6 Lessons Learned: Building a volunteer ministry is harder than it looks.

 In Blog, Communication

I was having dinner with a pastor friend of mine recently. We were talking about the great things that are happening at his church as well as sorting through some of the challenges they were facing. He kept mentioning a specific person he was having issues with, and at one point I asked him why he didn’t just let the guy go. His response caught me off guard.

“I’d love to fire they guy but I can’t. He’s been here forever and he’s a volunteer…….building a volunteer ministry is harder than it looks.”

While his statement was a bit humorous, it is all too true from a number of conversations I’ve had with other pastors. The remainder of the night, he and I discussed the lessons he has learned along the way working with volunteers. Here are a few highlights of his hard-earned wisdom:

Define the Job

When you hire a staff member you take the time to write a job description. So why not when you ‘hire’ a volunteer? The job description provides clear boundaries of what the person should be doing and what is outside of their scope of work. If written well, it defines clear measures of success and a common language that the supervisor and volunteer can use when discussing the role. Without a good description of the role, you might think you are getting someone to help with child check-in for Sunday School, only to find that they have hijacked the entire curriculum for children’s programming.

Screen for a good fit

here are some jobs I just can’t do.  No matter the circumstances, you don’t want me doing surgery on someone. It’s outside of my skills and giftings and would end disastrously.  Likewise, willingness to volunteer for a job is not the same thing as having the aptitude for it. Now that you have a clear job description, you can look for the needed skills in the people that are wanting to help. There are great tools that help screen for the fit like Strengthsfinder, Myers-Briggs as well as spiritual gifts tests.

Provide clarity on the why

When people want to volunteer, they usually have some connection to the mission of the organization; otherwise, why work for free, right? If this is part of the motivation for people volunteering, take the time to connect the work that they are doing to the larger mission of the church. This seems obvious, but many volunteers end up burned out feeling like a used labor force. If on the other hand, you can connect them setting up furniture for an evening meeting to the lives that are transformed in the AA meeting that they were prepping for, they are less likely to burn out.

Give feedback

We all need it. Sometimes feedback can be hard to receive and even harder to give. Here is another time that having that job description will come in handy. That document can serve as an agreement between you and the volunteer. If something isn’t getting done, you can have a conversation that won’t feel like it’s coming from left field. The best feedback, and often the least given, is praise. Don’t neglect to tell your volunteers how amazing they are.

Understand their motivation

When your volunteers are getting up to speed, take some time and ask a few questions like “Tell about what drew you to work with the ministry to the retirement home?” Asking good questions will give you insight into how to create a great experience for your volunteers as well as how to reward them in ways that they will appreciate.

Say thank you

We can’t say it enough. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU. They are volunteering. They want to be there instead of on their couch. You can’t do it without them. Find verbal, non-verbal and practical ways to demonstrate your gratitude. It will transform your volunteer ministry.

Build in an exit strategy

This was the best advice my pastor friend gave me. Each volunteer opportunity should have a clear start and stop date. This protects your volunteers so that they can stop without having to ‘quit’ and may prevent you from having to ‘fire’ a volunteer that isn’t a good fit.

How are you training, supporting and retaining volunteers in your church?