How to Deal with Church Staff and Volunteer Problems Without Losing Good People

Nuisance“Wait til your father gets home!” was always a bad way to parent.

It’s also a bad way to pastor.

When my kids were younger, I didn’t want them to dread the arrival of either parent, so neither of us ever threatened that the other parent would punish them when they got home.

I don’t want my church staff or volunteers to to dread my arrival, either. But apparently, many of my peers are pastoring that way.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with church staff members and volunteers over the years. Often, they come to me for advice or a sympathetic ear when their relationships with their pastor isn’t going well.

Their #1 complaint goes something like this:

“I don’t know what to do any more! It seems like I’ll never make my pastor happy! Last week, for instance, we had the best youth night ever. The kids worshiped their hearts out. One of the youth leaders spoke for the first time and did an amazing job. Two kids made first-time commitments to Jesus. And we had our biggest signups ever for next Saturday’s trip to feed the homeless.

“But do you know what I heard the next morning when I walked into church? Before I even had a chance to say ‘good morning‘, let alone tell my pastor about our great youth night, he jumped all over me because we left the sound system on and one of the garbage cans wasn’t emptied.

No matter what I do, he’s just so hard to please! What should I do?” 


A Two-Sided Problem & Solution

My advice to them is always the same.

First, keep doing your ministry the way you’re doing it. It sounds great.

Second, turn off the lights and empty the garbage! Create a system to deal with those issues so they stop undermining great ministry.

Third, talk to your pastor about this. Let him know you want his feedback, but you want it in a time and place that’s constructive, not discouraging.

There’s just one problem with that advice. I’m only giving it to half the people who need to hear it. This isn’t a one-sided issue. It’s a two-sided issue with a two-sided solution.

I know, because I’ve also had conversations with Small Church pastors about how hard it is to get good staff and volunteers.

Usually, it’s hard to get anyone to help at all. But sometimes I get complaints from pastors that go like this:

“No matter what I do, I can’t get these young leaders to turn off lights or take stinky garbage out to the dumpster! And when I tell them to do it, they get such an attitude about it! Like they’re too good for that. Don’t they understand that this is what a lot of ministry is about? Especially in a Small Church?”

Sound familiar?

Today I want to talk to those on my side of this. To my fellow pastors. After all, as the people in charge, we’re the ones who have the greatest ability to bring real change.

So let me share a few simple steps with you that work really well at our church. It’s been part of a strategy that has increased our volunteerism to record levels, allows us to celebrate the great ministry that’s being done, and still gets the petty issues taken care of.


1. Lead with the good news

No one in my church, on my staff, my board or my volunteers ever dreads my arrival. Why? Because I always walk in with a “hello” and a chance to catch up on the good news of the last day or week. Yes, we deal with the problems. But, unless it’s an immediate emergency, it can wait.


2. Never address a problem when you’re angry

Do I really need to explain this one? Nah, I didn’t think so.


3. Don’t treat mistakes like sins

I hear this a lot. Volunteers work hard, do a great job, but leave something petty undone. But they’re treated as though they’ve committed a sin that requires prayer, tears and repentance. A full garbage can is an oversight, not a sin. Treat it accordingly.


4. Recognize the difference between laziness and risk-taking innovation

No one in my church ever got in trouble for trying something new that didn’t work. That’s something I want to encourage.

Innovate. Take risks. Dream big. Fall down, then get back up. I never criticize that, I praise it.

But if you’re chronically late, unprepared, leaving early or any other signs that you’re lazy and not giving it your best, we’ll have a talk.


5. Designate a good time and place to deal with problems

We do this at our weekly staff meeting. We start with prayer. We have a designated time to share positive ministry stories. And we have a permanent agenda item I call “Oops! Notices”. If anyone noticed anything since the last meeting that was an Oops!, we bring it up then.

“I came in and one of the back doors was unlocked. I had to vacuum the fellowship room after the Kids’ Night event, etc.”

We report the issues, recognize how the Oops! happened, offer apologies if needed, then move on.

Using a word like Oops! may seem silly, even childish to you, but that’s the point. It allows us to recognize the issues, address them as what they are (mistakes, not sins) and deal with them without anger or shame attached.

After all, how mad or embarrassed can anyone get over an Oops!?


6. Deal with private issues in private

If the issue is bigger than an Oops!, I deal with people one-on-one. It reduces potential embarrassment and allows for a deeper look at real problems.


7. Approach correction as a learning experience, not a punishment

Our church is always in process of training young, new ministers. So they make a lot of mistakes. But they come to our church because they know they can make mistakes, get them corrected and learn to do better next time without anyone getting mad at them.

Punishment is reserved for sins. And that’s God’s job anyway. Mistakes are something we can always learn from.


8. Recognize and correct your own faults first

Many of the issues we think are staff/volunteer problems are actually pastoral leadership problems. We haven’t communicated well. We don’t have proper systems in place. Or, as we’ve just seen, we’re chronic complainers over petty issues.

Let’s take care of our own plank before we deal with other people’s specks.


So what do you think? Can you do better at helping staff and volunteers with their mistakes?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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(Commit No Nuisance sign photo from David, Bergin, Emmett and Elliot • Flickr • Creative Commons license)


1 thought on “How to Deal with Church Staff and Volunteer Problems Without Losing Good People”

  1. Pingback: RT @KarlVaters: A simple, 8-step process to deal w… | The Richard W. Hendricks Experience

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