I am the "head volunteer" for a "patch" of Churches in a group of 3 neighboring cities. My job is to encourage members of our churches and parents/teens of families attending our schools to take part in community engagement (bottle drives, tidying up the parking lots for the churches and schools, spaghetti charity dinners, etc.).

One of our newer "lead volunteers", Shou, has offended a long-time volunteer of ours, Mihai. Mihai basically handles 95% of our IT needs (i.e. databases, wrote a asset management web application for us, even paid for the "Amazon AWS" bill out of pocket). Mihai is one of the very few people (save for elderly volunteers) that doesn't have to "cycle" his duties (i.e. we require parents to alternate between picking up trashed, setting up tables for dinners, childminding, etc.) so that everyone has to share the more desirable volunteer duties (i.e. field trips) and the less fun ones (picking up trash or "needle sweeps"). We don't want people to get stuck doing the same tasks and becoming disheartened, and we don't want people to keep doing the "fun" tasks and feeling like there's some sort of hierarchy in place.

Well, Shou, while I was on vacation, decided to try and force Mihai to do trash duty and needle sweeps. Mihai (large guy) basically intimidated Shou and told him off somewhat aggressively (Shou is now afraid to be in the same building as Mihai). Mihai couriered me a set of encrypted thumb drives with all our database records and the source for our web app, and sent our pastor another package with the keys for the files on the thumb drive, and a note that read along the lines "I worked hard to get to where I am so I'd never have to do manual labor or pickup trash again".

Unfortunately, while we have the data, we have no idea how to re-configure the setup Mihai had, even with his lengthy instructions. The only local tech company that seems to understand all this stuff (databases, AWS, Kubernetes, etc.) is requiring $15,000.00 to take over the project, plus $600/month in fees. We need these systems back up, as we have depended on them for 7 years for all of our volunteer work. We offered to continue to pay the "AWS bill", but Mihai noted that the system was already completely decommissioned when he elected to stop paying the bill (i.e. no way to "restore" the entire setup and keep using it).

We've offered Mihai money (which he was offended by), promises he'd never be bugged by Shou again, etc.; and no luck. Mihai is willing to resume his volunteer duties if, and only if, Shou does one of the following:

  • Washes Mihai's feet after mass (with 2 witnesses present).
  • Begs Mihai while on his knees for forgiveness in front of the congregation (pastor would never allow this).
  • Apologies publicly online via a YouTube video.

I can't condone any of these actions, and we're also in serious trouble if we can't get these systems back up (deadlines will be missed, work won't be done, and we'll be in serious trouble handling end-of-year taxes this month). How can we fix this?

  • There doesn't appear to be a warranty or contract with Mihai, so I don't know if a judge can "force him to work", since he was also a volunteer.
  • Every single offer to Mihai is rejected and instead met with some way of publicly humiliating Shou.
  • A lawyer (brief $500 consultation) has said that since we have the data and the app's source, and that Mihai was a volunteer (i.e. accepted no payment whatsoever, and paid the monthly AWS bill himself) there's not much we can do.
  • Shou is willing to apologize in private, but that's it (and seems genuinely terrified of being in the same room as Mihai).
  • We're completely stunned by Mihai. We never realized how proud and arrogant he is (gets infuriated when people try to make demands of him), given how charitable he's been over the years.
  • 12
    Why did Shou only do this once you were on holiday - seems curious timing...
    – Solar Mike
    Feb 16, 2020 at 5:29
  • 3
    You really should ask Shou plainly on why did he do it. And was Mihai's exception a publicly known thing?
    – Aida Paul
    Feb 16, 2020 at 8:22
  • 6
    What does a patch of churches need AWS for anyways?
    – Helena
    Feb 16, 2020 at 12:31
  • 8
    "Washes Mihai's feet after mass (with 2 witnesses present). Begs Mihai while on his knees for forgiveness in front of the congregation (pastor would never allow this). Apologies publicly online via a YouTube video" - and this guy calls himself a Christian?
    – Mawg
    Feb 17, 2020 at 6:46
  • 4
    @MawgsaysreinstateMonica that's exactly what I'm thinking. These guys have really lost sight of what church, and volunteering, are about.
    – ribs2spare
    Feb 17, 2020 at 13:19

7 Answers 7


How can we fix this?

I suggest you prepare a serious investigation. I don't think you are looking at it with the understanding of what happened. One of your volunteer leaders, presumably a person of power and influence in your church, threatened and forced volunteers. Yes, unfortunately for them, they happened to meet the one person strong enough to throw it back in their face. What your job is, is to find out how many more of your volunteers were abused in this way. How many were not strong enough to get into the face of the person you appointed to lead them and had to yield to their demands without consent.

You do not have an IT problem, you have a massive people problem. You may need to fire Shou. Maybe not. Maybe it turns out they did not in fact do what you said they did. Either way will solve your IT problem automatically. Either Shou did what you alleged and gets fired, I think that would satisfy Mihai (and has the added benefit of you not directly giving in to Mihai's demands). Or maybe Shou is innocent and you need to remove Mihai (something they basically already did themselves). Then you need to hire someone or find another way.

Either way, don't look at it as an IT problem. Look at it from the point that one of the people chosen to protect and empower your flock used their power to threaten and force them. If that really happened, that is not acceptable.

  • 21
    +1. As soon as your organisation applies pressure for volunteers to do specific tasks that they are unwilling to do, they stop being volunteers. Feb 16, 2020 at 13:10
  • 8
    Where does it say Shou threatened Mihai? What could he threaten?
    – Damila
    Feb 16, 2020 at 21:48
  • 5
    I'm not seeing "threatened" in the post, and "force" could mean just about anything from "put him in a chokehold" to "put him on a roster without asking his preferences". You're right that it's worth checking Shou's account of the situation, but until them I wouldn't assume that Shou was attempting to bully here.
    – G_B
    Feb 16, 2020 at 21:54
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    Well, in my dictionary, „force“ does not stand for „tried to convince and hoped it would work“. If yours has a definition that makes it okay to „force“ volunteers, feel free to add your own interpretation.
    – nvoigt
    Feb 16, 2020 at 23:51
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    -1 This answer is based on an extremely one sided and speculative interpretation of the opening post. As noted by Geoffrey, the OP doesn't mention threats on Shou's part. The framing that he wields significant institutional power is pure speculation, as is the insinuation he uses it to terrorise other volunteers. The conclusion that one of the two people involved needs to be fired is totally over the top
    – zinfandel
    Feb 18, 2020 at 23:09

This kind of conflict is unfortunately quite common in parish life. As you probably know, and I'm sure your clergy know, people volunteer to do church work because they want to feel needed, important, and part of something bigger than themselves.

And, as you are learning the hard way, when people put their sweat and treasure into volunteer activities they get real sensitive about it.

That's all water over the dam by now though.

I honestly don't think you'll get anywhere by trying to coerce M into doing anything. No legalistic technique will win his goodwill. Neither will shaming him. You should let that go.

Can you enlist your clergy in brainstorming some kind of mediation / conflict resolution / reconciliation between these two people? That's a good idea not just because it gets your systems running again, but because, I gotta use church talk here, it is a path to the healing of souls, M's, S's, and maybe even other peoples'.

Your clergy, or your bishop / denominational officer, surely has access to excellent mediators. Ask for help. Seriously. Trained mediators are standing by.

Here's something to think about: Naomi famously said to Ruth (ch 1:16f)

Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.

What if, instead, Ruth had said this to Naomi?

Where I go, you will go; where I lodge, you will lodge; my people shall be your people, and my God your God. Where I die, you will die—there will you be buried.

It doesn't have quite the same ring to it, eh?

  • 1
    Best answer IMO because this post is about a church and yet it seems that everyone in it have lost sight of what church is for and what volunteering it for.
    – ribs2spare
    Feb 17, 2020 at 13:21

This answer is in addition to nvoigt's excellent answer, and I am writing it to add the one thing he missed out.

Nvoigt writes "You don't have an IT problem, you have a massive people problem.". This is true. But assuming both these volunteers are members of your church you also have a serious spiritual problem. According to my reading both your volunteers have behaved in an Unchristian way several times, including in their refusal to apologize or accept an apology. Thats a problem for the church,not just your volunteer ministry. I say this not to judge (I may be wrong) but to illustrate the level of problem that exists.

From the church point of view fixing the relations between two members is more important than the functioning of your volunteer ministry and has much bigger consequences. That's the bad news.The good news for you is that this escalates the issue beyond you jurisdiction. Your priest should be picking this up (you say "mass" so I assume you are Catholic). He should be fixing the problem of the personal relationship between these two members. The other good news is that when this is resolved you should have an answer to how this affects your volunteer ministry.


Time to be a leader.

Going only from your description (there are three sides to every story - yours, theirs, and what really happened), I would say that several things need to happen;

Shou should be removed from his position as a volunteer leader. He has no people skills, and is a bully.

Shou should not be required to apologize to Mihai. Mihai now has the upper hand, and is now trying to bully Shou in return. Mihai has already removed himself as a volunteer; don't try to change that.

Mihai may have been a 'volunteer', but he put the church in an untenable position where they no longer have essential systems they can work with. (this is one of the reasons why you don't let AWS engineers have access to the details of the root account they're working on - but you didn't know that)

This leaves you with the situation of restoring all the systems and data you relied upon. You say that a local company wants a lot of money; of course, they do - they're a business, and you have an immediate problem (and to me, their charges seem reasonable). If you don't want to pay them, call AWS. They have a registry of AWS certified companies and consultants who can help you. AWS is a cloud system, so the right people don't need to be in the local area - they can be anywhere in the world.

Once you get your systems back up, you can then start a project to see what the church actually needs (clue: probably not Kubernetes). Migrate towards it, keep excellent backups, and make sure that the people who control the billing of the account are not the same people developing the systems. Make this a learning lesson for yourself and the church.


Wow, what a muddle of a situation. I get the feeling you’re completely overwhelmed by the complexity of the different issues involved. Let’s practice a bit of separation of concerns, and I believe some clarity may emerge about how to proceed. Specifically, I see several different but mutually interacting problems you’re dealing with here, and I see value in breaking them down and analyzing each separately from the others:

  1. An IT problem: you need to get the IT setup working ASAP, somehow; but how?

  2. A morality problem: Mihai’s demands combined with problem 1 are putting you in a moral quandary: should you pressure or coerce Shou to accept the public humiliation Mihai is demanding as a price for solving problem 1, which you are perceiving to be absolutely critically needing of a solution?

  3. A people problem (alluded to in @nvoigt’s answer): your lead volunteer has behaved inappropriately towards a respected, long-term volunteer whose contributions have great value to your organization, catalyzing the current crisis. What kind of response may be called for, and are there any other larger issues about your community of volunteers that (as @nvoigt suggested) this incident is bringing to the forefront?

Ok, so we’ve identified the problems. Now, let’s discuss solutions.

I’ll start with what appears to me to be the easiest question to address, which is the morality problem (2). The answer is: you must absolutely, categorically, not even consider for a second acceding to Mihai’s completely insane and immoral demands. His request is, quite simply, a complete non-starter. There is no society in the world where this kind of public humiliation would be an appropriate punishment for the kind of error Shou is described as having committed. So I don’t care how desperate you are; please don’t even think about this. (Of course, the fact that your organization is an affiliation of Christian churches makes this answer doubly obvious, but I would say the same even if you were the brothel-owners’ association in the State of Nevada or some similarly un-Christian enterprise.)

Next, let’s move on to problem 1, the IT issue. Now that we’ve eliminated Mihai’s cooperation as an option using the morality argument, I think the situation is both clearer and more generic than the very specific setting you’ve described. What really happened here is that you have fallen victim to the infamous bus factor: a key member of your organization who possessed unique, valuable knowledge is no longer available. That means your situation is in fact rather similar to many questions already discussed on this site (e.g., this one). So I suggest you start by giving some of those questions a read.

The bottom line is, it’s useful not to hang on to unrealistic hopes that you can get Mihai to cooperate; by the sound of it, you can’t. So simply remove any thought of that as an option from your mind. In my opinion the answer now becomes much clearer. Your organization simply needs to buckle up and do what it takes to address the challenge of restoring your IT setup to a working condition. If it costs $15,000 plus a $600/month contract, that sucks, but it’s simply a fact of life so you’d better just face it and start thinking about where you’ll get the money. (And after all, you said in a comment you were getting $2K/month of free tech support from Mihai for a long time, so maybe it’s time to accept that that gravy train has left the station and be grateful for how long you were able to benefit from such generous support.) Or maybe you can find some other creative solution that costs a lot less, but the point is, the sooner you accept that such a solution will not rely on Mihai’s help, the further along you will be on your way to finding that solution.

Finally, let me address problem 3, the “people problem”. @nvoigt seems to think that that’s your “real” problem. I partially disagree: your most critical problem to solve is in fact the IT issue, and it’s not clear that firing Shou or dealing with the “people problem” will do anything to help with that. Even if it does, you should fire Shou only if you think his offense justifies such a punishment, otherwise we are back to the morality issue I discussed earlier - do not let Mihai blackmail you into doing anything unethical. But I do agree with @nvoigt that there is a people problem that needs to be addressed at some point. Possibly it is a more severe problem in a conceptual sense than the IT problem, but it also sounds less urgent. So my advice is, address IT first and what to do about Shou second. And remember the “separation of concerns” principle - I find that it’s a useful thing to keep in mind to avoid getting overwhelmed by the complexity of situations like this one.

Good luck!

  • 1
    Regarding point 2: I completely agree with it. However, we might have a "an eye for an eye" situation here. Wanting to have someone humiliated is pretty extreme and I'd assume there is a reason for this. I'd suspect that Mihai believes that Shou has humiliated him or someone else. I'm not part of a church but I believe in any community this would absolutely be a critical and urgent issue.
    – user29390
    Feb 17, 2020 at 9:02
  • My idea is that the request Mihai did are not reasonable because he doesn't want to have to volunteer any more. It's like asking an exorbitant rate in a business to make the customer go away. Mihai is burning bridges and I think that now the situation isn't recoverable anyway. The long term problem is the people problem, and I think has to be solved, because Mihai isn't probably the first ex-volounteer you have. Feb 17, 2020 at 10:58
  • Explain to Mihai that this was not an action by you community, and that holding the community hostage is not acceptable for solving a personal conflict. Explain to him that since he wanted the humiliation to happen in public, you will make his emails public if he continues to wish that. If that is not fruitful cut the ties with Mihai, whatever the cost - forbid him from the property of the church. Then make his outlandish demands public in the local community trough members of the church and a youtube video "Text: one of our Members, based on the power and influence of his sole status as an IT expert has asked us to bully and humiliate another member. We will not support this. As of now, this individual has intentionally - despite out offers to bear the cost - taken our services offline. You can help this situation if you can contribute by helping with your skills or donating money"

  • Have a word with Shou - it's not ok to escalate so far based on his personal opinion on duty cycle.

  • I loved the first sentence, but in my opinion it goes downhill from there. This is a "nuke from orbit" approach that will be lose-lose for everyone. I think that the best chance for a solution for everyone is to appeal to Mihai's better nature and ask him to forgive Shou for the sake of the community.
    – Jim Clay
    Feb 17, 2020 at 15:27
  • @JimClay What? Ask Mihai to "forgive"? To be 100% clear, it seems like Mihai threatened Shou physically. This is not only bullying, between adults this could be a clash with the law. Whatever happened between Mihai and Shou before is not one of the problems of the community. The fact that Mihai wants to abuse religious rituals for his bullying and physically intimidates people should be enough to escort him of the ground immediately. There is not understanding of him to be asked. The only thing is to explain that this will not be tolerated but sanctioned. Stand on the side of the victim here!
    – Sascha
    Feb 18, 2020 at 0:33
  • "Explain to him that since he wanted the humiliation to happen in public, you will make his emails public if he continues to wish that." - I fail to see what purpose that would serve. Feb 18, 2020 at 20:08
  • @Sascha I agree that Mihai behaved very badly. Humiliating him is not going to improve the situation.
    – Jim Clay
    Feb 19, 2020 at 6:05
  • @JimClay: Bullies draw their power from the fact that they can act in the dark. As a leader you have to take a clear position on the side of the victim. I expect that the issue is already known in the church community, since upon a vanishing webpage and open conflict between important volunteers are for sure known to many. Anything less than a clear statement from the leaders where they clearly position themselves on the side on non-violence and non-bullying gives rise to this unacceptable behavior in the future. The long term cost of not publically taking position will be bad.
    – Sascha
    Feb 21, 2020 at 11:05

Well, there seems to be plenty of wrong to go around. The first two options do indeed seem to be chosen to humiliate Shou. But I don't see why a video, in which Shou says

I was wrong; I didn't understand that Mihai's contributions are exceptional and he does not have to do manual labour if he doesn't want to

perhaps with

many of us have learned to set pride aside and clean the streets as a gift to the community, but it was not my place to try to teach that lesson, especially to someone who didn't want it

would be humiliating. Shou did overstep by trying to force a duty cycle. This was wrong. That Mihai over-reacted, was physically intimidating and so on is a problem, and one that should be addressed. That your churches rely on a complex IT system only one volunteer understands, and can't function without it, is also a problem that should be addressed. It seems that if Shou does the apology video, you can get the system back and get several people trained on it, as well as look into replacing it with something simpler and less expensive that cannot just be "turned off" overnight when someone gets angry or moves away or whatever.

The advantage of the video is that Shou doesn't have to be in the room with Mihai. Sure, Mihai will use the video for his own purposes. But Shou can write the script, and can deliver an honest and genuine apology for the parts of this that were out of bounds and should be apologized for. Later, when you have your IT house in order, you can decide whether Mihai should be asked to leave, or required to apologize in order to stay, for the intimidation, the sudden decommissioning, and so on. If he is willing to get you back on your feet in exchange for the video, I'd encourage Shou to do the video.

No matter what, never take a dependency like that again. And if you have dispensations from things like duty cycling, make sure they're written down and new leads all know who is exempt and why.

  • 3
    @Kate I like this answer in general but did not upvote because of one flaw: that paragraph about Mihai “not being ready to learn the lesson” is very likely to invalidate the whole video in Mihai’s eyes. That’s not an apology, that’s an explanation. He did not ask for an explanation. Take that part out, and +1. Feb 16, 2020 at 4:37
  • 2
    Ask around the church congregations, the teenagers, the parents, asking for IT help. Do not necessarily attempt to recreate the prior system. There are two tasks: Set up a system your volunteers can maintain, and extract history from the files. Whatever you do, make sure multiple people can run, modify, and maintain it. Remember a lot of IT people can learn a new system, so you are not limited to what your potential volunteers already know. Feb 16, 2020 at 4:50
  • 3
    @Soh You may need to recruit technical people who can learn to do this. Or pay for a somewhat simpler system you can count on in the future. Feb 16, 2020 at 4:51
  • 1
    " It seems that if Shou does the apology video, you can get the system back and get several people trained on it" As I know the technology mentioned here, this will take at the very least months to get some inexperienced volunteer trained in the tech stack. And the same, if not more, to build a simpler tech, so by the time it's done, it's too late to undo the "temporary" appeasement.
    – Aida Paul
    Feb 16, 2020 at 9:24
  • 2
    "I didn't understand that Mihai's contributions are exceptional and he does not have to do manual labour if he doesn't want to" - if I were one of the volunteers who is doing manual labour for free and I heard this, I could definitely see this statement as incredibly demeaning to my own contribution. People giving their own time and labour for free absolutely are exceptional, regardless of the work they're doing. This approach risks making the situation worse by spreading the feelings of being under-appreciated to other volunteers.
    – delinear
    Feb 17, 2020 at 14:00

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