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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.

May15, 2017 at 11:13 AM

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