As a pastor, I’ve had the privilege of spending the better part of the last 14 years working with volunteers. I say privilege, because they are truly the backbone of church operations. It is their passion, willingness to make sacrifices, and availability that make possible ministry and the mission of the church. Throughout that time, I’ve heard it said a number of times that a volunteer force can be a real challenge. They can call off at any time. They can quit serving. They don’t always fall in line and do what you want them to do. They can be difficult. There aren’t enough of them.
Certainly, there are challenges. However, I am one to say that if there is a problem with those being led, it often lands on the shoulders of the leader. So it is pointless to spend time complaining about the struggles of working with volunteers. Instead, that time needs to be spent investing in learning how to better lead a volunteer force. Below are seven quick lessons I’ve learned over the last several years in valuing, empowering, and encouraging volunteers.
1.) Communicate, Communicate, Communicate…then Communicate Again
People who are prone to volunteerism are those that have already made the sacrifice of time. There is nothing more frustrating to a volunteer than having to do the extra work of finding out when things are happening, where things are happening, and what is required. The leader has the responsibility to communicate and keep those that are willing to serve informed. With the technology as it is, this is made easy through a variety of different mediums.
2.) Give them something to do
When you are recruiting volunteers, already have in mind the specific duties and actions they need to take. When people show up at a volunteer opportunity, they do so because they want to make a difference. They want to feel like their actions are meaningful. If they show up and there’s nothing for them to do, nothing specific they are needed for, they might become a bit jaded. They may lose confidence is your leadership. They may be reluctant to volunteer in the future. Do not have a “show up and we will figure out when you get there” leadership style.
3.) Value their thoughts
Volunteers often see things from perspectives different from the leader. They are the ones that poor organization and planning affects. Volunteers often refuse the privilege of sharing their thoughts. Remember in their minds they are “just volunteers.” Time should be carved out and set aside to ask them specific questions, inviting them into conversations and valuing their input. When they make a suggestion about something that needs to be changed and you implement that change, give credit where credit is due.
4.) Give them some time off
When volunteers help out regularly, they have a tendency of being used until they burn out. The longevity of regular volunteers can be protected with intentional time off and staying engaged in the seasons of life. A new baby…may mean time off. A death in the family…time off. A change in job…time off. A prolonged illness…give time off. A sick kid…time off. Be intentional in protecting their time by giving them a non-guilt-inducing time to recuperate, relax, and rejuvenate.
5.) Celebrate the Victories and Appreciate their Efforts
People need to know that what they do makes a difference. Part of communication requires the regular and intentional celebration of victories. Give volunteers details about milestones reached, ways in which their specific action has made a difference. Help them to understand that what they do is part of something bigger than them. Never take them for granted. Never assume they know you appreciate them. Never breeze past them when you could take an extra moment to thank them for what they do.
6.) Offer a Compelling Vision
It is taxing to volunteers to be recruited into crisis. Some volunteers will give in to responsibility and do what needs to be done in order to make things happen. Unfortunately, this energy wears out quickly. Give volunteers something that is inspiring…something that excites them. Lay out a vision that they can get behind.
7.) Recruit, Recruit, and New Relationships
Most leaders operate with a bare minimum mentality. How many do I need to have in place? I recruit that many. They become my core group. Unfortunately, that core group becomes those leaned on over and over again. Burn out is quick to follow. A leader must intentionally extend her/his sphere of influence. They must be looking for new folks to invite into the ministry. They must constantly build a new base.
This isn’t a sure fire way of avoiding volunteer issues…but it sure is a start!