How To Fire A Volunteer

One of THE hardest things about leading is when you have to fire someone. It’s way worse when that person is a volunteer. In fact, firing a volunteer is so tough that we often just don’t do it. We’d rather let a toxic person stay on our team than go through the pain and discomfort of removing them.

Why Firing A Volunteer Is So Hard

Every leader is a little different, but I’ve never met a leader that said firing a volunteer was easy. Your volunteers sacrifice with little reward, so firing them usually feels bad. We don’t want to hurt their feelings or cause them emotional pain.

What’s more, we may worry that firing a volunteer could negatively impact team morale. Morale is one of those things that can deeply affect a ministry team. One firing could push things in a bad direction. Take my word for it.

Finally, most people want to be seen as a good person, not as someone who hurts others feelings. Maintaining self-image is a big part of our motivations behind decisions as leaders.

When Firing Isn’t The Right Choice

Of course, firing isn’t the only option when you have a bad volunteer. Before firing, you could try other remedies. For example, if someone’s skills aren’t up-to-par, consider training them better for the job. Or if someone is showing signs of burnout, give them a break rather than firing them altogether.

Firing a volunteer should come after other measures are taken to help that person thrive. There are many steps that could be taken before firing. You could help coach the volunteer, change serving schedules for them, move them to another team or group, focus more on helping them grow as a disciple, reduce their level of responsibility (a.k.a. demote them), or have a “come to Jesus” meeting with them to talk plainly about issues and work them out.

When Firing Isn’t A Bad Thing

Firing a volunteer isn’t always about something negative. It doesn’t always need to be filled with pain and anxiety. Sometimes firing someone is in their best interest.

For example, if one of your volunteers is having a personal crisis, maybe it’s time for them to have an extended season of rest. Seasons of rest, or sabbaticals, are absolutely necessary. They create time and space for God to heal and the Spirit to uplift us. It’s often our work for Jesus that keeps us from experiencing His personal blessings.

Another common issue in ministry is volunteers who are diminishing in their effectiveness or showing signs of burnout. Volunteers can burn out just as easily as leaders and pastors. Volunteers, however, don’t usually let you know about it until it’s too late. So firing a volunteer that is showing signs of burnout might be exactly what they need.

Sometimes you have a volunteer that’s not bad or burned out or going through a hard time. Sometimes they would simply be more effective in a different area of ministry. I see this all the time with people who serve as a Greeter, but they’re shy. Or a children’s volunteer with little patience. Or a band member who can’t keep time with the rhythm section. There’s no failure…just not a great fit.

In those situations, it’s best to try to find another team for them. Work with another ministry leader to find them a great spot that fits their personality and skills better. It’s not a firing, it’s a move.

Legitimate Reasons To Fire A Volunteer

While you want to be cautious about firing ministry volunteers, there are some very real and legitimate reasons to go through the pain of firing someone who works for free. Sometimes it’s a moral failure and sometimes it’s a consistent interpersonal challenge that never seems to be resolved.

Disappointing performance – Many volunteer roles are performance-oriented. For example, band members, children’s volunteers, and group leaders. These are people that need to prepare and be ready to do their job with excellence. A lack of performance for these volunteers might merit a firing.

Insurmountable differences in beliefs or philosophy – You don’t need to be 100% in agreement on everything, but there are key things that every team member needs to agree on. If someone isn’t on board with those mission-critical things, maybe a firing is called for.

Consistent irresponsible behavior – Many volunteers are in roles that require high character and responsibility, not just while working, but when off-duty, too. For example, youth volunteers are usually held to a high standard of lifestyle. Stepping outside established guidelines would be cause for a firing situation.

Sexual misconduct of any kind – If anyone is credibly reported for sexual misconduct of any kind, they should be fired. Of course, every church should have a documented process for reporting and investigating such issues so there’s no bias and both parties are treated justly.

Instigation of interpersonal conflict – Some people are just argumentative and prickly. Those people tend to be constantly at odds with someone at all times. People like this can change…that’s what Jesus and the Holy Spirit do! But that kind of person is also toxic to a team that works together. So, until the Spirit has moved them toward peacemaking, they need to be fired.

Creating A System For Firing Volunteers

The best solution to the challenge of firing volunteers is to have an established system. It needs to be written down, approved by church leadership, and known by every volunteer that it applies to.

Many smart churches have volunteer agreements that each volunteer signs annually. In that agreement, there are details about potential bases and the process for firing. This not only protects the church from undue liability, but makes sure your volunteers are aware of expectations and standards.

A good process for firing a volunteer may look like the follow steps.

  1. Investigating the situation – It’s best to have a process that includes others in an investigation of factors that may lead to firing. An investigation should be done quietly and with respect for each person involved.
  2. Review and warning for volunteer – If the offence or challenge isn’t a moral failure or abuse allegation, then the leader should use discretion. A review of the matter at hand and a warning or honest conversation with the volunteer is a healthy next step.
  3. Decision to fire – If terms aren’t met by the volunteer following your review and warning, a decision to fire must be made. That decision should be made by multiple leaders for accountability.
  4. Meeting to address volunteer firing – Meet with the volunteer privately and with another leader present to let them know that they’ve been removed from their position and why this removal has taken place.
  5. Next steps – Many times, firing is not the final step. Our goal with every person is to help them grow. Next steps after removal from a volunteer role should include restoration, rest, revitalization, and/or renewal.

In this whole process, never take it lightly that you have influence over your volunteer’s walk with Jesus and relationship to the Body of Christ. Keep in mind that your actions will heavily shape their view of your church and their place in it, for better or worse.

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 two boys.