Navigating Rocky Relationships with Volunteers by Dan Chapin
“THAT’S A STUPID IDEA!”
My leaders and I were in the middle of a brainstorming session about what theme to choose for an event. I wish I could say that this was the first time this person had said something hurtful to me or to another volunteer, but it wasn’t.
In most cases, the relationships you have with your volunteers are only going to be as healthy as you want them to be. Don’t be the leader who thinks that if you just hang on for one more year, the volunteer will leave and you won’t have to work with that person anymore. Here are some things I’ve learned from navigating rocky relationships with volunteers:
BE STRONG AND COURAGEOUS.
If you want to have healthy relationships with your volunteers, you have to have the courage to step into the discomfort. If you aren’t willing to be uncomfortable, you’ll never be able to face tough conversations.
Address issues with your leaders early on—don’t wait for them to get their stuff together, and don’t wait for them to feel guilty and come to you. Address any hurtful behavior or comments—even if it seems small. Unaddressed hurtful comments will lead to more hurtful comments. To let little comments go is to invite bigger hurt later. Be proactive and address those little comments before they become a big mess for you.
“He isn’t going to kill me.” This is a phrase I tell myself when I’m in the middle of a heated conversation. “He isn’t coming at me with a knife—I will survive this.” Our bodies have a natural fight-or-flight reaction when we’re faced with tough conversations. This is what causes our heart rates to increase, our foreheads to sweet, and our thinking to slow down. Our bodies think we’re in danger, so they send signals that say, “Prepare for attack!” If you can tell yourself that the person confronting you isn’t going to kill you, you can calm your nerves and put a heated conversation into perspective. (If a volunteer actually does come at you with a knife, you should put that fight-or-flight response to use and run—or use your mad Assassin’s Creed skills.)
MODEL FORGIVENESS AND REPENTANCE.
“I’m sorry for what I did—there’s no excuse. Is there anything I can do to make this right?” When you know you have hurt someone, don’t wait for that person to say something first. Tell them you’re sorry, and ask for forgiveness. If you take that first step, it will go a long way toward healing the relationship. And when your volunteers see you model repentance, they’re more likely to walk it out themselves. Remember, once you’ve said you’re sorry and have received forgiveness, you must begin the hard work of trying not to make the same mistake again.
BE A GOOD LISTENER.
When you have a rocky relationship with a volunteer, it can be easy to ignore what that person says because all you can hear in your mind is his or her last hurtful comment. Learn to really listen so that your volunteers know they’re being heard. Try to value your volunteers’ opinions, because if you don’t, you risk even rockier relationships.
Keep in mind how your treatment of volunteers affects your students. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 NIV).
Are you marked by the radical love of Jesus?
Do your students know that you love those who are tough to love?
Disciples of Christ are marked by how they love others when it’s hard.