When Volunteers Bail Out (quit, move, retire, leave, or whatever)

by Carol

[We’ll return to our series on volunteers in churches of different sizes after this brief non-commercial break.]

Many of our programs work on a school-year calendar, so we’re coming up on that season for volunteers to tell you that they won’t be back in the fall.  How do you respond?

I take it personally.  Bad form, I know.  Not everything is about me.  Sometimes God calls people to new ministries, new homes, and new challenges.

But after I have a personal panic party, what do I do next?

1.  I do, actually, question whether I ought to take it personally. 
Did I do something (big or small) that drove off the volunteer? Or, did I fail to do something that would have encouraged the volunteer to stay?  It happens — but I will never know unless I ask myself the question.

2.  I encourage a candid discussion. 
I ask the volunteer why they are leaving the position, and I make sure that I am listening carefully.  I take their reason at face value, of course, but I don’t assume that volunteers can always articulate the reasons that they don’t feel that this is the right fit anymore.  Even when they are moving across the country, I can still learn something through an exit interview.

3.  I help the volunteer to leave gracefully. 
Sendoffs should be proportional to the years they have served.  Goodbyes can be as warm as possible.  Leave the light on, in case they want to come home later.  And if the relationship is strained or broken, study the Bible for every bit of wisdom on love and reconciliation that you can find — and then USE it.  When all is said and done, pray for your volunteers who are leaving.

4.  I think about changing the time or the program. 
We’ll dig deeper into this in the next post, but sometimes your best volunteers are not available during the time slot that used to work.  And sometimes you need to rethink the program — is it requiring too many volunteers, or too much from the volunteers you have?

5.  I reconsider the role. 
You’re not going to get a clone of the volunteer who is leaving, so what do you really want?  Is it time to change the job description?  Is it time to find a different personality type?  Does a new volunteer need to fit into an existing team?  Think before you run out and grab the first person who looks something like the one who is leaving.

6. I ask for help in recruiting. 
Help comes in various forms — a referral from the outgoing volunteer, a suggestion from a current volunteer, an idea from someone who says no to serving right now.

You also may need help on a grander scale.  This year, we are losing some key workers at a time that we are hoping to expand some of our children’s ministries.  Because I am recruiting for the whole ministry, I will ask for help from the pastor (to address the importance from the pulpit), from the keepers of the screen (rolling announcements, verbal announcements, and video clips), and from the gatekeepers of our direct publicity (outgoing emails, print media, etc.).

Bottom line:  Volunteer turnover is normal.  When volunteers leave, take a breath and then turn it into a good thing.

Next time — As volunteers come and go, we’ll take a look at the kind of volunteers you need and the type of positions you have open.