I stood in the kitchen of our youth house with another volunteer named Chris as he tore me to pieces. I was 21 years old and in my first year of full-time youth ministry. He was one of several volunteers that were angry with me. I made some changes in the programming and ministry that he didn’t like. The group was unhappy with my vision and couldn’t get on board. All of it came out in that moment as he yelled. When it was finished I walked outside and sat on the curb. How did I get here? What was I going to do to move forward from this?
A decade later I’ve accepted a biblical reality: When you seek to do God’s work, opposition follows (Romans 7:21).
I’ve also learned that sometimes we unknowingly create opposition from volunteers needlessly. Pride is a destructive force when it comes to relationships. It is easy to look at an angry or antagonistic volunteer and suit up for battle while we read Ephesians 6 to ourselves in a mirror.
I’ve found that opposition from volunteers doesn’t need to be a battle. It can be an opportunity to build. Another volunteer named Bob and I butted heads early on but he wound up being my biggest supporter and champion at the end of that first year. Chris quit midway through. Both of those results were the right thing and here is how I did it:
Are you creating opportunities for conflict and opposition? Not to over generalize, but a lot of young pastors create conflict by their disorganization and lack of vision. Sure, you may know what is going on, but do your volunteers? Be mindful of places you are failing or falling short and causing conflict, first. If you are willing to change and can admit mistakes, you will go a long way to snuffing out opposition and conflict. I think Jesus said something about that involving splinters and logs, but I could be wrong (Matthew 7:5). If you struggle with this, ask people you trust to point out areas you are causing conflict to you. If they are brutally honest it will help you discern if you are really the issue and not your volunteers.
Maybe you aren’t the issue, though. After doing some soul searching, you’ve realized that you aren’t the source of the conflict. Break out the sword, right? Easy there, William Wallace. If you want to remove opposition from volunteers the next step is empathy. Have you tried to see things from their perspective? Feel what they are feeling? Empathy is a lost art. We are quick to demonize, blame and point fingers. It is hard to try to see things from another person’s perspective and have the humility to meet them where they are. Maybe that volunteer is upset at you because of something that has nothing to do with you. Maybe the opposition is coming from bad experiences with the prior youth pastor. If you are willing to meet someone where they are at, you will be able to walk with them rather than battle them.
Meet and Listen.
If you still can’t figure out what is going on, it is best to simply address it person to person and meet with the volunteer. This is not only smart and practical, it is biblical (Matthew 18:15). When we are struggling with someone and even facing opposition the worst thing we can do is gossip about them, talk badly about them to other people or address the issue with everyone except the person concerned. Those things may offer some kind of twisted “affirmation” or satisfaction, but ultimately will be detrimental and destructive. Schedule a meeting over coffee with the volunteer and ask questions, then listen. This isn’t a time for you to vent or justify or be angry. You just want to offer an opportunity for him or her to be heard. Simply listening often will open up a dialogue. Then you can work through how to move forward as a team.
Often, after a person has been heard and knows you care, he or she will be open to getting on your side. It may be something as simple and petty as the time you send out emails or the way that you are running food service or logistics. I’ve found that my volunteers have a pretty good read on a better way to run things, so when I impose a system that is illogical or doesn’t make sense for their lives I get opposition. By listening to their concerns and reconciling them, not only do I keep great volunteers but I grow and the ministry gets better.
This is hopefully a step you don’t need to take. Sometimes, the opposition isn’t going to cease. Sometimes, personalities don’t work well together. Sometimes, we can’t reconcile. If you have gone through the above steps and still are struggling with a volunteer or facing opposition, it is time to part ways. Asking a volunteer to step away is a hard thing to do, especially if that person has been involved for many years. Ultimately, opposition and conflict rarely stay hidden from the view of young people or the other adult volunteers. A house divided won’t stand, so if you just can’t seem to get someone to stop fighting you, it is time to ask them to leave.
You are going to find yourself in that “kitchen” eventually – standing at odds with a volunteer. Conflict is an opportunity for growth and change; how you navigate the situation will determine how healthy that growth is and how your team functions and, as an extension, cares for young people.
JOEL STEPANEK has been actively and passionately involved in youth ministry for over ten years. What began as a simple internship in a parish youth ministry office evolved into an incredible adventure that led him on numerous middle school lock-ins, high school retreats, and ultimately to meet his wife, Colleen, who is a campus minister. Joel is the Director of Resource Development for LIFE TEEN INTERNATIONAL where he creates engaging youth ministry resources for middle and high school students. Joel is a sought after speaker and has traveled across the world training youth ministers and speaking to teenagers. He is the author of two books, “THE GREATEST JOB ON EARTH: SEVEN VIRTUES OF AWESOME YOUTH MINISTERS,” and “TRUE NORTH: A ROADMAP FOR DISCERNMENT.”