This post was written by Mercedes Hayes, a member of the INCM Blog team.
One of the beauties of ministry to children is the tapestry it creates from the loving people around them – grandparents, parents, foster parents, aunts, uncles, children, friends, and volunteers. From the beginning of creation, it has been God’s design for us to live and work in community.
It is a gift and a difficulty. Each person is gifted by God and flawed by their humanity.
As a brand new children’s minister, like a new pair of jeans with the tag still on, I experienced the heartbreak of humanity.
One of our pillar volunteers faltered in a monumental way. I looked up to this person beginning in my childhood. I loved this person, and I still love this person. This person is God’s child and actively sought after God’s heart. But they made an error that frayed the tapestry.
When the transgression happened, I remember praying that there was a manual I could pick up for a step-by-step guide on how to proceed with compassion, grace, and firmness.
As I have become tenured in my position, I have learned with all the training, preemptive measures, and insurances, volunteers still falter.
This is my recommendation on what to do when someone on your team falters because you might find yourself in the same situation as I was.
1. Document everything.
Immediately, begin the documentation process. It is necessary to proceed with fresh memories of witnesses. Human memories and minds are malleable. The more times an event’s story is told, the memory becomes a patchwork of details – some true, some misremembered. This makes a person’s recollection less accurate. This is not people intending to lie or distort facts. It is a scientific truth of how human our minds are designed.
Just a note: If you intend to audio record a conversation, make sure you are aware of your local laws on audio recording. Some laws allow you to record a conversation with consent. For others, you can record without consent. Still others, you cannot record at all.
2. Pray and be still with God.
After documentation, do not proceed further without consulting our Creator and Guide. It is easy to feel like we know what needs to be done immediately. I implore you: do not make rash judgements or decisions.
Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (NLT)
I have found this wisdom to ring true in difficult circumstances.
3. Deter gossiping and do not participate in it.
Oftentimes you will find the person who has made the error tell an altered version of events, trying to discredit other parties. Do not participate or engage in this behavior. It is tempting to convince yourself you are just informing others of what really happened by passing the information on.
If you engage in gossip or allow it to happen in your presence, you are handing Satan the shovel to dig a deeper hole. The toxic crater will continue to form. Make a list of parties who need to remain informed and do not speak to anyone not on it about the situation.
If asked directly about what happened, create a response along these lines: “With respect to the persons involved and to maintain the integrity of our ministry I will document, inform necessary leadership, and keep what I know private. Your family’s safety spiritually, emotionally, and physically is of the utmost importance to us.”
4. Decide if this is an error you can walk back from or if you need to say “goodbye.”
God’s grace and forgiveness extends to all of us. At the same time, safety for the people entrusted to us for ministry is our top priority. There are times the sin is too egregious to allow the person to continue in the ministry. The risk is too high. Other times with strong, compassionate guidance and retraining, reconciliation can happen. This decision requires prayerful consideration for you to make with your leadership.
From my story when I was a brand new leader, no one wanted to make that decision. This person was so invested and had poured so much to teach God’s word to the children. But there was no way to safely walk the volunteer back into a room with children. It would have been negligent. Though it was difficult, we knew we had to say “goodbye” to this volunteer.
5. Connect with empathy, but lead with compassion.
In December 2021 Harvard Business Review published an article with this exact title. It described that for a leader to be effective they must understand the difference between empathy and compassion.
When leading with empathy you mirror the emotions of the other person which makes it impossible to consider the greater good, clouds judgment, and makes us less effective at making wise decisions. Compassion allows you to help the person and consider the needs of your ministry as a whole. I recommend that you read the full article here.
In my situation, I was kind. I listened to my volunteer with an open heart and mind. I sought to understand what brought my volunteer to make the poor choice she did. If I led with empathy, as some of my leaders did, I would have responded with, “I understand you were mad. I would have done the same thing,” which would have allowed an unsafe situation to continue.
However, God guided my heart with compassion. I knew she was a wonderful person who made a mistake. I also knew for the integrity of the ministry, she could no longer continue in the position she held. In fact, I was able to listen and coach her to a point where she personally concluded that she couldn’t continue and removed herself from the position. She knew I had forgiven her, God had forgiven her, and she was loved. She also knew why she was no longer fit to continue in her role.
Every time you have a moment of human error, take a look at your systems and see what you can do or put in place to prevent or reduce the probability of it happening again.
In my situation, I created a new system for volunteers to notify me when they feel triggered or overwhelmed which might cause them to act without thinking. I have taught them that I am never too busy to step in and provide emotional support when needed. We also taught other volunteers to keep an eye on each other’s emotions. If they see someone starting to feel stressed or emotional, then I am immediately notified and I assess the situation. This is a no guilt, no accusation, agreement. All parties are grateful. They have communicated their relief that there is no shame in asking for help.
7. Praise and show gratitude to God.
You will have these moments in your leadership. It is inevitable in the flawed world we live in. It may seem dark and difficult at the time. But I encourage you, at the end, if you step back, you will see God’s hand in the process. You will see the gifts He bestows upon your ministry, families, volunteers, and you through this trial.
However, you might miss it if you don’t take a moment to step back and appreciate His work. As 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 reminds us, “Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” (NLT) All circumstances means all, regardless of the challenge. It’s ok to praise and be grateful even when it’s hard.
Hopefully failures of leadership never happen in your ministry. But if they do, I pray this guide will help you to navigate the situation with compassion and discernment.
Mercedes Hayes is a fun, adventurous, and determined force in the children’s ministry world. As a well-seasoned children’s minister, she loves opportunities to help other leaders grow into their strengths to improve their ministry and ability to share The Good News. Equipping others to use their gifts is one of her absolute favorite things! Along with coffee, dill pickle chips, planning vacations, her five kids, and her ever so patient husband who is always
willing to follow her on random adventures, she