Many vocational ministers have a love/hate relationship with volunteers. For years we have heard the statistics that 20% of our congregation does the vast majority of the work. This means they may be overworked, on the edge of burnout, and yet we continue to ask for their help because we know they won’t say no.
The other 80% are either marginally active or are inactive. Some will sign up to help and then do not show up, not do their job or they need to leave early.
Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of volunteers at various levels, each one equipped with diverse talents and skills. Some of my volunteers offered their assistance for one-time larger events outside the local church, while others helped with ministry within our local church. Some are long term, while others are short term. However, I have learned some key components that are essential to the development of a healthy, dedicated volunteer base.
Precious gifts and talents…
Each person has a unique set of God-given gifts and talents. We do a disservice to our volunteers when we just plug them in to fill OUR needs. Why is this such a huge issue?
· It shows a lack of value, honor and respect for our volunteers
· It has the potential to set them up for burnout and dissatisfaction
· We increase the risk of losing them as volunteers down the road because they dislike “working with us”
· Can “sour” them to the church/ministry as a whole because it dwindles their enthusiasm
· May damage areas of ministry
What happens when we place an individual in alignment with their unique gifts and talents?
· We exhibit value, honor and respect as we recognize the way God has created them and the gifts that he has given them
· We set them up for success as they volunteer
· We retain them for the long haul
· The position they are in develops interest and excitement
· Allows them to grow as individuals, leaders and in their relationship with God
· Strengthens areas of ministry
When we can position the individual above our momentary needs, we create an environment where the person can mature and flourish. This creates momentum, not only within them but also within the organization itself. When our volunteers are working within the areas of their God given abilities, it is contagious and brings life to everyone around!
Freedom to Minister…
People flourish when they know they are believed in, relied upon and trusted. As we believe in people and encourage them to learn and grow, they become more willing to accept additional responsibilities. Most volunteers dislike being micro-managed. As I work with volunteers, I offer them as much authority and decision-making ability as I can. This varies depending on the person and the situation, but I want them to know they are trustworthy. I recognize that they will not do everything the way I would do it, but it doesn’t mean their ways are wrong. There must be room for creativeness and individuality. In addition, I know that mistakes may be made, but I want them to understand that I have their back. We learn from our mistakes, and we move forward.
People also thrive when they know they are being heard and understood. There are times when we hold general ‘dreaming’ sessions. We brainstorm the issues, the what-ifs, creative solutions and ideas. In addition, I welcome their comments about what they believe may have gone wrong. My volunteers have learned that all ideas/observations are welcome. However, they also recognize there is a larger overall picture, and we are only looking at a particular piece of the ministry. Therefore, it is acknowledged that not all ideas would be implemented. The key here is that they were heard!
Equipped for Success…
Another idea that helps create a healthy environment for volunteers is ensuring they have access to the programs, equipment and all necessary materials. For example, the church where I was on pastoral staff uses an online ticket program for the sizeable events they host. We once announced an upcoming women’s conference, and as the ladies began to purchase tickets, there were questions regarding the ticketing process that our volunteer leaders were unable to answer because we had not given them access to the event website. Needless to say, they quickly became frustrated. We do a huge disservice to our volunteers when they are not provided all the necessary tools. Not only could our volunteers not answer the questions, but they also could not access the very program that tracked the registrations.
It is vital that we work through all aspects we are able to foresee for the positions our volunteers will be handling. With the above event situation, we realized the need for pertinent information to be made available in the form of a FAQ sheet, access to the registration site, access to the cash box, as well as additional computers. Finally, my volunteer leaders needed to know exactly which decisions they could make versus the ones they needed to punt to me.
There is a learning curve as we raise up leaders but also as ministries grow. Much of what happened in the last two paragraphs was because we had a growing ministry. A growing ministry meant that we had to make some adjustments in our processes and systems. Those changes resulted in a different type of equipping for the leaders. As their leader, I assumed responsibility for the shortcomings, we made adjustments and we moved forward.
Make these adjustments quickly, and you and your leaders will be successful.
Time and Seasons…
Many pastors forget to assess the amount of time required for a volunteer position. This is another trap that can often ensnare us. Many people work substantial hours in the corporate sector and are already struggling to balance work and home. We honor our volunteers when we communicate a realistic time commitment. I have had some people who are very gifted and were plugged in to their appropriate areas of ministry; however, in reality it was the wrong season for them to volunteering at the level they were doing. They were unable to give the amount of time necessary because of work and family requirements. This not only opens the door for weariness and disappointment but can also negatively impact the ministry. Ecclesiastes 3:1 wisely state, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Work with your volunteers to determine whether this is the right “season” for what you are asking them to do.
We also need to understand that seasons shift, not only in our lives but also in the lives of our volunteers. One of my volunteers homeschools…I have a soft spot for this, as I homeschooled our children. I understand the challenges that come as the kids get older, and she had hit that point. As the juggling became overwhelming, the first inclination was for her to drop out of leadership. However, we were able to reevaluate her position, make some changes, and she was able to keep going without burning out. Let your volunteers know that you are willing to work with them. Flexibility is key.
Am I Willing…
It is vital that we do not ask our volunteers to do things that we are unwilling to do ourselves. I have cleaned bathrooms, washed dishes, cleared tables, vacuumed, handled ticket sales, served meals, stuffed gift bags and made phone calls right along with my volunteers. In addition, there were times that the volunteers I had assigned tasks were engaged in the activities when I walked in and asked what I could do to help!
· Walk side-by-side with your volunteers until they understand what to do – never leave them stranded!
· Allow them to delegate and make decisions. Don’t be afraid to serve under them – essentially becoming their volunteer.
· Do not ask a volunteer to do anything that you are unwilling to do yourself.
The Power of Thank you…
It is easy for a volunteer to feel taken for granted. One of the things I have learned over the years is the power of “thank you.” However, I would caution that it needs to go beyond just a standard “thank you.” Be intentional, creative and specific as you thank them. Is there something they did that really stands out? If you are getting them a gift card, take the time to find out where they shop. For example, where do they like to get coffee? Starbucks? Dunkin Donuts? Wawa? McDonalds? Elsewhere? Get the gift card from a place they frequent, not the place that is most convenient for you or that is your own personal favorite. Purchasing it from a place they prefer shows that you “know” them!
Growing, Releasing and Soaring…
My volunteers have told me time and again just how much it means when I’ll drop by and work alongside them. I don’t haveto be there, and I’m not expectedto be there. I don’t come in to “take over” or “control.” I just come to be with them; in other words, I value them.
On the flipside, there are other times when I intentionally do not show up, or if I do, I’ll sit in the back of the room. We were beginning a new ministry which traditionally would have been administered directly by me. However, I had some very gifted, experienced leaders who would do an excellent job. I intentionally skipped some of the meetings because I wanted them (and the class) to know that I trusted them. When I did attend, I sat quietly in the back. Being there only periodically showed that I was interested and supported what was happening, yet it also showed that I fully trusted the leadership I had assigned to the task.
Over the years, I have stepped back from doing as much training at the local church level. I was able to do this because my volunteers were well equipped to train others. I developed the material, but they are running with it. Many times, I would just watch and smile as they ministered in different capacities. I was present for the tough situations, though. They always knew they could ask for my help. They also knew that I had their backs. But they needed to soar, and I enjoyed cheering them on.
Consider taking some time to explore the life of Barnabus. His name means, “Son of exhortation.” God used him early on to walk with Saul (Paul) and encourage him. Are you a person exhortation in the lives of your volunteers? Are you setting them up for success? Do you view them as individuals? Do you rejoice in the unique God-given gifts that each one brings?
As a pastor, I can assure you there is great joy in watching people as they minister. But it requires our willingness to step back and let them soar!