Toolbox: leading and managing volunteers and staff


Last time we looked at how to handle a grievance – most often brought by an employee. This time we are looking at the thorny issue of dealing with poor staff conduct and how to manage a disciplinary process.

Before we get into it, just a reminder that when we are working with people in ministry, things can be blurred quite easily between home and work life, with church and family commitments coming under strain as we all try to balance demands. Ministry doesn’t end. There is no outbox where we are finished. I’m saying that at the start of this article because initiating and then seeing through a disciplinary process takes its toll on all concerned. You should have in place pastoral support, outside the process, for those involved. 

What kicks off a disciplinary process?

A procedure might need to be initiated where there is either:

  • the suggestion of unacceptable or improper behaviour – that is, suspected misconduct.
  • the performance of someone is called in to question – that is, the capability of someone to do their job.

Resolved informally?

The first thing to ask is whether this can be resolved in an informal way. A line manager having a private conversation with the individual concerned might solve the issue and deal with it quickly. It is important throughout the process – informal or not – to listen to the person under scrutiny. What is their perspective? What do they think is happening? It might be that you can then agree improvements, set up some additional training or support and move on from their with greater clarity about what is expected – whether that is personal behaviour (needing minor adjustment) or understanding what is expected from their role.

Job descriptions are vital

What is important in addressing either of these areas, is being able to refer to the job description and the person specification. It is far easier to address problems with individuals where both of these documents are clear. It is tricky, for example, to ask someone why they haven’t been attending a meeting on a regular basis if their job description doesn’t require them to be there; people can only be expected to be competent in areas where there is clarity about what they are required to do. Equally, a situation at work might have changed and certain aspects of the work have become more demanding.

For example, an open youth club begins and the numbers of young people coming are high. This is leading to a challenge around the ratio of leaders and young people. This, in turn, is leading to stress among the team and concerns that the safeguarding of young people and volunteers is not all it could be. It might be that when a worker started there was no open youth club, it is a new venture. Have they had training in managing a larger team? Have they been well resourced to manage this increase in young people?

A ‘working document’

Before their capability is looked at, it is important to look at how the situation has developed and whether adequate support is in place. A job description should not look the same five years after someone has started a ministry role, but changes and growth have to be accommodated within the document. In reality, the job description is a working document.

The more important document is the person specification – this aligns with the values of the organisation and lays out clearly the expected behaviour as well as the attitude and aptitude you want. If these documents are clear and created well, referring to them will help address discipline issues informally.

Obviously, there are some situations which require a more formal approach. Examples of misconduct or actions that break workplace rules might be bullying, harassment, refusing to do work, being absent without permission.

Clear process

Regardless of the severity of a situation, a process needs to be followed that is clear and understood by all that are involved. Communication, as mentioned in my previous article about managing a grievance, is key. What are the steps? When do things need to be done by? Who is responsible for telling people what is happening? The process is stressful enough without leaving people in limbo.

If a situation does merit more than an informal conversation then, after an investigation to establish the facts, a formal written warning should be sent to the employee which details the findings, why it is either misconduct at work or their work isn’t up to scratch. Crucially, what should also be put in place is an action plan to remedy the situation.

“You should have in place pastoral support, outside the process, for those involved”

What might an action plan look like?

Depending on what needs to be addressed, there might be detail about how to conduct a particular piece of work, outcomes that begin to demonstrate the competence that has been lacking, training that needs to be done etc. Importantly, an action plan needs to focus on realistic and achievable outcomes.

So, asking someone to double the number of young people attending a Bible study group in the next six weeks (and every six weeks after that) when the church is struggling to reach out to young people effectively and there is little movement from senior leadership to make worship more accessible to younger generations, would be in the ‘unreasonable expectations’ category!

A more likely competence issue might relate to planning and preparation. An employee doesn’t seem to plan, preferring to ‘see what happens’ when young people turn up. Sometimes that works, but often it can be a bit of a mess. As you look more closely, it becomes hard to discern a discipleship plan or a theme in the teaching the young people are receiving.

This needs addressing as young people have started to drift, not really sure what is happening, as the youth worker doesn’t communicate until the last minute. This kind of situation is ideal for an action plan to address what is lacking in existing provision.

Line management

Where it is a competence issue, this can be labour intensive to rectify but, if there is a commitment to a process that develops and grows the worker, the benefits to working something through with them can be immeasurable. It can lead to greater engagement from the worker; the young people benefit form a well-planned programme, the team the employee is leading feel more motivated and supportive. It might mean weekly line management meetings for a while (where you might have been having them monthly).

Not everything can be worked out. It is important to put a plan in to place but also to set a timeframe for when improvement needs to be seen. If this doesn’t happen, then it might be that a final warning is given (again in writing) and this should include the potential of termination of employment if things don’t improve.

This is awful for all concerned but, if clear and consistent communication has happened throughout, then it might well be that an employee turns round and says: “You know, thanks for your support in trying to get me up to speed, but because of this process and the action plan we have worked on, I’ve increasingly become aware that maybe I’m not cut out for this.” This is a best-case scenario – ultimately, we want people to be in ministry where they fit and where God has clearly called them. If there is a growing sense that isn’t the case, then working on it together and enabling people to move on with dignity is what we should be aiming for. 


Sadly, we need to take a different tack where, again, after investigation to be clear about what has happened, gross misconduct has taken place. This could be anything from fraud to physical assault of others or repeated actions that have a negative impact on the organisation. What is super-important to remember is that the reputation of the organisation does not come before protecting people from harm.

If gross misconduct has been found to have happened, then following your processes, including written warnings and communication should then lead to a transparent statement to that effect and the reason why someone has been asked to leave. This is painful stuff, but really important – where there is harm and hurt, things need to be brought in to the light. If a church or organisation is to have integrity and be trusted then care for victims absolutely comes first.

As the church and faith-based organisations we need to do this well. Disciplinary and grievance procedures should not be an afterthought that we make up on the fly if something happens – that leads to disaster, we need to make sure we have the right things in place before we employ staff.