Have you ever been in a situation where a great volunteer makes a bad decision? Those can be some of the toughest times as a leader. There are many ways to handle it and, depending on the context, the outcome could be very different.
I want to look at various ways you can handle a situation like this. But first, let’s define a concrete scenario so we all can envision the same thing.
James is great volunteer in the children’s ministry at your church. He’s reliable, responsible, patient, caring, and loves serving kids. James also always makes good decisions with the kids in your ministry, follows policies about safety and interactions, and comes prepared.
One Sunday, James is having an off day. He’s visibly irritated by the kids. One child does something that really gets under James’ skin and James grabs him by the arm firmly and speaks lowly into his ear to bring the child back into line. James doesn’t realize it, but his grip on the child’s arm is too firm and the child complains to his parent that a volunteer hurt his arm.
There are no marks and the child is not injured, but the parent is concerned and expresses their frustration to you, the ministry leader.
Let’s look at some ways you can handle this situation.
How Not to Respond
Before we get into some good ways to move forward after the complaint is brought to you, let’s look briefly at some poor ways to handle the problem.
DO NOT avoid the situation and hope it doesn’t happen again. When you avoid problems, they will happen again and they will likely be worse next time. James, as great as he is, may see a firm grip on a child’s arm, or worse, acceptable. Another volunteer may have seen him and follow his lead on how to interact with a child.
DO NOT be dismissive to the parent. A parent, or anyone that makes a valid complaint, should be heard and know that their complaint is taken seriously. Phrases like, “I’m sure it didn’t happen like your child said because James is a great volunteer” will only lead the parent to believe you aren’t taking their complaint seriously.
DO NOT embarrass the volunteer publicly. You will likely hurt James in the process of trying to prevent a larger problem. There is a better way to address this type of situation for your whole team to learn from it without calling out James.
DO NOT jump to disciplinary action too soon. Every complaint from a church member should be taken seriously, but every complaint should also be met with patience on your part. In these types of situations, you have to move into the role of detective to find out more about what happened before making a decision on next steps.
Some Positive Options
- Be clear about your followup plan with the person making the complaint. They should know what steps you’re going to take to remedy the issue. Try something like, “I’m going to have a conversation with James to get some more information. I’ll let you know how that conversation goes and what next steps we may need to take.”
- Gather more information about the complaint. Start with James and get his perspective without judgement. Let him know about the complaint and ask him what he feels happened. If James’ perspective is different from the complaint, ask another person who was in the room if they saw the interaction.
- Clarify your ministry’s policy with James. Whether the complaint is valid or not, this is still a great opportunity to remind James of your policy related to the offense at hand.
- Consider taking James out of the volunteer rotation for a season. You might find that your volunteer’s life at home or work is contributing to greater stress or poor decisions. That happens in life. As a leader, you may need to ask your team member to take a break for a season to rest or get through a hard time personally before rejoining the active team.
- Clarify your ministry’s policy with your entire team. These situations are often a great time to remind or train your entire team on policies that protect everyone in your ministry. Take time during a team huddle or use TrainedUp to train on the policies. TrainedUp will let you see who is and isn’t up to speed on your policies.
- Follow up with the parent to let them know what action was taken and what, if any, further action will be taken. A second, proactive contact with the parent will build trust in your leadership and in the church.
- Let your boss know what happened, how you handled it, and what the result was. Your boss doesn’t need to solve the issue for you, but they need to know about it and how it was resolved in case a similar issue is brought to them later.
What Other Leaders Say
Since I didn’t want my own opinion to be the final say on this matter, I asked some other leaders in children’s ministry how they would handle a similar situation. Here are their responses.
- Christopher: I think a simple conversation with the individual will suffice given their outstanding record of service.
- Tom: Volunteers at any age are leaders in training. It is your job to teach and equip them to serve better. Have a good conversation, and keep going. Don’t threaten them. Explain the error, and live in grace.
- Rosy: Every Christian grows differently and we have to be supportive. Sometimes they don’t have the same experience as you or they have a different way of thinking. Make some trainings and clarify your expectations to guide our kids in Jesus’ love. Model it, too. From our errors is how we learn.
- Jessica: It’s a learning opportunity and if they are a repeat offender, then they may need to step away for a season.
- Shelby: We also need to add into the equation that feeling discouraged is the number one cause for church leaders to burn out. So IF this is a great leader who made 1 error, an encouraging conversation around this is helpful. We are good at talking the gospel message of ‘we’re all sinners’, yet we’re terrible at handling sin itself. So I would take them out for coffee and encourage and uplift them, whilst talking through the issue in the light of Christ dying for our shortcomings. It may also be helpful to share some of your own mistakes in ministry and how you learnt from them, to show they aren’t alone in making mistakes.
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