One of the most frustrating events in ministry is when key volunteers quit.
Ministry is people work. Its "life on life" and the longer you are active in a particular role the more effective you become, which is why it is so disappointing when volunteers bail.
It’s hard not to get mad isn’t it? My mind runs to statements like:
“Were you not listening when I outlined the expectations?”
“This really leaves us in a tough spot.”
“I can’t believe you put your selfish desires ahead of the people you are serving.”
Yeah, yeah, I know... not very mature.
But, let’s be real. You’ve had these thoughts too. We get frustrated because it’s ministry. It’s all about relationships and the work really matters!
But, here’s something I’ve learned. There’s often something behind the words of the volunteer who is stepping down (even if I think the reason is lame).
They’ve often experienced a weakness in the ministry or my leadership that I need to be aware of. It’s not very fun but it’s often worth digging into the rationale of a quitting volunteer to discover if there is something in your ministry or church that needs to be tweaked or corrected.
So, let’s talk about six phrases that a quitting volunteer might use and the meaning behind their statements.
1) “I Need a Break"
One of the most common reasons volunteers give when stepping down is that they need a break, or that they’re tired or that they need to focus on themselves for a while.
Sometimes this is absolutely true but other times “I need a break” means that we are over-utilizing volunteers.
A few years ago we did a volunteer survey and discovered that volunteers who reported low levels of satisfaction with their volunteering experience at our church were volunteers who were serving in multiple ministries at once.
They were simply stretched too far and were exhausting themselves. One of the problems was that our different ministries had no regular system of communication about volunteers who were serving in multiple areas.
This, we realized was a problem.
Now, we flag these situations as potential hazards. We choose not to recruit people who are actively serving in another area of our church because, let’s be real, these people will often say yes to every serving opportunity because their hearts are gold.
Sometimes it’s our job as ministry leaders to protect our people by putting a cap on how often and in how many ways they serve.
2) "I'm Not Making an Impact"
Sometimes volunteers walk away because they just don’t feel like what they are doing matters.
This is often a reason that is given by our small group leaders who decide to bail a year or less into the gig.
The truth is that ministry is a long-term investment. You are making an impact but you probably won’t feel it for a few more years. What I’ve come to realize is that when people say “I’m not making an impact,” it means that we need to tell more stories.
It’s our job as ministry leaders to constantly remind our people that what they are doing matters. And, we not only need to tell them, we need to show them.
We are in the habit of telling stories every week—stories about the impact of our ministry. We all need to hear these stories because they motivate, remind and encourage.
Who in your church or ministry is collecting and telling stories? This is an incredibly important role.
3) "I'm Not Good at This"
Another reason that volunteers quit is because they don’t feel like they are doing a good job.
Sometimes this is because the role they are in is not a good fit with their gifts but most of the time is because of a lack of clarity around the goals or a lack of training around how to meet the goals.
We all hate losing and we all love winning. It’s simple human nature.
Do your volunteers know what it means to win in their role?
If your volunteers understand what winning looks like on a Sunday morning or a Wednesday evening and if they have been equipped to do what is necessary to win, the morale and effectiveness of your volunteer teams will skyrocket.
Bringing clarity around these areas is fundamental to longevity and satisfaction in volunteers.
4) "I Feel Like a Cog in the Machine"
There was a phase in our church’s history where I heard this complaint a lot from volunteers and even staff.
It’s tempting to rationalize these complaints away but there is usually a serious problem behind these statements.
The reason people feel like a cog in the machine is because they aren’t in relationship with the people who are leading them. They aren’t feeling valued or appreciated.
Who is connecting with your volunteers relationally? Who is listening to them, asking them about their lives and praying for them?
In our student ministry, we’ve structuring our staff so that half of our team is focused in this area. In addition, each volunteer in our ministry is automatically placed in a community of 8-10 other volunteers so that their serving experience is a “together” experience.
Why do we do this? Because people who feel cared for, encouraged and appreciated are far more effective and serve for much longer.
There is a deep desire in all of us to be known and to belong. How can we as ministry leaders lean into these longings and help our volunteers connect relationally?
5) "It's Too Stressful"
In the past, my first reaction to this rationale was usually a stifled eye roll.
But what I’ve learned is that if volunteers feel stressed it is usually because there is a communication problem in the ministry. What I mean is that the plan isn’t being communicated clearly enough or early enough.
For example, some of our small group leaders experience stress if they don’t receive the small group questions from our staff a week from the event or if they come to our winter retreat without knowing what cabin they will be staying in, who else is in that cabin and what the schedule is for the weekend.
By nature I’m a “go with the flow” kind of guy but what I’ve come to realize is that if I place this expectation on my volunteers there is going to be trouble. Some of them will experience stress and stress isn’t fun!
As ministry leaders, it’s on us to communicate clearly and early enough so that our communication builds trust and communicates value instead of generating stress.
6) "I Don't Agree with the Vision"
This is one of the most frustrating things to hear as a ministry leader.
This comment often comes during a season of transition either from one leader to another or when leadership changes how a ministry functions.
Sometimes there truly is a lack of alignment for the volunteer but what I’ve come to realize is that usually “I don’t agree with the vision” means that the volunteer isn’t feeling heard. In other words, no one has engaged their questions and objections in a meaningful way.
As ministry leaders it is tempting to write someone off when you hear that they don’t agree with the vision because it feels like an attack.
But, there is wisdom in sitting down with that person, asking thoughtful questions, listening well and then carefully explaining the reasons behind your vision. In my experience, this conversation is usually a unifying conversation.
Most people are mature enough to jump on board.
There are, of course, times when it’s truly time to part ways but at the very least, after a conversation like this, the separation is at least peaceful.
So, my encouragement would be to fight the temptation to get frustrated or hurt when you hear that a key volunteer doesn’t agree with your vision. Listen to them and carefully explain your vision.
So there you go, six reasons volunteers quit and what they really mean.
If you are experiencing high turnover in your volunteer positions, I would encourage you to start by helping your volunteers understand what it looks like to win. And if you're looking for additional reading on the topic, you may find one of our previous volunteer-related articles helpful:
- 4 Strategies for Recruiting More Volunteers
- How to Retain and Inspire your Church’s Volunteers
- 4 Reasons Your Church Doesn’t Have Enough Volunteers
We’d love to hear your thoughts on these reasons and your experience with volunteers who walk away. Feel free to leave a note in the comments below.