"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Recruiting Adult Leaders

To Fire a Volunteer

Dr. Mark Senter

Pastor Thompson should have known better. After all, it had only been a year since he badly bungled the firing of a Sunday School teacher. But no, there he was again up to his neck in angry people. All he wanted to do was remove one immature youth sponsor. Yet from the reactions you would think Jeff was committing some sort of crime.

Looking back, Jeff realized he had handled the situation poorly. Sending that letter to Christopher Swartz asking him to resign as a Sunday School teacher was not the smartest way of firing a guy. "Old Chris," as the students called him, deserved better treatment after teaching in the high school department for five years. Yet Jeff's stomach knotted up every time he had thought of confronting Chris on his lack of teaching skills. So Jeff had taken the chicken's way out. He wrote a letter.

Even the boys in Swartz's class got on Jeff Thompson's case when they heard what happened. Not that they liked "Old Chris" as a teacher; they simply felt bad about the way in which he had gotten the ax.
Then came October. Jeff was determined there would be no letter used when Earl Benson was asked to step down as a club leader. Besides, this one should have been easier. Everyone was aware that Earl was more immature than many of the freshman guys. In some ways his role as "leader" appeared to be a means of gaining the status that he was never able to achieve as a computer whiz at Wheeling High School a few years earlier.

However, there were a couple of factors the associate pastor had overlooked. One was that Earl was the nephew of a very influential former church board member who was never satisfied with the manner in which the weekday program had been handled during Earl's high school years. The other was that a person who is fired without prior warning, tends to fight back to save face before his peers.

So when the grade school boys arrived home from the fall campout at Starved Rock State Park and Jeff could put up with Earl's sophomoric actions no longer, the Christian education minister single-handedly "called" a special church board meeting. The problem was that Jeff was the last person to know about the meeting. All he had done to convene the special session was to sit on the back steps of the church and tell Earl that he should take the rest of the year off as a club leader and get involved in the church's college group.

At least it was better than sending a letter. The results, however, were not much different.
Though again the young minister was able to weather the sudden deluge of misunderstanding, he was beginning to feel as if he would be permanently stuck with any teachers or leaders who were associated with the Christian education ministry of the church. Most of them were fairly effective, so he didn't have anyone on a "hit" list. But what if someone turned out to be an X-rated video freak or theological heretic of some sort, or what if a person who had looked like a winner in the interview process was unable to work with the other people in his department? Jeff wondered if he would be willing to take the chance of getting struck by another bolt of criticism.

Several weeks later Pastor Wilcox and his assistant had a long conversation about Jeff's frustrations over the problems which would be created if he was not permitted to, as he put it, "fire volunteers when it was necessary." The idea was foreign to the senior pastor. In all of his years of ministry he had never found it necessary to take such drastic steps, though he did admit that he had "prayed a few people out of their positions."

"I understand why you would want a volunteer to resign," commented the pastor, "but what would require such drastic action as forcing it to happen?"

Herb Wilcox was a shepherd at heart. He had spent his entire ministry pastoring people at times of need, encouraging dispirit-ed parishioners, holding the hands of hurting church members. The very idea of telling a person that he or she could no longer serve in a ministry position was foreign to his understanding of the pastorate.

"Mediocrity (or something worse) in the educational ministries of the church may be all we will have if we don't have the option of pruning unproductive branches from the church tree." Jeff hoped that the use of biblical images might enable the pastor to understand his point. "And one of the major reasons for mediocrity is the dissension created by people who are poor leaders, weak teachers, or who simply do not work well with others. I would have lost two or three good club leaders, for instance, if I had not asked Earl Benson to resign. Then I would have had to recruit and train new leaders in the middle of the year and that would have hurt the ministry to the boys."

"But do we have to fire them?" replied the pastor. "Can't we simply work with them to help them improve? This whole firing idea is so disruptive. The person who you fire gets hurt. Their friends and family get upset, and we spend the next three weeks putting the church back together after the explosion."

For the next hour or so the two men discussed the issues involved, when suddenly Jeff was struck with a blinding flash of the obvious-most of the problems which had been created had to do with communication. He had not been careful in telling volunteer workers what he wanted them to do, how he wanted them to do it, how their progress in ministry would be assessed, or what was expected of them in their personal development. No wonder people were upset. Even if his assessments of people were correct, he had been rather insensitive in how he had acted.

A four point "Firing Prevention Program" emerged in the next few minutes. Jeff was good at creating catchy names or slogans, but it took a solid four hours of work that afternoon to carefully define and write out what the four points included.

Careful Recruitment was the first and by far most important step. The process of interviewing prospective Christian education workers, which had been developed after the Marshall Burlington fiasco, had already helped Jeff avoid surprises later on as people worked in the educational ministry at the church.

All volunteers would have limitations, even if it were no more than a lack of time to invest in the ministry. But Jeff had learned to carefully discover positive spiritual and character qualities before asking a person to minister in the church. If he could be assured that a volunteer was walking with the Lord, a person of integrity, and able to get along with others, most other skills of ministry could be developed in time.

A second step would be to provide Clear Direction. Jeff was doing this on one level but needed to strengthen it on a second level. Written job descriptions provided for each ministry position allowed everyone involved to know what was expected of them. The specific ministry objectives needed strengthening. These would be established so that each youth worker could focus on the most important aspects of the job.

A ministry objective which Linda, a junior high sponsor, selected was to have each of her class members over for Sunday noon meal each quarter and have each girl share a prayer request for which Linda could pray daily. With this ministry objective so clearly stated, both Jeff and Linda felt comfortable with her ministry activity for the year.

Consistent Communication would become the third aspect of the "Firing Prevention Program." Jeff had been consistent about having Christian education worker meetings but most of the time he had talked about the wrong things. The bulk of the time had been spent on details of planning. A heavier (though not exclusive) emphasis should have been placed on the teachers and leaders sharing their progress in their own spiritual pilgrim-age and in attaining their ministry goals.

By doing this, Jeff would not have to worry about directing a conversation to problem areas. He could affirm a person when he saw signs of progress and encourage or nudge one when progress was slow or nonexistent. It would also provide a forum in which questions could be raised about the best place of minis-try for a volunteer and, if necessary, lovingly attempt to redirect one's energies for the glory of God.
Concern for the Individual was the final step in the plan. As he looked back, Jeff was convinced that most of his concern was for himself or for the program. He allowed Earl to continue as a club leader and avoided confronting him because Jeff wanted to be liked. He didn't want to disrupt a relationship even though it
was not especially healthy.

What the CE minister had to recognize was that part of ministry was assisting volunteers to become whole persons as they ministered. Sometimes this would mean redirecting a person into a different area of ministry because her abilities simply did not match the requirements of the task. Other times it would mean confronting a volunteer with the fact that he was not living up to the ministry potential which God had given to him. Always it involved praying for the person and thinking in terms of his or her best interests.

By the end of his creative afternoon, part of the problem had been solved. Pastor Wilcox would be much more comfortable because these ideas provided a method for caring for people while still maintaining the integrity of ministry leadership. Still the problem nagged Jeff. If he had to fire a volunteer worker again, how would he do it?

Fortunately, Jeff didn't have to test his new system for nearly two years. By that time the ministry was growing fast. Actually, growth was a major part of the problem.

Ted Wilson was one of the first children's church workers Jeff had recruited when he came to his job. Ted was as sharp a person as a pastor could have wanted to minister beside. As soon as Ted graduated from college he had taken a sales position with a pharmaceutical firm and had been one of their top salesmen. At the same time he maintained an amazing "quiet time" and commitment to his group of preschool children. He was almost too good to be true. Jeff's "Firing Prevention Pro-gram" seemed irrelevant with Ted.

As the educational ministry grew, it became obvious that Beginner's Church needed to be split into two sections, one for four-year-olds and the other for kindergarteners. Though there were enough staff most of the time, the room was simply too crowded for the children to worship without having unnecessary discipline problems. So Jeff split the Beginner's Church and when Wanda Buckingham, the Beginner's Church team leader, requested the opportunity to work with the kindergarten children, Jeff turned to Ted for help.

After developing a workable job description and ministry goals, Ted agreed to take on the responsibility. That's when the problems began. At first it was only little things. He would miss appointments with Mary Ellen Watkins, the early childhood coordinator or show up unprepared to planning sessions for the newly created department. Jeff tended to excuse this due to Ted's growing sales responsibilities. But matters came to a head when Ted apologetically bowed out of the children's ministries workshop at the last moment. It was not as if the workshop had been a surprise to Ted. Both Jeff and Mary Ellen had talked with Ted about his participation in the workshop when the new department was created. Besides, it was written into his job description and was included in the ministry goals to which Ted had agreed. Though his reasons for missing the workshop seemed valid and his walk with the Lord was as strong as ever, Ted's heart simply did not appear to be with the Children's Church for four-year-olds.

Jeff faced an agonizing decision. After bathing the matter in prayer for several days, the CE minister concluded he was going to have to fire Ted-or at least reduce his responsibilities in the Children's Church. Mary Ellen fully agreed but felt uncomfortable breaking the news to Ted.

After the monthly meeting of preschool departmental leaders, Jeff and Mary Ellen asked Ted to evaluate the job he was doing in leading the newly created department. Reluctantly, and yet with no apologies, Ted critiqued himself with his usual crisp, analytical style. Each failure which Jeff would have suggested, Ted described in detail. In fact, Mary Ellen ended up defending Ted from his own criticism, feeling he was being too hard on himself.

As they concluded their conversation, Jeff asked Ted what he thought should be done to resolve the problems. "Unfortunately," Ted responded, "the problem is me. My heart is just not in it. I'm going to have to step aside and let someone else do the job."

Realizing that even his old commitment to work as a table teacher with four-year-olds was no longer appealing to him, the three leaders set a date a month later for Ted to turn over his leadership role to someone else.

An emptiness echoed within Jeff as he walked to his car that night. He had just "fired" a friend. There would be no special board meetings or angry phone calls. There would only be an open spot in four-year-old Children's Church and an empty niche in Jeff's heart for a friend with whom he would no longer spend as much ministry time.

The story ended happily-and sadly. Two years later Ted asked Jeff to do the premarital counseling and wedding ceremony for him and his lovely bride Lynn. That was a supreme honor, since most of the couples in the church were married by Pastor Wilcox.

Then, less than a year later, the honor was amplified under sadder circumstances. On his death bed, dying of a rare liver ailment, Ted asked if Jeff would perform his funeral. Through his own tears the young pastor agreed.

Three days later Jeff eulogized the volunteer he had fired.


When a Christian educator concludes that the efforts of a volunteer worker must be terminated, three factors should be taken into consideration: preparation, timing, and procedure.


1. Prayer. Before rushing out and firing a volunteer, the careful minister of Christian education will spend time asking God if, when, and how the person should be terminated. Prayer should be focused on both the best interests of the ministry and the person.

2. Documentation. Write down the problems that have been observed as they occur. Though the Christian educator should avoid bringing this information into the conversation when dismissing a person, at least as proof of the fairness of the decision, the documentation does help a pastor avoid emotionally based decisions. It helps maintain objectivity.

3. No surprises. Firings should not catch the person being terminated off guard. Some type of ministry performance review should be provided for all volunteers, and in this process areas of concern or failure should be brought to the attention of the offending party. Then if the person does not respond to such suggestions he or she should not be shocked by the firing procedures. A similar procedure is outlined in Matthew 18:15-17.

4. Keep pastor posted. In circumstances where problems may result, it is best to explain to the senior pastor why and how the firing will take place. His wisdom and experience may make the process easier.


1. Don't rush. Rapid termination of a volunteer rarely is done well. Emotions may blur good judgment. Facts get confused. Task orientation sometimes hinders sensitivity to people.

2. Don't renew. If possible, rather than fire a volunteer, it is better not to invite the person to teach or sponsor for another year. This means that each volunteer should have an automatic "sunset" on his or her commitment. A ministry cut-off date usually occurs at the end of a school year or at the beginning of the next one. Absence of renewal, however, does not mean an absence of communication. The volunteer deserves the right of an honest appraisal even if not asked to continue in the current capacity.

3. Don't delay. In situations where moral or theological problems are involved, the Christian educator must act with all deliberate speed. As soon as the facts are verified, action should be taken. Remember, however, this type of action is not designed to destroy the volunteer. On the contrary, every effort should be made to be redemptive - both for the person and for the ministry.


1. Private appointment. Firings should not be done publicly. A specific time should be established when the CE minister (or other supervisor) and the volunteer can evaluate the ministry effectiveness of that person.

2. Self-evaluation. Rather than dumping a load of complaints on the volunteer, the wise supervisor will first ask the person for an appraisal of the year's ministry in the light of the job description and ministry objectives. A majority of the time the volunteer will be harder on himself than the supervisor would have been.

3. Confront if necessary. If the volunteer appears blind to the weaknesses which seem obvious to others, then the person will need to be told of specific shortcomings. This must be done in a spirit of love and respect.

4. Affirm positive qualities. Sometimes the self-evaluation or loving confrontation will obscure the positive contributions that a person has made. Such activities should be complimented specifically and genuinely to avoid this problem.

5. Allow resignation. After the problems have been examined, ask the volunteer what should be done. If he or she resigns, accept the resignation with humility of spirit. If the person still does not get the picture, the Christian education leader will have to ask for the resignation.

6. Redirect talents. Usually there is another place in the church or a nearby parachurch agency where the fired volunteer could put his or her skills to better use. The mature pastor spends sufficient time getting the fired volunteer settled in a different and more appropriate ministry position.

7. Follow-up. Even if the fired volunteer does not become settled in another ministry position, the education minister/supervisor should check back with the former team member to insure continued Christian growth and fellowship.


Mark H. Senter III is chair of the Department of Educational Ministries and associate professor of educational ministries at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He has been at Trinity since 1982. Prior to that, Senter served as youth pastor for 11 years and as pastor of Christian education at Wheaton Bible Church for 7 years.

Senter's areas of expertise include youth ministry, volunteerism, administration, and continuing education. He is a member of the North American Professors of Christian Education. He is a consultant for churches and parachurch agencies in periods of transition.

Senter's publications include Reaching a Generation for Christ (co-edited with Richard Dunn) (Moody 1997), The Coming Revolution in Youth Ministry (Victor 1992), Recruiting Volunteers in the Church (Victor 1990), and The Complete Book of Youth Ministry (co-edited with Warren Benson) (Moody 1987). He contributed to More Than Conquerors and his numerous articles have been published in periodicals such as Youthworker, Moody, Christianity Today, Leadership, and Christian Education Journal. Senter has also written chapters for other volumes on youth ministry.


This article was originally chapter 13 of Recruiting Volunteers in the Church, by Mark Senter III, Victor Books, copyright 1990 by SP Publications. Currently out of print. Used by permission of Mark Senter.