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When Volunteers Disappoint

Work through disappointment and create realistic expectations for your team.

Leadership is an unpredictable ship to navigate. We can’t sail the boat without a crew and we can’t always control the crew—let alone the wind and the waves! Maybe the real problems arise when we try to.

My husband and I have been leading long-term healing and discipleship groups for more than 20 years. Our structure includes a teaching time followed by discussion groups. As each new season starts, we set aside one day for training new leaders. We always include our expectations, including: show up when you say you will, communicate if you have a moral failure, be prepared when you speak, and more. The first time someone who is new to the team is scheduled to share or teach, we have them run the talk by us and give them constructive feedback. So when MaryAnne*, who was a new teacher, stepped to the microphone, I thought we were on the same page.

When she reached her 30- minute limit, however, it was clear that we were not. At the 45-minute mark, I tried to make eye contact and subtly communicate that she needed to wrap up. I failed. The next 15 minutes were agonizing for me. I went into catastrophizing mode, thinking the entire night was ruined. By the time she finally finished, I was beside myself. As I struggled to reorganize the evening, I noticed something: no one else seemed the least bit annoyed or even aware that MaryAnne had exceeded her time limit.

When I debriefed this later with my husband, he challenged me to explore why this was so bothersome. Yes, she had gone over, and yes, we had clearly communicated the time parameters, but her teaching was solid and accessible. He brought up the possibility that the problem wasn’t so much MaryAnne’s time management as my unrealistic expectations.

Volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, sometimes have little or no ministry experience, and display a wide range of maturity. That means not only will they go over their allotted time for teaching, but they may also have moral failures, abandon the team at the worst possible moment, or even incite a mutiny. Surprises and disappointment are an inevitable part of leadership. This is never going to change. But we can change our expectations for those who serve with us so we’re not regularly disappointed.

The Face of Disappointment

Disappointment can be nebulous. It sometimes manifests as sadness, irritability, or anger. Disappointment tends to surface in connection to what others have or have not done. We feel disappointed because teammates failed to show up for a mandatory meeting, did not prepare for their teaching, or make condescending comments.

In Making Marriage Beautiful, Fuller Seminary professor Dr. Jeffrey Bjorck explains, “At its core, disappointment is an initial response to learning that our expectations will not be met. Choosing to remain in a place of disappointment constitutes a failure to accept and grieve the loss of those expectations. By not accepting the losses, we perpetuate unhealthy disappointment.” Unhealthy disappointment can lead to micromanaging, cynicism, constant criticism, and, ultimately, burnout. This makes handling disappointment in healthy ways critical to healthy leadership—but it’s not always easy to do.

Dealing well with disappointment has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn, not just as a leader but as a human being. I tend to hold myself and others to impossibly high standards. There are many problems with this mindset, first and foremost a notable lack of grace.

God regularly reminds me that disappointment points back to me. I perpetuate unhealthy disappointment when I refuse to let go of control and assume everyone should lead like I do. The body of Christ is amazingly diverse and should not conform to my expectations. The challenge for me is to recognize disappointment quickly, name it, and then work to discern what it’s trying to teach me. Here are some of lessons I’ve learned for dealing with disappointment.

1. Work on self-awareness.

We can’t have realistic expectations of others if we don't have realistic expectations of ourselves. That means I need to be self-aware and admit my own limitations and areas of sin. I, too, have gone over time when teaching (more than once!), missed meetings, and resorted to sarcasm rather than honest dialogue. By routinely confessing my heart sins to another human being, I confront this reality. To help with this, our leadership team regularly has corporate times of confession. If I am struggling with someone on my team, though, I will confess any related sins (for example, impatience or judgment) to someone who is one step removed.

Confession is not the end goal—repentance and increased maturity are. After confessing, I work to change any ungodly, ingrained habits or thought patterns. This also includes evaluating whether my expectations of myself and my volunteers are actually realistic.

2. Train volunteers.

Sometimes feelings of disappointment reveal areas where our volunteers are undeveloped. As we are able, and as our volunteers are willing, we may need to develop and mentor them. If they have taken a spiritual gifts survey that indicates aptitude in teaching, we cannot assume we can simply hand them a topic and expect a stellar delivery. It might takes months or even years of mentorship and practice before we see real evidence of that gifting. Having realistic expectations requires that we understand what our volunteers are capable of.

3. Pray.

Prompted by God, I started giving my teammates 3x5 cards every month and asking them to write down confidential prayer requests. This gives me a window into their lives and the extenuating circumstances that they’re facing. If someone is dealing with a chronic health issue or an unexpected layoff, it’s obviously going to affect them in their role. Knowing this helps me extend grace and mercy, and my prayers help them feel loved.

4. Have the hard conversation.

If you routinely feel disappointment (or frustration) with a particular team member, don’t back away from having those hard and seemingly impossible conversations. I never look forward to initiating a conversation along the lines of, “It seems that things are a bit problematic. Can we talk about what’s going on?” They not only help me to grow, however, but often provide essential feedback. Work to find the balance of extending grace and confronting appropriately.

5. Gratitude. Gratitude. Gratitude.

My disappointment always diminishes when I authentically express gratitude. I’ve learned that the more specific I am, the bigger the payoff. This means I try to avoid offering generalities (“Great job tonight.”) and go for specifics (“When you engaged with the participants during that last section and went directly into prayer, the Spirt of God met them in a powerful way. Thank you for being sensitive to these dynamics.”).

Whenever you notice that you are grumbling or not enjoying leadership, take a moment to see if disappointment is the issue. Now that I’m learning to recognize disappointment and discern what it’s trying to tell me, I find that I’m less controlling and more relaxed. I’m also able to truly enjoy and appreciate the men and women that the Lord raises up in our ministry—even if they go over on their allotted teaching time!

* Not her real name

Dorothy Littell Greco is an author and writer living outside Boston. She is a regular contributor to WomenLeaders.com and CT Women, and a member of Redbud Writers Guild. She is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful.

May15, 2017 at 11:13 AM

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