Dealing with Destructive Opposition from Volunteers in Youth Ministry
When working with volunteers in ministry, it’s like doing the tango: you won’t always agree about which direction to step. Sometimes one of you thinks the ministry should “do this,” while the other one wants “to do that.” Toes get stepped on…until you get to know each other, figure out a rhythm, do a little communicating, and dance the best ministry moves possible – together.
People serving together in a ministry won’t always agree on music choices, clothing, rules, driving speed, departure times, pick-up/don’t pick-up the hitchhiker, and so on. People who work together, friends, see things from different angles and perspectives and that’s OK. There’s a spectrum of normalcy to the “back and forth” of making team decisions.
In workshops I teach on volunteer development, I usually recommend letting volunteers have a great portion of the lead, so that you can save the “I’m the leader” card for when it’s really needed. Edwin Friedman calls this being a “self-differentiated leader” in his book about systems theory, “Failure of Nerve.”
But at the ends of the spectrum, places of opposition are out of the norm. They’re unhealthy, dangerous even. When there’s a volunteer on your team who frequently opposes your leadership to the point of defiance for your decisions, verbal disrespect for your leadership, and creating dissension amongst the team – you’ve got a problem and it has to stop. Not because you deserve better (and you do), but because it’s hurting your students. If adults think teenagers in the group aren’t picking up on the signals of opposition among the leaders, they’re wrong. This just adds fuel to an already burning fire among young people in America that Christians don’t love like they say they should.
So what to do? There are two ways to eliminate, or at least lessen, the problem of unhealthy opposition:
- Prevent it from happening
- Deal with it quickly when happening
There’s a reason youth leadership teams have created “Covenants of Conduct” and most often, it came from a time when something bad happened and team members said, “Um, never again, thank you very much.” So, before you ever invite someone to be a ministry leader, be sure that you and other youth ministry stakeholders around you have created a covenant that outlines how the team will treat each other, what the expectations are for keeping gossip at bay, and the proper procedure when someone has a complaint among the team. Having your team expectations “i’s dotted and t’s crossed,” where everyone signs off before coming onboard, puts everyone on notice and sets a high level of accountability.
Have a toxic volunteer, do ya? If you hear nothing else, hear this: Deal with the situation in a firm, loving way and do it way sooner than later. The longer unchecked opposition goes along, the bigger onion, the more the layers. If you think it’s complicated now, it’s going to get worse and by a lot!
First thing you do is talk it over with your boss. Make sure you have their backing in how to approach the toxicity. Then ask to chat with the volunteer in a non-threatening location, like a coffee shop. The volunteer is less likely to lose their cool in a public setting. Should you meet alone with them, just the two of you? Maybe, maybe not. Scripture says to try it just the two of you first…but if the situation is really negative, you might make sure there’s someone else with you or sitting nearby. Ask the volunteer their concerns, then listen, listen, and listen. Never say the phrase, “Yes, but…” because anything after that is defensive and will dial up an already potentially explosive situation. Once they’ve talked themselves out, go on to ask them how the two of you can get back to honoring the covenant each of you signed for serving the ministry together.
When you remind them of the covenant, they’ll remember what they agreed to. Look over it together; they’ll chastise themselves. You won’t have to. Ask them what you need to do to be a better leader. Ask them what you need to do to help them be a better leader. Have conversation about why you’re both in this ministry in the first place; hopefully, you’re both about Jesus and his students. Close the conversation by suggesting you both work on your agreed upon suggestions for the next 60 days. Write it all down in a summary, email it to them and your boss.
If it works, you’ve kept the potential political quagmire at a minimum.
You’ve also both become better leaders. If it doesn’t work, you gave it an honest shot, it wasn’t met, and you probably won’t have to ask them to step away. They’ll do it on their own. If not, you take a third person (someone trusted by you both) with you and ask the volunteer to take a break from the ministry. Do it with love, help them find another place to serve, and agree on how you’ll both share the news of them stepping away.
STEPHANIE CARO has been involved in ministry for more than thirty years. She’s the author of Thriving Youth Ministry in Smaller Churches and 99 Thoughts for the Smaller Church Youth Worker. She’s senior consultant for Ministry Architects and lives in Houston with her hubby and puppy.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.