Five tips for leading volunteers

As church leaders, working with volunteers can be one of our greatest joys and most painful struggles. I often find myself overwhelmed and humbled by the generosity of volunteers, and simultaneously feel discouraged, frustrated and confused by the task of leading people who aren’t paid to be there.

Leading volunteers is an area I’m continually learning and growing in, but here are five principles I wish I knew when I began leading teams of volunteers:

1. Sell your vision

People want to be inspired. Don’t just state your need and expect that people will be lining up to fill that need — inspire them. Sell the vision of what you’re trying to achieve. Convince potential volunteers to follow you based on thewhy of what you’re hoping to achieve, not the what. Don’t just say “we need volunteers in the kids’ club” — share the vision, show tangible evidence of what the ministry is achieving, and inspire people to get on board. That way, the volunteers you do get will more likely be people who are sold on the vision and passionate about what they’ve signed up for.

2. Be clear about the buy-in

It’s important to be upfront with expectations right from the start. Explain what the time-commitment will be, and stick to it. Will there be meetings they’re required to attend? How often will they be scheduled? How many hours per week is involved? What, specifically, will they be required to do? Supply a role-description and be clear about what the expectations will be. This reduces the likelihood of volunteers becoming frustrated in the weeks or months following due to their role being different to what they expected at the start.

3. Coach more, direct less

As a leader or coordinator of a volunteer team, it’s easy to simply direct people to get the tasks done without training and equipping them to carry out their role better going into the future. One of the signs of a great leader is someone who is training their team up to be able to function without them. We must aim to be player-coaches, doing the ministry ourselves, but also training others to continue without us, rather than just directing volunteers to do their tasks without giving them opportunity to grow and be trained further in their roles.

4. Be okay with second-best

The ongoing frustration of so many leaders working with volunteers is “I could have done this better/quicker/more efficiently if I’d just done it myself”. In most cases, it’s probably true. The job most likely would have been done better/quicker/more efficiently if you’d done it yourself. But that’s okay. In many, if not most, cases, it’s more important that others be trained, loved and shown grace than us “just getting the job done”. A temptation for many leaders who oversee volunteers is that our pride is at stake when volunteers “under-perform”. This is a problem. Not for the volunteers, but for us. If we are more concerned about our own pride than loving and growing those God has put under us, we must assess our own hearts, repent of our pride, and grow in grace and humility. This is far more important to God than the job being done right.

5. Know what God asks of us

When it comes to working with others, God is very clear about what he demands of us: love. John 13:35 — By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. We need to love our volunteers. If they don’t feel loved, valued, supported and appreciate, they won’t stay. It can be so easy to get caught up in the task, and take our volunteers for granted, seeing them as simply “workers” there to get the job done. Try to slow down and love them. Need to send a volunteer an email about Sunday? How about starting by asking them about their week, or ask if they’re enjoying the lovely Summer weather we’ve been having, or thank them for the last task they were involved with. Small gestures cause people to stop, slow down, and feel appreciated that even in the little things, you’re concerned about them personally, and not just about the task at hand. God cares more about whether we love others than whether we get the job done well.

What are some of the joys or struggles you’ve experienced working with volunteers?

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