I’ll Help (Volunteer Staff)

Raising a hand by osungam.

Last week I met with 43 pastors and rabbis and spent 3 days focused on the challenges of staffing and supervision in congregations. It was a marvelous time of mutual learning, conversation and experience sharing.  I always walk away from these events with incredible respect for clergy leaders and the rich set of circumstances (code for challenges/messes) that clergy leaders find themselves managing on a day to day basis.

Every year as I prepare to teach this event (offered by Alban under the Label “Stepping Up to Staffing and Supervision”) I ask participants to submit real life case studies that we might work with to explore the basic elements of  supervision. Each year I expect that I have “heard it all” when it comes to dysfunctional staff team stories. And, each year I am surprised at the new manifestations of dysfunction that emerge from the collective experience of the group.

This year I was interested in the number of challenges that clergy leaders shared relating to volunteer members of their staff teams. I suppose it is a logical manifestation of the difficult financial times that we face. More and more congregations are relying upon volunteers to do work on the staff team that used to be done by paid professionals. Significant dysfunction can emerge on a team when a volunteer operates outside the boundaries of good staff team behavior, especially when a clergy leader feels that they can’t address the problem because the person is “only a volunteer”.

Here is what I want to put out there as a theory of volunteer staff management. Accountability is not dependent upon the act of giving and receiving payment. Accountability happens in mutual conversations that involve setting expectations and boundaries and offering consistent feedback. And so it follows that:

  1. The definition of  “staff team” should not be limited to “those individuals who get a pay check from the church”. The staff team are those individuals who contribute regular, scheduled hours to the work of the church; who interact significantly with other staff to bring about ministry; and who are expected to personally own the mission of the congregation on some level. By virtue of this definition, there may be some people who get paid by the congregation that are not really staff . Possible examples might include hired  nursery workers and some property/custodial help. You probably also have some unpaid workers who really are staff team members by virtue of their consistent time commitments and staff interaction patterns. Possible examples might include regular office volunteers and volunteer administrative assistants.
  2. In order for the staff team to remain healthy, volunteer staff members must be subject to the same performance management practices as paid staff members.  They should have a clear supervisor, a written job description, and a regular performance evaluation. They should participate in a meaningful way in some part of the weeklystaff meeting to maintain their alignment with other staff members.
  3. We should fire volunteers who consistently fail to meet performance expectations  in the same way we would fire  paid staff members who consistently fail to meet performance expectations.


2 Responses to “I’ll Help (Volunteer Staff)”

  1. Louella Gleason Hext Says:

    Great article! I am a member of PAUMCS (Professional Association of United Methodist Church Secretaries) and just yesterday a secretary posted “her dilemma” on our daily email regarding how to handle a particular situation with a volunteer who was overstepping the boundaries. I sent the address of your website (and notated the article) to the members (over 6,000) that receive the daily PAUMCS email. Many of the secretaries had already responded as to how they would handle the situation. Your article put it all in a nutshell.

    On another note: I’m guessing you would want to know about a spelling error. The word “receive” is spelled incorrectly in the 4th paragraph. “Accountability is not dependent upon the act of giving and recieving payment.”

    Your blog is now one of my favorites.
    Louella Gleason Hext
    Longview, Washington

  2. Susan Says:

    Thanks Louella. I’m really glad to hear about your organization and to get linked into the network.

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