10 lessons I’ve learned about firing volunteers properly

Firing a volunteer is a horrible experience. I remember the first time I had to fire a volunteer I was responsible for leading. I felt terrible and delayed having the conversation for a long time.

This person had been giving their time to serve under me for a while. They loved serving, but there were just so many things that weren’t working.

Trouble in paradise

Serving on a volunteer team can feel exhiliarting and purpose-giving. It can be amazing, but it can also be painful. While they loved serving, their poor attitude was a downer to the team.

  1. They showed up on time, but often came unprepared.
  2. They refused to learn the skills necessary for the role they were in.
  3. After a couple moves to different roles within the same team, and even trying to move them to another team, it was clear that it was time to ask them to step down.

It was such a terrible experience, not only because it was a sad conversation, but because it was in a church. We preach, “Serve, serve, serve!” But there I was, asking someone not to serve.

By the time it came to the hard conversation, the volunteer knew something was wrong. And while they didn’t like the outcome, they understood why it had to happen.

I’ve had to fire several volunteers in the last decade as a leader. Each time I learn something new and I’m sure I’ll learn more in the future. But here’s a list of 10 things I’ve learned about how to fire a volunteer properly.

1. Seek counsel

If you’re making this decision alone, you’re setting yourself up for a world of pain. You’re opening yourself up to accusations that will end with your word against theirs. That’s not where you want to be.

Seeking counsel will also ensure that you’re taking the right steps in leading your difficult volunteer before it becomes a matter of firing them. Your pastor or another leader you trust should be helping you figure this out.

2. Take responsibility

You are the leader and it’s your responsibility for every person on your team to be competent, in the right seat, prepared, have buy-in, etc. If there are people on your team that cut it, that’s on you. Maybe your initial assessment was faulty or your ongoing leaderships has holes. Own it.

That will also show your difficult volunteer that you are with them and not against them. Passing blame is not a trait of a great leader.

3. Have empathy

I suck at empathy. When I was at LifeChurch.tv, we took emotional intelligence assessments and I always scored low on empathy. That means I have to consciously remind myself to think with empathy.

Empathy just means putting yourself in their shoes. Do they feel like you set them up for success? Are they experiencing other difficult things in life?

4. Make firing a last resort

Only fire once you’ve done all you can to help them succeed on the team. Shift their role. Move them to another team. Spend more time with them. Help them grow.

Only after you’ve done your absolute best to lead them well should you consider cutting them from your team.

5. Treat them as you would want to be treated

The Golden Rule is golden for a reason. It’s SO valuable. You’ll never go wrong if you treat other people like you want to be treated. That goes for firing volunteers, too.

Having this mindset will help you have empathy and speak to them lovingly. It will steer you toward respect.

6. Have a third person in the room, preferably another leader

Having a third person in the room offers a two-fold benefit: (1) it protects you against erroneous accusations and (2) it provides accountability for you to make sure you do it right. A soft benefit is that the third person in the room can act as a referee if things get heated.

If it’s your pastor, the volunteer will be less likely to get huffy. Pastors carry a weightiness into the room.

7. Speak the truth

Don’t beat around the bush. If the reason they’re being fired is clear, be clear with them. If it’s not clear, reevaluate the need for a discussion until you are clear.

Understand that this conversation should help them discover their own shortcomings so they’re aware of them. Sending them out of the room without a clear understanding of what areas they need to grow in will not help them.

8. Don’t forget that your first goal is to grow them

Yes, part of your job is leading your volunteer teams. However, your higher calling is to help people grow closer to Jesus and become a better disciple.

Helping your difficult volunteer to grow should trump your need to remove them from the team. Treat the conversation like a growing opportunity.

9. Don’t make it permanent

People change over time, especially if your church is doing a good job of helping people follow Jesus step by step. That should mean they will be ready to serve again in the future.

Don’t make the decision sound permanent, because it’s not. In fact, a great leader would make sure to revisit the opportunity for them to serve in the near future. And maybe even create a self-development plan for them to improve.

10. Schedule a followup

The firing conversation should not be the last conversation you have with them. Schedule a followup chat over coffee or drinks…somewhere casual. Please, don’t host it in your office.

This will help them understand that you care about them personally and you’re not just managing a team.