The Care and Feeding of Volunteers

The church is the largest “volunteer” organization in the world. How are we treating our volunteers? How can you get more people to share the  load? A volunteer is an individual who willingly serves. Their livelihood does not depend on their serving. Sometimes leaders in the local church (most of whom are also unpaid volunteers) do not expect high standards for service. They fear volunteers will withdraw if too much is expected, thinking, “Well, I am giving my time with no pay, so take my service as I give it, or I will stop serving.” That notion, however, is superficial, for it assumes money to be the primary motivator to excellence.

Scripture makes it clear that all should be involved in serving: “… we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:15-16 ESV).

Helping people apply this verse is more than preaching a sermon at them, pounding the pulpit and then throwing them into ministry slots on the monthly schedule. Shepherding the flock of God surely includes helping them grow into their serving. Unfortunately, too often people are dumped into ministry with the thought, “They will learn to swim if they just stick with it.” How can we help volunteers serve with joy and excellence?

Leaders need to motivate.

First, we must understand that others in the fellowship perceive themselves just as busy as we elders and leaders are. They don’t want to be “guilted” into giving of their precious time. As leaders, we need to think about what motivates them. The easy answer is that the Holy Spirit is the One who motivates. But, note that the Spirit works through the gifts of the Spirit, one of which is leadership: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: … the one who leads, with zeal …” Romans 12:6, 8. The New Living Translation puts it this way, “If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously.” As with all spiritual gifts, leading does not reside only with the elders, nor do all elders have the gift of leading. But, since elders are to shepherd the flock of God, their role includes leading to some degree.

Paul addresses them succinctly: “So I exhort the elders among you…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3). The prime characteristics of a godly elder (and, by analogy, leader) include serving willingly, self-sacrificially, eagerly and humbly modeling Christ-like service. The example of Christ-centered service is a powerful motivator for others to serve and to do it in the same way.

If the church were perfect, then every member would tacitly agree with and live out the ultimate spiritual motivation regardless of what the elders do or say: “… walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God”  (Col 1:10). We certainly want to lead people to that place of joyful service where they look forward to the only accolades that really matter: “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master’ ”

(Matt 25:21).

Since we live in a fallen world and each member of the church is still a work in progress, not everyone can ramp up to full Christ-like maturity immediately after conversion. Here are some “big picture” things you can do that will help motivate believers to serve and continue to serve joyfully:

Articulate the vision. People need to know how their ministry is significant to God and to the building up of the body of Christ. The leader needs to help people see this for their respective ministries. The bricklayer is either laying bricks, building a wall, constructing a building or helping craft a cathedral. Which is the more motivational view point? The leader helps each volunteer see the higher calling in what he is doing.

If you can’t explain clearly how a particular ministry is essential to the mission of your church, then maybe that ministry should be terminated, having lost its purpose and usefulness.

A greeter (for visitors on Sunday morning) can think of himself as just a greeter, or he can see that he is the point man for the team (rest of the church), ready to engage the unbelieving visitor who may that day be transformed from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. He is God’s leading ambassador, the advance scout, the “doorkeeper in the house of the Lord.” This ministry of greeting could be the very instrument God uses to bring visitors back repeatedly to hear the gospel.

Or a greeter may be the first one to extend a warm greeting to a discouraged believer or a returning backslider.

It is the leader’s job to bespeak the importance of the various ministries to the mission of the church.

Communicate the goals. Make it clear what each particular ministry is to accomplish in tangible terms. For example, if you have greeters at the front door, what exactly are they to accomplish? Are they doing it simply because the church has always had greeters or because other assemblies do it? Clearly state what the goals are; for example, greeters are to make sure that every visitor is warmly welcomed, is shown where the coat rack, Sunday school classes and bathrooms are, and is given relevant literature helpful to him or her. The leader is always keeping the goals in front of those who are serving.

Redefine the culture. Culture is that set of perceived assumptions which control activity. The unstated rules often control people’s behavior, despite the written or stated expectations. For example, one goal for greeters might be to be consistently stay at the front door of the building from 10 minutes before the start of meetings to 15 minutes after the start so as to make visitors feel welcome, whether they come early or arrive late. But the greeter might never show up on time or not stay all the way through, because the “culture” says something different. That may be because 3 out of 4 Sundays there are no visitors after the start of the meeting and, therefore, most may think it is really not important to stay at their post the whole time. The one who is enthusiastic about being an excellent greeter may soon get the idea that the “culture” says you don’t need to stay that late. In the meanwhile, once every 3 or 4 weeks some visitors do show up late and leave the meeting early before anyone can talk with them. The greeter could have caught this and made personal contact by weathering the 3 out of 4 times when no one showed up. A leader brings this “culture” into the open, discusses it and encourages consistency, or leads the team in changing the goals.

Here are 12 practical specifics a leader can do to help volunteers serve well:

1. Give them the sense of importance they need to feel significant.

I learned years ago that one of the most important ministries in our church was bulletin-folding. What’s so important about that? Well, there was a woman in our fellowship who was mentally challenged and confined to a wheel chair. She asked if she could help out in any way, suggesting that, even with her handicap, she could fold the bulletins if someone brought them to her. So we had the one who did the bulletin copying bring the unfolded bulletins to this dear sister in the Lord. In time, another individual took on the bulletin copying role, but felt the folding was easier to do as the bulletins came off the printer. She did not want to “bother” the handicapped woman with such a trivial thing.  A few weeks went by and the dear sister asked me if we were upset with her for not folding the bulletins right. Why had we taken her ministry away from her? We quickly corrected the problem! Efficiency is not the highest priority. Rather, valuing highly the ministry of ever servant in the church was.

We all have varying capacities, but we have one Lord and one Spirit. And all are to be valued highly. Our role as leaders is to help everyone see their ministry as significant as that woman saw her bulletin-folding!

2. Give them a “ministry description” so they know what to do.

People want to know what they are getting themselves into and what is expected of them. Never underestimate what they are willing to do by watering down the expectations. When they catch the vision and significance of it, they will make great sacrifices.

3. Give them the training they need to serve well.

This may involve mentoring (on-the-job training), resources to read or sending them to a specialized conference.

4. Give them the permission they need to be confident.

Make sure they know they have the authority to serve confidently in their ministry role and to make appropriate decisions. This provides protection against the criticism which comes from serving they will invariable receive. It will also provide the responsibility they need to learn from their own mistakes. Volunteers need to know you stand behind them and their decisions, so long as those decisions are within the framework of their ministry.

5. Give them the freedom they need to be creative.

People do much better when they have room for personal input in determining the goals. Affirm creative thinking, anything that goes beyond the “minimum” job description that helps accomplish the goals.

6. Give them the resources they need to do their job.

Explain how to handle expenses, what money and supplies are available, how to appeal for more resources and where they can go for help.

7. Give them the hearing they need to know their ideas are valued.

Invite feedback, listen and understand! Be willing to modify things when their good ideas fit within goals. Absolutely forbid yourself to mouth those mindless words, “We never did it that way before”—that is the ultimate de-motivator.

8. Give them the example they need to inspire them.

Demonstrate by your example excellence in service. Do they see you serving with that extra effort to move your ministry from being acceptable to being “well-done”?

9. Give them a sense of being part of a team so they don’t feel alone.

Ministry team meetings to share struggles, joys, victories and prayer are encouraging to volunteers. These also give opportunity for group discussion and feedback which can generate helpful ideas.

10. Give them verbal and written appreciation to encourage them.

At a minimum, personally thank them in with some specifics about what they are doing well. Verbal encouragements go a long way.  Everyone responds to a different “love language”, so be sure to note the kind of appreciation he or she responds to. Avoid the tendency to say, “My praise will only take away from their reward in heaven.” That is not a Biblical perspective. Paul often expressed appreciation for his readers in their hearing! (See Phil 1:3-5, Eph 1:16).

11. Give them the accountability they need to ensure their success.

This is probably one of the most difficult to implement, but the most needed. You must first convince the individual you are “on their side” and fully committed to their success in service (see the previous 10 points). Accountability means someone is committed to their success. Without accountability, we convey that no one cares. This includes thoughtful feedback on how they can improve. Gently hold them to what they have agreed to: the vision, the goals, the job description. When done right, accountability gives the person confidence that they can grow in their ministry.

12. Give them spiritual support so they glorify God.

In other words, pray for them and pastor them so they are strengthened and use their service to enhance God’s reputation among men.

This may seem like a long list…because it is! But volunteers are worth it. Let me encourage you to take just one or two items from the list and begin to work on them with a few “volunteers” in your fellowship.  Share this list with all the leaders in your fellowship, so they can begin to do the same with people they lead in their various ministry areas. You just may find more people serving with joy as they sense the Holy Spirit working through you and other leaders to lead them. And they will keep coming back to serve—and to serve well.