Volunteers: Saying Hello and Goodbye

Volunteers are the mechanism that pumps life into your mission. But a volunteer is not an employee—and the ministry has a lot of flexibility when it comes to managing them. 

The steps you take at each stage of the ministry/volunteer lifecycle help improve relations between the ministry and those people that freely give of their time and talent. Consistent application and documentation of your processes communicate overall expectations and work to decrease the ministry’s liability exposure.

Select a Good Fit

The groundwork you do on the front end leads to a smoother selection process and helps ensure a successful ministry/volunteer relationship.

Write a description. While not necessary, it never hurts to have a description of the volunteer position. A position description helps ensure consistency, communicates expectations, and provides direction to the volunteer. 

Standardize your screening process. It’s important to create a formalized process that’s consistent for all volunteer applicants. Use these four steps to make an informed decision: 

  1. Require a written application. In addition to standard information, ask for a driver’s license number if the position includes transportation to check driving records. Brotherhood Mutual has created a sample form to get you started.
  2. Require a criminal background check. Resist temptation to skip a criminal background check, especially for volunteers who work with children or vulnerable adults. Use a reputable company, then take results seriously. Ensure that the applicant signs a release for the screening.
  3. Check references. The best references come from places where the applicant has previously volunteered. Check at least two. Obtain a signed release from the applicant—this enables you to interview anyone you believe can provide information. 
  4. Conduct a personal interview. Before you start interviewing a potential volunteer, write out your questions in advance—that keeps the interview on track. Having two or more staff present for the interview allows you to compare notes following each interview. 

Let Go with Compassion

It’s difficult to imagine problems when a new volunteer begins work. For most volunteers, the time they spend serving is just a small portion of their busy lives. Most volunteers serve well, while a few may struggle because of overcommitting or a mismatched position. 

As a ministry, it’s tempting to be nice and offer grace when a volunteer’s behavior becomes an issue. That approach often creates bigger, and potentially costly, issues later. The kindest thing—and the thing that best protects the ministry—is to just be honest. 

There are times when removing a volunteer from service is necessary. The reasons are numerous, but common ones include theft, lack of respect for procedures, or unreliable participation. Take the following steps to help produce a favorable outcome for the volunteer and protect the ministry:

  • Guard against surprises. A volunteer should never be surprised if he or she is removed from a position. A consistent process ensures all volunteers understand your ministry’s expectations every step of the way. 
  • Help the volunteer process your decision. If the decision isn’t related to a grievous mistake, help the volunteer understand that removal is in the ministry and the volunteer’s best interest. You may even be able to suggest a different service post better suited to the volunteer’s gifts.
  • Gather paperwork, documents, passwords, and keys. Consider what the volunteer may have that belongs to the ministry, especially if the volunteer performs tasks from home. This can include files, work product, or other information that the volunteer doesn’t have a right to keep. Collect any keys or key cards prior to the volunteer’s exit. Make sure you can shut down the person’s access to email or the church database. This may also involve changing passwords.
  • Communicate decision to staff, other volunteers. Stick to the facts. Avoid providing personal details. Explain why additional details will not be forthcoming by restating your ministry’s confidentiality standards.

A Note About Offering a Reference

Whether the volunteer left on good terms or was removed from service, you are not obligated to offer a reference at any point. However, it’s not a good idea to pick and choose the people for whom you’ll offer a reference.

For consistency, develop a policy and stick to it. If you decide to give references, they must be objectively factual. If your ministry intentionally provides inaccurate information, unfounded opinions, or shields a volunteer’s past acts of violence or sexual abuse, it could be sued for negligence, defamation, or violating privacy issues. To protect the ministry, require those seeking a reference to provide a liability release signed by the former volunteer.