You want nothing more than to create a long-lasting ministry—a ministry that has a solid foundation in Christ, one that fosters excellent relationships, and one that you can look back on year after year and celebrate lives changing. It is a ministry experience we all want. But there is one vital piece of that experience that we all struggle with.
They are hard to recruit.
They are hard to train.
And they are hard to retain.
It is no one’s fault. People are busy. Life circumstances change, jobs change, people move, and people change. Sometimes all we can do is settle for a warm body in the room. And it seems that in each ministry season the same challenges resurface over and over.
Of course, it does. So first, let’s understand why it is that we find ourselves caught in a vicious cycle of semi-committed volunteers recruited as a warm body to fulfill a quota—because far too often that is our standard. If all we ever promise to would-be volunteers is that they need to fill space, then that is all we will ever get from them. Generally speaking, people will only rise to the expectation or standard you set. But I know what you are thinking. “If I had greater demands and expectations of my volunteers, then I wouldn’t have any volunteers at all.” Some is better than none, right? Well, not really.
It is true that you will likely always have volunteers that will do nothing more than show up and make sure no students go missing or make destructive decisions. And you absolutely need those volunteers. My first few years of youth ministry, as a volunteer, I was required to do nothing more than stand in the back of the room and be like a chaperone. I was nothing more than free babysitting with an adult pair of eyes.
But what if you could take even the most mediocre of volunteers and turn them into committed fans of your ministry? After all, isn’t that we want? We want those who are committed, faithful, excited to invest in students, relational, and teachable. We want a team atmosphere, where you are the coach, each player knows their role and their value, and they are thoroughly committed to the team and mission. While you may not have total control to create the ideal situation, there are a few things you can do to move the needle on your volunteers’ level of commitment—even if only slightly—in your favor.
I have been guilty of it, and I am sure you have too. Recruiting volunteers for the sake of volunteers. I used to have a spreadsheet detailing all my needs for each year. I would leave it open on my computer until every box had a name and every need was fulfilled. I often caught myself not caring all that much if it was the right person, or how committed the person was—so long as the box had a name.
Over time that system completely broke down, and I was forced to look at it another way. Why wait until the season was starting up to reach out and recruit? Instead, I began to recruit all year long. But I did it through building relationships first. Whether I identified them as potential volunteers or only as someone I wanted to meet and know more, I reached out. Over the years, the baristas at the local Starbucks knew me well. I have lost count of the number of meetings I had over a grande latte. Yes, it takes time, but all great relationships do. For most of these meetings, I didn’t talk about ministry—unless asked. I would talk about their kids, family, job, home improvement projects, etc. Of course, they would ask about how my ministry was going. Then and only then, would I share my prayer, vision, and hope for the present and in the future.
If and when I decided that I needed a volunteer from those relationships, I had already developed the right kind of rapport, so that I could easily communicate specific needs and expectations. They knew what I needed, and I knew what their level of commitment was. This made my ministry future so much more predictable and successful.
Help Me Help You
When we recruit, we sometimes find ourselves entirely focused on how people can help us. Ok, let me say this bluntly. We use people. I know that sounds harsh, but we do. We don’t mean to, but we do. I recently read a book on business and content marketing, and of all the great things I learned from that book, the most significant thing I was reminded of was not at all why I read it in the first place.
The author repeatedly came back to the idea of asking how you can be a help to others. In the business context, how can a business help their customers rather than just selling them something? There are so many things demanding our attention that if our volunteers ever felt as though we were just using them to fill a void, reach a quota, or fill in a spreadsheet box, they would quickly turn their attention to something else. But what might happen if we focused our attention on how we can help our volunteers?
It is simple really. It only requires a new habit. Start asking on a regular basis, “How can I be a help to you?” And then do whatever you can to help. And for the one who always says no (there is always one); find a way to help them anyway. It is so simple, yet will transform your relationships with your volunteers. Over time, their level of commitment will increase astronomically.
Make Volunteers Part of Your Vision
Volunteers are vital to every ministry. But how much of the mission and vision are you sharing with them? Every chance you get, share the vision and invite them into that vision. Make certain volunteers know that not only do you have a direction but that you cannot get there without them.
For some, this is a no-brainer, but for others, it isn’t even on your radar. If you are a visionary thinker, this will come naturally. In fact, you probably already do it, even if you don’t know it. Just be sure that your vision casting does not make you look like a bull in a china shop. But for those of you who think more in terms of boots on the ground, this is a much greater challenge. But remember, no vision is far worse than a vision deemed impossible.
Let’s return to the world of business. Businesses have for many years talked about goal setting and what is known as a BHAG. It is short for a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. The idea is centered on setting goals high because of the greater the goal, the bigger the success. Ministry is not all that different. I used to tell my student leaders when they began planning retreats and other school events, to cast a vision so big that the only way it can get done is if God shows up. I called it, “Be Just Dumb Enough.” It caught on—not only with students but with parents and volunteers as well. People love being a part of big goals and visions. And when it’s achieved, people take notice and soon enough everyone wants in on the party.
Invite Honest Feedback
OK, so I saved the hardest one for last—the dreaded feedback. Recently I taught a series of workshops in a few different cities. In every workshop we had a ton of fun, learned together, and laughed together. In the end, the organizer asked each attendee to complete an evaluation. I, of course, was asked to remind them. As always I explain how much I love feedback and that I want to improve. Which is all true. Before the day was over, I snuck a peek at the evaluations. If I were a better person, I would tell you I was searching for ways I can improve. But let’s be real, I wanted to see that everyone loved me and loved my workshops. I didn’t want to see anything negative. I say this because this is how most of us view feedback. We say we want it, but we only want the positive stuff.
But you are going to have to get over it. You need real feedback. Not just the anonymous survey kind, but real honest input from your trusted volunteers—the good, the bad, and the ugly. But if you took the time to build relationships and focused on helping your volunteers first, the feedback will be honest and meant to help, not harm you. If you are constantly sharing the vision, then the feedback ought to have the best for the ministry in mind. Some of it will no doubt hurt and be hard to swallow. But so were those veggies mom made us eat, and I guess those are pretty good for us after all. And come to find out, they taste good too.
We all know volunteers are essential to a thriving ministry. So don’t just recruit and hope you can hang on to them. Invest in them. Show them how valuable they are. They will do far more than just stick around.
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