Keys to Responding to Resigning Volunteers

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Editor’s notes: this article was generated by two other contributors: Mrs. Heather Perry and Dr. Eric Hallett. In the text, pronouns indicate when the experience belongs to one (or two) contributor(s) in particular.

“I quit.” Rarely are the words put so bluntly, especially when they come from the mouth of a volunteer. But whatever words are used, the resignation of a key volunteer can feel both blunt as a bat and sharp as a knife.  (Not, of course, when it is a volunteer you might actually hope will resign, but that’s another Seedbed post.) If you’ve been in ministry long enough (say, a week), then you’ve probably faced it. We’ve experienced the immediate dizzying sensation of a volunteer’s resignation, too. Here are a few things we’ve learned.

Breathe

You’ve heard the words, your heart has skipped a beat, and your lungs have collapsed, but force yourself to breathe. Breathe deeply. Resignations often feel personal. Sometimes they are, but often they aren’t. So, take a deep breath and know that people still like you. More importantly, God still loves you and God has still called you. It will be OK. Take a deep breath. Did you take that breath? Good. You’ll need it.

Be Brave

While a resignation is not likely to be personal, it may very well be professional. That is, your professional abilities or practices as leader may have led to the resignation.
I (Aaron) have quit jobs, both paid and unpaid, where I was clear about my role, well resourced, and occasionally motivated or recognized in an appropriate way. I have quit these jobs, but the decision to resign from such jobs has not come not often or easily. When a volunteer quits without extenuating circumstances, like illness, birth, relocation, or change of employment, there might be a reason that can be linked to the leader. Any time a leader looks and listens deeply for their professional failures, it can be painful. But, be brave. A resigning volunteer gives you a chance to learn about your leadership.

Analyze

You’re breathing and you’re brave. Now you need to analyze the situation. This is a vital step because the reason a volunteer gives for quitting is rarely the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Why are they not telling you everything? Because, in the very moment that you are feeling unliked, the resigning volunteer is probably thinking, “I hope they know I like them!” Your job is to find the truth. Here’s how.

First, acknowledge the presenting issue or initial reason for resigning. Presenting issues must be acknowledged because they bear at least some truth to the volunteer. If it wasn’t plausible, they wouldn’t share it. The presenting issue may even be a good reason. Ethical leaders have a responsibility to the volunteer’s health and wellbeing. If God is directing the volunteer to resign, then it is sin to discourage it.

Acknowledgment can be difficult, even in light of the above, because presenting issues can be questionable. Here are some common presenting issues we’ve encountered:

I can’t serve anymore because I need to focus on my spiritual life and growth.
I can’t work in this ministry because I am just too busy.
I need to step back from helping because I am afraid I will burnout.

Each of these has a level of plausibility and may be insightful, however, they may also just be presenting issues without much depth. After all, when people say they need to resign a ministry to focus on their spiritual lives, it sounds a lot like saying, “I need to stop exercising so that I can focus on my eating habits.” Could this be true? Yes. However, more than likely a focus on health will require both diet (spiritual food) and exercise (ministry). Can a person be in danger of overcommitment or burnout? Yes. But not usually because of a one hour/week ministry, vital though it is. Can a person be too busy in life? Of course. But usually many other commitments fail to measure up to the importance of discipleship and worship. Even so, don’t roll your mind’s eye and make judgments about commitment, capacity, or Christlikeness.

Second, after acknowledging the presenting issue, probe for more complex reasons. Of course, the volunteer may not even understand the depth or complexity of their rationale. So, rather than dealing with the resignation head on (“Why are you resigning? I mean, really: Tell me!”), try assessing from an angle. Here are a few questions that may open conversation:

What was your best experience in this ministry?
What was the most common reward/blessing of this ministry?
What did your leader do that was very helpful?
What did you dread about this ministry?
Tell me about a time when you felt useful/valuable/awkward/ill-equipped in this ministry.

While answers are being offered, observe body-language, listen for how readily the question can be answered and how many examples are forthcoming. Regardless of the content, if the person is able to rattle off challenges but can’t remember a single motivation, you’ll have an insight.

Reflect

Hopefully, these questions along with your personal care and security as a leader have created safe space for the volunteer to provide good insight and feedback. Further, you might be getting a broader sense of the volunteer’s experience. Restrain from offering your analysis to the volunteer. It can be easy to share your assessment as bluntly as the resignation.

In cases when a person’s rationale for resigning seems weak or even contrived, you can help them to reflect more deeply about their resignation. You might offer a few questions that can lead to deeper reflection, like these:

“Have you ever wondered if you are serving enough?”

Sometimes people quit roles because they aren’t serving on a regular basis and, as a result, they cannot sense the role’s importance, properly manage their schedule’s more frequent and (possibly) less important responsibilities, or develop a sense of team with other volunteers

Have you thought about changing your serving rhythm?

Sometimes volunteers resign because they cannot imagine things changing enough to make a difference in their experience. Rather than altering their frequency or amount of volunteering, they opt for the full resignation.

Here’s an example. Leaders love the predictability and structure of models. However, models can become impersonal and not deal with the realities of a role. For example, I (Heather) received a lot of feedback that a scheduling model which had worked very well for a couple of years was now breaking down. In its initial stages, the model provided clarity and consistency. However, as the team grew in skill and membership, consistency was not as important as flexibility. While I was tempted to inspire volunteers about the importance of their service, I realized that the problem was simply the model. So, I changed the model to be more open source, where people could serve more frequently but with less time commitment. When the model is the problem, don’t inspire people. Fix/change the model.

How important is passion and excitement in your ministry?

Leaders rarely champion steady volunteers. They champion passionate volunteers. But not everyone gets passionate about serving in a ministry, even when they know it’s important. It can be tempting to think you are ill-fitted for a ministry when passion is always expected. I (Aaron) am a steady person by nature. My most heart-racing moments have rarely had to do with ministry and more often with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Perhaps people are not passionate about their role and need to know that’s OK.

Bless

Have you ever quit Netflix? We (Heather and Aaron) have. It’s so easy to quit that we’ve quit multiple times. This also means, of course, that we’ve rejoined multiple times. Some companies, however, make it so difficult to quit that we’ve vowed never to rejoin! When people resign, you have an opportunity to encourage their future restart. A guilt-free blessing that acknowledges a volunteer’s contribution is a godly display of leadership. Volunteers should feel valued and free of compulsion. If a person is serving out of guilt, then it is ungodly service. “We need your help!” is not necessarily a bad way to recruit a volunteer, but it’s a sinful way to keep one. Service in God’s Kingdom is in response to the free grace of God. Bless people who resign.

Grieve

Finally, after all of these tasks, grieve. Really.

You will not choose whether or not you will grieve, but you may choose how. Unintentional grieving can include feelings and actions of stress, anger, sadness, and apathy. Unforeseen volunteer resignations force leaders to face sudden change. As leaders, we are often more comfortable with changes we initiate, but at the prospect of unforeseen change, we ask the same key question as everyone else: “What I am going to lose?” And the loss of a volunteer is a real loss.

It is easy to skip this step due to ministry demands. You need to fill a gap, find a replacement, and buoy other volunteers to maintain momentum. But take time when the initial demands are met. If you are intentional, you can grieve well and in a productive manner. Find a mentor or friend who has experienced this kind of loss and talk about it. Or rant about it. The benefit can be personal health and organizational learning. Grieving allows you to recognize that you need God’s help and allows God the opportunity to open new possibilities in your mind, heart, and organization.

It’s not a matter of if, but when the words will come. Volunteer resignations are part of leadership. They feel personal. But there’s a way through it and there’s a way to grow through it. Leaders must grow through the pain, because even though they sometimes resign, people remain God’s best created missional resource.

Image attribution: PhotoBylove / Thinkstock

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Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry and Pastoral Care at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He and his wife, Heather, have three children. Aaron is the author of Putting the Plot Back in Preaching (Seedbed), co-author with Tim Perry of He Ascended into Heaven (Paraclete Press) and editor of Developing Ears to Hear (Emeth Press). Aaron completed his PhD in Organizational Leadership (Regent University). Follow him on Twitter @aaronhmperry

2 COMMENTS

  1. Bracing myself right now before I speak with a volunteer who had just signed up a month ago and was likely feeling overwhelmed and had sent a resignation letter last night. Your article offered several helpful advice that I can apply to my situation. But the key takeaway for me was, “Restrain from offering your analysis to the volunteer.” Thank you.

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