Getting and Keeping Volunteers
THE PERENNIAL PROBLEM AND A SURPRISING SOLUTION
I feel like I’ve read a million articles on the topic of “getting and keeping volunteers.” If you’re like me, working in a ministry that relies on a small army of volunteers, you’re probably interested in this topic, too.
I’m an analytical, task-driven person, so I’d love to give you a formula you can follow to guarantee you a steady stream of competent, enthusiastic volunteer ministry partners.
There’s so much great advice out there on creating a good culture, leading with vision, communicating gratitude and encouragement, and providing excellent equipping opportunities.
But I’ve learned that although strategies are great—relationships are more important. (That’s a hard pill to swallow, since so much of my job involves completing a ridiculous number of tasks.)
I also wish I could say that I arrived at this discovery quickly and have adopted it perfectly!
Reality is, this is a truth I’ve come to realize slowly. And I still have so much to learn. Here is some of the evidence I’ve seen to lead me to the conclusion about relationship importance:
• A college math major gave the most successful “ask” from the church stage for our kids’ ministry volunteers. He described how he hadn’t thought kids’ ministry would be for him, before turning to a section of the sanctuary where college students were sitting and challenged them to invest in kids.
• The volunteers who offer the most hours outside of Sunday and have served the longest are the ones I regularly check in on, take to coffee, and consider my friends.
• A mother and daughter were serving together, and the mother was concerned about her daughter’s resistance to church attendance and spiritual conversations. Much to her surprise and delight, her daughter asked her grandmother to serve with her the weeks she did. Now three generations of women are serving a future generation and are strengthening their relationships with one another.
• We hired a young man to our team who has invested in some neighborhood teens; without prompting, these youth signed up to serve in kids’ ministry.
• One of our volunteers now has almost everyone in her small-group Bible study working with her in our kids’ ministry.
It may seem obvious, but the common denominator in these examples is relationships.
When people say “yes” to serving kids and families, they aren’t just saying “yes” to the ministry, but to relationships with the others serving!
High school boys aren’t necessarily signing up because they’re passionate about serving kids, but because they love and respect a young man who is modeling that for them. Grandmas, mothers, and daughters are serving together as a means of bonding, but not because each of them is equally passionate about holding babies.
When I ask a stay-at-home mom to help me once a week in the office, she is saying “yes” to relationship with me more than to cutting out craft materials.
RELATIONSHIP VS. MINISTRY, OR RELATIONSHIP = MINISTRY?
But shouldn’t every volunteer be passionate about serving kids and families? Shouldn’t they do it simply because they have spiritual gifts that need to be put to work? I believe the answers to these questions relate to our relational God, who created us to be in relationship with Himself—and with others.
Genesis 1:1–2 and John 1:1 tell us how God has been in relationship from the beginning of time. In these passages we have a picture of perfect unity between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When God creates Adam, He stated “It is not good for the man to be alone,” before creating a companion for him in Eve.
In the Garden, God is in perfect relationship with Adam and Eve; their rebellion is fractured that intimate communion.
But, in Exodus we see a God who decides to provide a way for Himself to tabernacle—or dwell—with His chosen people.
Then Jesus came to dwell—to tabernacle—with us and to give up His life to reconcile us to the Father. After His ascension, God promised reconciliation through the intimate presence of the Holy Spirit.
As much as our ministries are about the relationships to the kids we’re ministering to, they are also a ministry to those with whom we’re serving!
THE STRATEGY IS PRESENCE AND PROXIMITY
When we lead with relationships rather than tasks, we reflect our God who did everything to remove barriers to our relationship with Him. The most strategic thing we can do to staff our teams is to simply create spaces for relationships to flourish and be willing to enter into them sacrificially as well.
As Jesus is recorded as saying in Matthew 22:37–40: “‘. . . Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Everything we do—including, our work in ministry—is to be done in the context of love toward God and toward each other.
So, the soundest strategy for “getting and keeping volunteers” isn’t to create a flowchart of wonderfully organized tasks (as much joy as that may bring someone like me), but to build loving relationship with every opportunity we have. I’m praying that as we minister to children, we’re filled with the presence and love of the Holy Spirit to offer it to everyone around us!
Is this a theme in your ministry or sphere of influence as well? I’d love to hear stories of how relationships have impacted your life and ministry.
Releasing a Volunteer
Today I released a devoted ministry volunteer. He’s honest, available, driven—outspoken about causes he believes in—and he loves the Lord. He’s also creative and experienced. He told me, “I want this ministry to be effective and for you to feel supported in ministry.” Why would I release a volunteer who says things like that? Here are my reasons:
This volunteer’s words and actions didn’t always line-up.
• This volunteer told me he wanted to play a supportive, more influential role in the ministry. Here’s the problem: He initiated side conversations with other volunteers that incited negative, non-productive feedback about my leadership and the ministry’s direction.
Feedback—both positive and negative—is good and welcome, as long as the feedback is given to the right person. Criticism is useless if the person who needs to hear it, doesn’t get to and doesn’t have the opportunity to consider whether changes or improvements should be made. His talking about me behind my back told me that his agenda was more important than our ministry objectives.
• Burdened for the family unit and its health, he leveraged his ministry role to visit families in their homes, a positive and worthwhile effort. Here’s the problem: His style of communication and aggressive approach created discomfort for families, who felt he was trying to pry into their personal lives. When his expectations for the outcome of this type of ministry were unmet, he became frustrated.
• Open communication is important to him. He appreciated staying in the loop and staying in close communication. Here’s the problem: His frequency of communication was inappropriate; whether through a phone call, text, e-mail, or Facebook post—none of these communication avenues seemed sufficient to him. No amount of contact and opportunity to influence was enough. He wanted his voice to carry more weight. Because this wasn’t happening at a pace he was comfortable with he became frustrated and expressed his frustrations to teammates in an unhealthy, nonproductive way.
• He was quite persistent about team collaboration and meetings so volunteers had opportunity to discuss issues and discover best practices for their ministry roles. Here’s the problem: You can’t force people to attend a meeting. Meetings are scheduled, and people are given ample opportunity to share their perspectives. Then they don’t show. I’ve had to learn to be OK with that. That was not ok with him. He did not agree with my leadership and management style.
• His perspectives constantly challenged me in a good way. His creative ideas were genuinely good. Here’s the problem: He shared his perspectives and creative ideas aggressively, making them difficult for people to respect and receive. As a result, his initiatives were often not considered and inconsistently put into practice.
• He was quite comfortable initiating conversations with team members. Here’s the problem: These conversations had negative overtones, creating more challenges and complications than team unity.
So that’s why I released a devoted volunteer today. I don’t feel especially relieved, although maybe I should. I’m sure his feelings have been hurt, and I’m sorry about that. He is a brother in Christ and deeply devoted to being affective in ministry. If it were easy to “fire” any volunteer I would be concerned for other reasons. God’s people are not expendable. They are treasured and loved. Replacing faithful volunteers is not something a ministry leading likes to do. However, spending inordinate amounts of time and energy on one volunteer’s personal approach to ministry was keeping me from being affective in my ministry and leadership of many other committed volunteers. I know a few people will be confused by this turn of events. I may face some tough questions from church leadership. But I can say with confidence that this ministry will be healthier because of my decision.
How I Stopped Getting Saturday Night Volunteer Cancellations—And How You Can Too!
It can be a downer to be on social media on Saturday nights. Inevitably, I see posts from kid’s ministry leaders from across the country in churches of all sizes posting about last-minute volunteer cancellations or shortages in ministry spaces for the next morning. And, honestly, I’ve been there. I’ve even walked into church on a Sunday morning having no clue who was going to love on our babies in the nursery that morning.
We all know that the challenge with children’s ministry is that we can’t “fudge it” with our volunteer numbers. We have safety to keep in mind, not to mention the mind-boggling logistics of trying to change a baby’s diaper while engaging in meaningful discussion with elementary aged kids and corralling the preschoolers into a circle for game time—it doesn’t take long for children’s ministry to turn into a three-ring circus of crazy without a team of volunteers!
So, what can we do? I don’t have a magic wand to wave over your children’s ministry team, but I have learned a few things that I think can help:
1. Connect it to Vision: I heard Andy Stanley say once that highly effective teams have clarified their “what” and their “why.” For our children’s ministry team, our “what” boiled down to simply this: share the love of Jesus with kids. If a kid leaves our children’s ministry on Sunday morning with all 66 books of the Bible memorized but without knowing that Jesus loves them, then we’ve failed. And “why” do we care about our “what”? Because Jesus loves children. This isn’t a cliché for us. Our “what” and our “why” are so important that I make sure to reiterate those “what” and “why” phrases with my children’s ministry team every single Sunday morning before we serve. Being in children’s ministry became more than just filling a hole in a schedule—it was ministry with an incredible purpose.
2. Follow Up Well: Sometimes volunteers end up frazzled because they feel isolated in their ministry role. Stay connected by following up with them after they serve. Whether it’s a quick conversation before they leave on Sunday or an e-mail on Monday morning, be sure to ask your volunteers: “How did it go this week?” Allow them the time and space to voice frustrations or celebrate victories with you.
3. Train: When the “kid’s ministry gene” seems to simply be part of your DNA, this can be hard to understand, but there are people out there who are terrified of kids. Be sure to provide periodic training for your team so they can be better equipped to serve. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. Meet for coffee and talk about a kid’s ministry blog post you read recently. Watch a training video together online. Be flexible with the method, but consistent in practice.
4. Be Firm: After months of perpetual frustration, my Saturday evening cancellations disappeared altogether when I lovingly, but firmly put my foot down. I gathered my team together one night after our Wednesday evening service and handed out job descriptions for each team. The standards were exactly the same as before with one exception: if you aren’t able to serve on a given Sunday, you’re responsible to either swap with someone on the schedule or contact a substitute (preferably with 24 hours’ notice), then let me know of the switch. No one balked in the least, and my Saturday nights were liberated of the dreaded phone call of cancellation.
5. Trust God: I know that sounds like a cliché, but I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true. Remember that Sunday morning I mentioned earlier? The one when I arrived at church with exactly zero people to serve in the nursery? That morning I sat in our preservice prayer gathering and prayed silently, “Lord, I have no one to take care of our babies this morning. I’ve done everything I know to do and asked everyone I know to ask. I need your help.” After a few moments of seeming silence from heaven, there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see a woman from our worship team standing next to me and she asked, “Do you need help in the nursery this morning? I’m almost certain I heard God tell me that you did, so I wanted to check. I’m willing to serve if you need me.” I threw my arms around her and choked back tears as I squeaked out a relieved, “Yes.”
Never forget that this is God’s ministry, not yours. You are called to be faithful. You aren’t called to be sovereign. Keep at it. You are making an eternal impact in the lives of the kids and volunteers you serve!
Thanks a Latte
John Maxwell once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” He’s right, especially when it comes to children’s ministry volunteers. Think about it. Our volunteers juggle diapers, runny noses, Goldfish crackers, and more, all while taking part in the spiritual formation of the little ones in their care on Sunday mornings. Even the most die-hard, kid-crazy, VeggieTales-loving volunteer needs some encouragement every once in a while. They need to know that their leaders care.
Out of the zillion different ways we can express our gratitude for our volunteers, this is one of my favorites. I’ve used it with two different teams and both have loved it! Take a look…
I stopped at a dollar store and picked up some cute mugs for a dollar each, then put a biscotti cookie, an instant latte mix packet, and some fun flavored creamers in each. The finishing touch was to add a “Thanks a Latte!” tag to each mug. (A quick Google search will bring up loads of printable tags with this saying on them that you can choose from.) All told, each mug cost about $2 to make. That’s a price tag that can fit almost any budget!
What are some ways you’ve encouraged your volunteers?