When to ‘fire’ a volunteer

Wednesday 22 April 2015 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Administrative Professionals Day

You know me, dear readers. I have a sense of humor that keeps me seriously dedicated to my writing. After weeks of frivolity, however, I need to get serious. I want to share with you a pastoral responsibility that I find difficult: removing a Church volunteer from a particular ministry. It’s an eventuality any administrator must face. For a priest, it’s a very delicate situation needing to be handled with the utmost charity. 

Church volunteers are not the same as those of other institutions (be they for-profit or not-for-profit). Where would a Church be without a dedicated band of volunteers? These are crème de la crème parishioners who generously offer time and talent to the Church. 

Most parishes don’t have someone charged with recruiting, training, and overseeing Church volunteers. In fact, I’ve never met a parish human resource officer. The task often falls to the pastor — or at least, when all is said and done, he becomes the default person.

By their very nature, priests tend to be caring, sensitive and people-centered. It goes hand-in-hand with today’s ministry. Who would ever want to be called to the priesthood if he couldn’t stand dealing with people every day for the rest of his life? People-person types often find it difficult to deliver the dreaded line, “You’re fired.” We are the very antithesis of Donald Trump. This makes it extremely difficult for a priest to say such a thing. I find it personally distressing. Nevertheless, it sometimes becomes absolutely necessary for the good of the community and for the good of the individual. Like it or not, it’s part of my job. When that time comes, I want to do everything humanly possible to be calm, kind, and compassionate. I want to do my best to assure that the volunteer’s relationship with the parish remains intact.

Secondly, those who take an active part in the life of the parish are, strictly speaking, not volunteers at all. Ideally, they are not doing something because they want to feel good about themselves or because they want to increase their influence or status in the community. They do what they do because they are baptized. In Baptism, all of us take on the responsibility to support the Church. According to No. 2043 of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” “The faithful have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities.” This means more than occasionally putting a dollar bill in the collection basket. 

Let’s consider preventative strategies. How does the parish recruit volunteers — a personal invitation — a blurb in the bulletin? Is there a clear job description for volunteers? Is a well-meaning parishioner always accepted into any parish ministry regardless of ability to fulfill the role? Should a cantor be able to carry a tune? Should a Church organist know how to read music? Should a reader know how to proclaim Scripture and how to use a microphone? Should a collection counter know how to accurately count money? Does a catechist need to know Jesus and to practice the faith? These are questions of competency. Avoid future problems by not trying to force a round peg into a square hole. This, by the way, applies equally to all the baptized, including the ordained.

Look at the parish volunteer orientation and training. Is an altar server taught the difference between a thurible and a purificator? Are the gift bearers informed of the correct time to present the bread and wine? Are the musicians clear on the varying degrees of priority assigned to music in the Liturgy? How are volunteers recognized and thanked? Avoid future situations by initial training, continuing education, unwavering support, and adequate supervision. 

If a problem seems to have developed, get the facts. Do not act on gossip. It is important that your decision is based on accurate and objective information. Also, once you have verified the facts, don’t delay in taking action. Delay makes the situation worse. 

What would be the reasons for letting go a volunteer already in service? Be alert to problems of conduct. Some of these are cause for immediate removal. In this category would be violation of the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children, carrying a firearm into a Church setting, theft of Church or personal property, functioning under the influence of drugs or alcohol, physical violence or threats thereof, and other grievous behaviors. This also applies equally to all the baptized, again including the ordained, the salaried and the non-salaried. 

Maybe a moral line has been crossed. Maybe the faith is being erroneously expressed. Are there unacceptable attendance, dependability, or other behavioral issues? Don’t overlook the possibility that the volunteer may be affected by economic problems, declining physical or mental health, aging, or increasing time constraints. Perhaps there are situations in a volunteer’s personal life that are affecting performance. 

It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. If not, volunteer morale suffers, as does the whole parish.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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