Do you have a love/hate relationship with volunteers? For years we have heard the statistics that 20% of our congregation does most of the work. This means our volunteers may be overworked, on the edge of burnout, yet we continue to ask for their help because we know they will not say no.
The other 80% are either marginally active or are inactive. You will have people sign up to help and then not show up, others will leave early, and others that will stand around and talk.
Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of volunteers at various levels, each one equipped with diverse talents and skills. Volunteers offered their assistance for one-time larger events outside the local church, while others helped with ministry within our local church. You have long-term volunteers, while others are short-term. However, I have learned key components essential to developing 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 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 "collaborating with us."
Can "sour" them to the church/ministry because it dwindles their enthusiasm
May damage areas of ministry
What happens when we place individuals in alignment with their unique gifts and talents?
We exhibit value, honor, and respect as we recognize how God has created them and the gifts, He has given them. This, in turn, shows that we trust Holy Spirit to provide help where we need help.
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, thereby creating momentum within them and within the organization itself.
When our volunteers are working within 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 collaborate with volunteers, I offer them as much authority and decision-making ability as I can. The ability to make decisions 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, but it does not mean their ways are wrong. There must be room for creativeness and individuality. In addition, I know that they will make mistakes, but I want them to know I have their back. We learn from our mistakes, and we move forward.
People 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 during the service or event. 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, we acknowledge that we will not implement all ideas. The key here is that they know they have a voice and are heard!
Equipped for Success -
Another idea that helps create a healthy environment for volunteers is ensuring they have access to the programs, equipment, and necessary materials. For example, the church where I was on pastoral staff used an online ticket program for the sizeable events they host. We announced an upcoming women's conference. As the ladies began to purchase tickets, there were questions regarding the ticketing process that our volunteer leaders could not answer because we had not given them access to the event website. They quickly became frustrated. We do a massive disservice to our volunteers when they are not provided the necessary tools. Not only could our volunteers not answer the questions, but they also could not access the same program that tracked the registrations.
We must work through all aspects we can foresee for the positions our volunteers will be managing. 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, and additional computers. Finally, my volunteer leaders needed to know which decisions they could make versus the ones they needed to punt to me.
There is a learning curve as we raise leaders and ministries grow. What happened in the last two paragraphs was due to a growing ministry. An ever-increasing ministry meant that we had to adjust 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 adjusted and moved forward.
Make these adjustments quickly, and you and your leaders will be successful.
Time and Seasons -
There are pastors that forget to assess the time required for a volunteer position. This is another trap that can often ensnare us. There are people working substantial hours in the corporate sector and struggle to balance work and home. We honor our volunteers when we communicate a realistic time commitment. I have had very gifted people who were plugged into their appropriate areas of ministry; however, it was the wrong season for them to volunteer at that level. They could not give the amount of time necessary because of work and family requirements which opens the door for weariness and disappointment. This negatively impacts the ministry. Ecclesiastes 3:1 wisely states, "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 ask them to do.
In addition, seasons shift, not only in our lives but also in the lives of our volunteers. One of my volunteers began to homeschool; 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 to drop out of leadership. However, we were able to reevaluate her position, make the necessary changes, and she was able to keep going without burning out or sacrificing her family. Let your volunteers know that you are willing to work with them. Flexibility is key.
Am I Willing…
We must not ask our volunteers to do things we are unwilling to do ourselves. I have cleaned bathrooms, washed dishes, cleared tables, vacuumed, managed 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 to, were already engaged in these activities. When I walked in, I 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. Do not be afraid to serve under them – essentially becoming their volunteer.
Do not ask a volunteer to do anything 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 stands out?
If you are getting them a gift card, take the time to find out where they shop. For example, where does your volunteer like to get coffee? Starbucks? Dunkin Donuts? Wawa? McDonald's? Elsewhere? Get the gift card from a place they frequent, not the most convenient place for you or your personal favorite. Purchasing it from a site they prefer shows that you "know" them!
Growing, Releasing, and Soaring -
My volunteers have told me repeatedly just how much it means when I will stop and work alongside them. I do not have to be there, and I am not expected to be there. I do not come in to "take over" or "control." I just come to be with them; in other words, I value them.
On the other side, there are times when I intentionally do not show up, or I will sit in the back of the room if I do. We were beginning a new ministry that I would have traditionally administered directly. However, I had some exceptionally 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. Me being there only periodically, showed that I was interested and supported what was happening. It also showed that I fully trusted the leadership 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. I would often watch and smile as they ministered in different capacities. I was present for the challenging 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 time to explore the life of Barnabas. His name means "Son of exhortation." God used him to walk with Saul (Paul) and encourage him early on. 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?
Cover in Prayer -
Never forgo prayer during service. We were planning a large church/community picnic. The weather report was not in our favor, and by man's standards, we should have canceled or moved everything inside. However, I grabbed my lead volunteers, and we stopped and prayed. As we prayed, we had tremendous peace about moving forward as planned. If you looked up to the sky during the picnic, there was a ring of clouds around the property. On the other side of the clouds, it was stormy; however, overhead, there was sunlight. We had the picnic, cleaned up, and the rain poured down as soon as that was complete. We believe in miracles of every size and shape. However, we must make room for God to move and listen for His direction. With every situation, we must pray for our volunteers, with our volunteers, and for our event. God may hold back the weather and glorify His name!
Ephesians 3:20 reminds us that God can do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that is at work in us. This is true of leaders and volunteers. Do we expect God to move mountains and do more in and through us and our volunteers than we can imagine?
As a pastor, I can assure you there is immense joy in watching people as they minister. But it requires our willingness to step back and let them soar!