5 Reasons Your Volunteers Are Underperforming (And How to Fix It)

Every ministry leader who also leads volunteers can tell you stories about being frustrated with volunteers who are not performing well. If you lead people, you’re going to have stories, too.

In the volunteer world, underperforming can look like a lot of different things. Sometimes volunteers will underperform by showing up late on a Sunday morning. Other times volunteers will underperform by not being prepared to lead a lesson or by just having a bad attitude.

Most of the time it’s easy to spot a volunteer who is underperforming. The harder question is what to do about it. Most advice on the topic tends to be in one of two camps. You either coach the volunteer or you fire the volunteer.

While one of those approaches may be appropriate, I believe you should look deeper into the issue before jumping to conclusions. Let’s look at a few reasons that volunteers underperform and talk about how we can manage each one of those issues.

They’re not motivated.

Underperformance of volunteers, or even of employees, can often be tied to a lack of motivation. The problem may be as simple; your volunteer might not enjoy what they’re doing or they don’t even want to show up on Sunday morning.

Identifying the source of a lack of motivation is a tricky thing. When it comes to motivation, it’s easy to make assumptions or jump to conclusions on behalf of your volunteer.

Instead of assuming that you know the source of their lower motivation, take the time to sit down with them individually. Ask them questions that help them to communicate why they may be lacking motivation. It may be something at home that is causing the issue or an aspect of your leadership that you can improve.

Whatever the cause, having a private conversation filled with grace and patience will not only help you solve the challenge of lowered motivation but also show that you care about them as a person.

They’re not trained.

I was having a conversation with a pastor last month whose volunteers were underperforming. The volunteers are all on one team, the setup and breakdown team at their portable church.

He was telling me how this team tends to show up late and move slowly. The only solution that he has found is to make them get there earlier on Sunday mornings.

During that conversation, I encouraged him to do a simple survey of this team to find out the root causes of poor performance. I gave him a few strategic questions to ask to measure motivation and then we scheduled another conversation for a few weeks later.

The results of the survey? Well, the main problem was that his team was not feeling like they were trained. Every morning felt like they were making it up for the first time. Even though he had made a setup guide document for the team, each person felt like they were learning their job for the first time each week.

He and I talked through a training plan to get his setup team motivated through training. He’s only started implementing that new plan, but his expectations are high that it will have positive impact.

They’re not given expectations.

I’m a big believer in setting expectations for your team. Expectations can be toxic in most relationships if they are not clearly explained to everyone involved.

Unexplained expectations can undermine performance in a number of ways. The most significant side effect is assuming low expectations. For example, your volunteer may assume that your expectation is for them to simply show up and be a “warm body” on a Sunday morning.

They may not understand the vital role they play or that you expect them to work hard, be positive, proactively contribute, and take responsibility for their ministry area.

Setting clear expectations also prevents hurt feelings. When your team members know what you expect of them, they have more information to perform to your standards. That means fewer hard conversations and more pats on the back. Everyone is happier!

They’re not on track with the mission.

Mission buy-in is more important for volunteers than it is for employees…far more important. For employees, sometimes getting through a tough season just means pulling a paycheck and keeping your job. That happens to all paid workers from time to time.

For volunteers, however, if they’re not on mission, then why are they there? Guilt and friendships only go so far in driving motivation, but, even more so, guilt and friendship will have almost no positive impact on performance.

If your volunteer isn’t bought-in to the mission, you’re almost guaranteed to see that volunteer underperform. Mission drives higher performance because it’s the foundation of passion. A passionless worker isn’t going to perform well. They’re going to do the bare minimum required to maintain social standing, not disappoint their leader, or avoid embarrassment.

Getting every team member “on mission” is more about your language than a system or management tool. When you talk to your people, keep the language of your mission infused into everything you talk about. At our church, the phrase “the gospel changes everything” is so commonly used in our volunteer meetings that every volunteer can cite it from memory as part of our mission.

They’re discouraged.

It may be the underlying emotional state for every scenario mentioned above, but discouragement is the real performance killer. Discouraged volunteers not only don’t perform well, they quit and will, at times, get others to quit, too.

Discouragement can creep in for volunteers in many ways.

  • They feel like their leader doesn’t appreciate their work.
  • They are isolated in their work from others.
  • They feel like they are not supported in their work, making it harder than necessary.
  • They are stretched too thin across multiple ministries, taking away their opportunity to participate in their church community in other ways.

Discouragement looks different for different volunteers. Some volunteers will openly gripe about their concerns. Others will keep it bottled up until they suddenly quit one day. Still others will silently endure while their performance gets worse over time.

The most impactful thing you can do for a discouraged volunteer is listen to them and do your best to help them solve the cause of their discouragement. That often means asking them questions that dig for answers. Since ministry volunteers don’t like to complain to their leaders, usually, you’ll have to pull it out of them. Make them feel safe, heard, and cared for. You’ll find that, over time, they will open up, giving you the chance to meet their needs in a way that will both minister to them and likely boost their performance.

About Scott Magdalein

Scott Magdalein is the founder of TrainedUp. Previously, he worked as project manager for YouVersion and Church Online, a software developer at Treehouse, a digital director for an ad agency, and as an Executive Pastor in multiple local churches. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida with his wife and three kids.