During my 22 years of ministry at my current church, I’ve learned a handful of valuable principles and practices that help our church attract and keep the best group of volunteer leaders I’ve ever worked with.
Here are 10 keys for volunteer leader success:
1. Tell Them Why
The days when church leaders did what they were supposed to do out of obligation are gone. Good riddance.
People—especially leaders—want to know why something needs to be done. And they should know. Leaders can’t lead without knowing the why.
When leaders know why they’re doing something and buy into that reason, not only will they give more of themselves to it, they are more capable of leading others in it. They also have a better chance of coming up with ways to make a good idea even better. Now that’s good leadership!
2. Listen More than You Talk
Pastors and preachers are taught how to speak, but we’re seldom taught how to listen. Well, maybe we’re taught how to listen to God in prayer, but few of us get the serious training we need to learn how to turn the monologue of preaching into a dialogue with church members and leaders.
As a pastor, I always want to be the dumbest person in the room. That is, I want people around me who know more about their area of expertise than I do. Pastors who do all the talking don’t get smart volunteers; they get "yes-men." Yes-men and yes-women aren’t leaders.
When church leaders know that their ideas, concerns, and feelings are being heard, they make stronger commitments to God, to the church and to other leaders. And they make better leaders themselves.
The flip side of listening is making sure you communicate well—and often. Rick Warren has said that when the pastor feels like the mission/vision of the church is being over-communicated, that’s when many people are probably starting to really hear it for the first time. That principle doesn’t just apply to vision, but also to process, methods, ministries, schedules, and so on.
As pastors, most of us live with church events 24/7, so it’s easy to forget that the church schedule—and even the church’s mission—is not nearly as front-and-center in the lives of our volunteer leaders as it is in ours. Even our most dedicated people will forget that “essential” meeting if they don’t get an extra phone call, text, Tweet, e-mail or Facebook reminder. When something matters, you can never say it enough.
4. Be Patient
Volunteer church leaders are working for the church and its ministries in whatever openings they can find in their schedule. That schedule includes work, school, child-rearing, family crises, financial stress, and more. They’re studying, praying, and preparing long after the kids are finally fed and asleep, the house is semi-clean, and the dishes are still piled up in the sink. Instead of relaxing in front of the TV, they’re opening up Sunday school curricula (or something else they have to prepare for) and getting ready to give the church several hours that, quite frankly, they really don’t have time for.
If they don’t get everything right the first time they do something (or the tenth), they don’t deserve to have the pastor jump down their throat or threaten to take them out of leadership. Many volunteer leaders quit, not because they don’t care, but because they get less hassle from the pastor when they “show up and shut up” than when they step up and try to help.
Recognize their sacrifice and be patient if the way they do it isn’t perfect. After all, you’ve never done it perfectly yet, either.
5. Be Forgiving
People make mistakes. I do. You do. Your volunteer leaders do. In fact, the only way to not make mistakes is not to do anything, which is itself a big mistake. Be grateful for your volunteers' efforts and forgiving of their failures. Then work with them to give them the tools to do it better the next time.
In our church, we tell people that if they work in an area of ministry, only to discover it’s not the right fit for them, they can quit at any time, guilt-free. When people know their mistakes aren’t fatal, they’ll step up more often.
6. Be Prepared and Be Consistent
No volunteer leader should ever show up to a church function, ministry, or meeting more prepared than the pastor. Have an agenda and stick to it. Be ready with all the necessary materials. Be on time. And stay for questions and/or fellowship afterwards.
If you’re not sure you can follow through, don’t schedule it to begin with. But if you do schedule it, keep it and prepare for it! One of the fastest ways to lose good volunteer leaders is to first call, then cancel meetings or come to them unprepared.
7. Honor Them and Their Time
People are under no obligation to volunteer at your church. Or mine. None. Nada. Zip.
Sure, as believers we are called to contribute to the health and well-being of the church, but that leaves people with a lot of choices about which church they’ll choose to make those commitments to.
Leaders will attend and volunteer at churches where they are honored as people and where their hard work and leadership skills are recognized and valued, not because they’re seeking glory (there’s not a lot of glory overseeing the church nursery) but because they want to make a real difference. Plus, honoring one another is just the right thing to do.
8. Train, Don’t Just Tell
Buying new Sunday school curricula is not the same as training your new Sunday school leader. Telling the youth leader to “teach the kids more Bible verses” is not the same as training them how to do it. Leadership is an art and a skill. It’s learned by spending quality time with other leaders.
People need to be trained. Training takes time, relationships, and assessment. If you want great leaders, invest in great followers by giving them your time and experience. Take them with you as you do ministry. Listen as much as you talk. That’s what training looks like.
9. Train Leaders to Train Leaders
When I came to my current church 22 years ago, I found an untrained but passionate young man named Gary Garcia leading the church’s youth group. We spent a lot of time together in those first years. I took him with me as we did ministry, talked about the church and figured out how to do things better. I was his mentor.
Today, he is more my peer than my protégé. And over the ensuing decades, he has mentored hundreds of young people, scores of whom are in ministry today.
Twenty-two years later, that young man is no longer young, but he’s still the youth pastor (and much more) at our church. Last Sunday, he and I conducted the last of a three-week tag-team sermon series called “Better Together,” from Ecclesiastes 4:9–12.
We told the church our story and then encouraged them to find and train other leaders to become leaders themselves.
10. Foster an Atmosphere of Thankfulness
You can never say “thank you” enough. People need to know they’re appreciated and that their efforts are noticed. They need to know that they matter.
Stop trying to guilt people into stepping up. That never works.
Want great volunteer leaders? Infuse everything you do with an atmosphere of thankfulness. Even if you don’t have volunteer leaders right now, be grateful for the members you have. When they feel appreciated for what they do, they might decide to do more.
For more information on managing volunteers effectively, see our downloadable resource Making Teams Work.
This postfirst appeared on NewSmallChurch.com and is adapted with permission.
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