How to Help a Volunteer Step Away Gracefully
“Do you have a minute?”
It’s a question that strikes fear in the heart of many a leader. Rarely does that question lead to “…I have an extra bag of Dove dark chocolates, and I’d like you to sit here and eat them while I play the cello softly in the background. Oh, and here’s a puppy.”
No, “Do you have a minute?” more often leads to a volunteer with an issue that’s a really big deal to them, and it’s about to be one for you. Whether it’s a team conflict, a spiritual crisis, or an objection to the way you handled an situation on the team, the answer to “Do you have a minute?” should always be yes.
Sometimes, “Do you have a minute?” is the lead-in to a volunteer letting you know it’s time for them to take a break or step away from serving altogether. So what do you do when that long-serving and ever-faithful volunteer tells you that they’re exhausted and need some time away? I think there are at least five things:
1. Listen to them.
“Do you have a minute?” may mean you have a minute right then, or it may mean that you need to carve out several minutes in the very near future. Either way, take the time to honor them with your time. Let them unpack their story. Ask good questions on what led them to this point. Gently challenge them at points where they may not be believing truth about themselves or their situation.
This is not the time to beg, bribe, or berate them. If you’re dealing with a faithful volunteer, let their track record speak for itself. If they say they’re tired, believe them. In that moment, put on your shepherding hat and suppress any panic you may be feeling about the gap on your team.
2. Affirm them.
After you’ve listened, take some time to talk. But keep the conversation about them, not you. Point out specific contributions they’ve made to the team and how God has used them. Remind them of the positive changes they’ve made to your culture. Encourage their need for a break, and don’t make them feel like they’ve let you, the church, or the kingdom of God down by being human. Remind them again of the gospel, that Jesus did everything necessary for their salvation, and their work – or lack of it – doesn’t add or take away anything from God’s love for them.
3. Plan with them.
In the “do you have a minute?” moment – or a designated time soon after – it’s time to talk logistics. Whenever a volunteer steps down, there will be gaps. If that volunteer is a leader, this conversation is even more crucial. Discuss how their team will be affected. Talk about timeline: are they stepping away immediately or transitioning next month? Talk about publicity: who needs to know when? Who already knows this is coming? Talk about their replacement: is there someone they’ve been investing in who would be a natural fit?
Asking your volunteer to define “what’s next?” honors their history on the team, their leadership of the team, and their hope for the future of the team.
4. Celebrate them.
I mentioned this in a recent post, but not all volunteers are comfortable standing in the spotlight, even if it’s to honor their years of service. How you celebrate them – publicly or privately – will depend on their personality. But celebrate them. Don’t let them slip away without appropriately recognizing their service over the years. Whether it’s a handwritten note, a framed photo signed by their former team, or an overnight getaway for them and their spouse, find a way to say thank you.
5. Check in with them.
This post assumes that we’re on the same page about Christ-followers retiring from service: they don’t. We never graduate from the call to use our spiritual gifts to serve others. Having said that, I believe that there are seasons when it’s healthy and necessary for a volunteer to step back or redirect their passions.
But that’s why this step is crucial. Talk to your volunteer about not only what’s next for their team (#3 above), but what’s next for them. Do they plan on returning? Returning in a different role? Redirecting their skill set to another role? You should both set a mutually-agreed-upon date on the calendar when you’ll check in to see how they’re doing and how they’ve processed the “What’s next?” question. Again: this is more about you serving as shepherd and not about you filling a hole on your roster.
“Do you have a minute?” is an opportunity to either build or erode trust with a volunteer. Handle that opportunity poorly, and you may lose them for life. Steward it well, and you might find that the volunteer comes back stronger and more bought into the mission of the team.