings them out of it, you’ll know how damaging this type of volunteer can be.
  • The “No” Man. These volunteers complain about everything you do. Want to start a new initiative? They’ll poke holes in it. Want to teach on a particular topic? They’ll tell you why another is “more biblical.” Want to appoint someone to student leadership? They’ll question your choice, eyebrow raised in condescension. It’s tough to make progress in a ministry when you’re always being pulled one step back by this volunteer.
  • The Hawk. Some volunteers think they are the parents’ eyes and ears in the youth ministry. They circle around your ministry to make sure you don’t mess up, and as soon as you do, they swoop in to tell everyone. Nothing undercuts your ability to minister to students quite like a negative volunteer going behind your back to squawk in the ears of parents and students.

So what do you do when an adult volunteer goes bad? The first thing is to resolve to deal with it. Too often we want to complain to the other volunteers, pastors or our spouses. Don’t do this. It leads to you talking about the problem and never dealing with it. The faster you confront the issue, the more effective your ministry will be. If you fail to deal with this issue, other volunteers will wonder who is leading the youth ministry.

After that, consider using the following steps:

Step 1: Be Pre-emptive
Every problem with volunteers in your ministry starts with unmet expectations. Unless you are clear in your communication, your volunteers will create their own expectations. For example: the volunteer who thinks his job is to be your boss and not a spiritual mentor to students. Most youth workers are so focused on students and logistics, they forget to communicate their expectations to volunteers.

Step 2: Be Consistent 

After communicating your expectations, it is important to consistently uphold them. Be sure volunteers understand the reasons for what you are doing. Hold yourself and them to a high standard.

Step 3: Be Decisive
When the time comes to take action, don’t hesitate. The longer you wait, the worse things will get. Decide on your course of action and follow through. Your volunteers will appreciate your honesty, and your consistency will convey care to the rest of your staff.

Often the best things you can do for a difficult volunteer who refuses to change is to fire them. We learn the most important lessons in life from difficult situations. Being a leader requires commitment to your volunteers. Commit yourself to always doing what is best for them, and this in turn will be what is best for your team.

For more great articles on leading volunteers, check out 25 Best Articles on Leading Volunteers (That Get Them to Stay and Thrive!)