Volunteer leaders are the backbone of the church.
This is true in churches of all sizes, but especially in small churches which may be led exclusively by volunteers.
After all, volunteers can quit at any time. And when they do, it actually frees up more of their spare time. So we need to give them good reasons to stick around.
Here are 10 of them:
1. Tell Them Why
The days when church leaders did what they were supposed to do merely from a sense 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 why.
Oh sure, you can get away without explanations for a while, or on small projects. But for the big things – the things that matter – good leaders want and need to know 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 can lead others in it. It also allows them create great ideas that can 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.
As a pastor, I don’t want to be the smartest person in the room. (I know, it’s not much of a stretch). 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 mindless followers. They might attract crowds, but they don’t make disciples.
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 become better disciples, leaders and disciple-makers.
The flip side of listening is making sure you communicate well – and often.
It’s been 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 to process, methods, ministries, schedules – you name it.
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, email or Facebook reminder.
When something matters, it can never be said enough.
4. Be Patient
Volunteer church leaders are working for the church and its ministries during whatever small openings they can find in their schedule. A schedule that includes work, school, child-rearing, family crises, financial stress and more.
They’re studying, praying and preparing 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 curriculum (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 fifth), don’t jump down their throat or threaten to take them out of leadership, help them do it better next time.
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.
Yes, I know the above description of a church leader’s day sounds like the life of a lot of small church pastors, too. Especially if you’re bivocational. Give yourself a break from perfection, too.
5. Be Forgiving
People make mistakes. I do. You do. Your volunteer leaders do.
The only way to not make mistakes is not to do anything – which is a big mistake.
Be grateful for people’s 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. If you are the pastor, be ready. Have an agenda and stick to it. Have all the necessary materials printed and organized. Be on time. 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 call, then cancel meetings and/or come to them unprepared.
Stop winging it, pastors! Our volunteer leaders deserve better from us.
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 curriculum 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 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 27 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, we talked about the church, and we figured out how to do things better. I was his mentor.
Today, he is more my peer than my protégé. In fact, two years ago he became my lead pastor, and I became the church’s teaching pastor. Over the decades we’ve worked together, he has mentored hundreds of others, scores of whom are in ministry today.
In case you’re wondering how we do this, I don’t use a curriculum for training leaders. I’ve tried several, but they don’t work for my teaching style. I wrote about how we train leaders in Five Simple Steps to Mentor New Believers (Without Overworking the Pastor).
10. Foster an Atmosphere of Thankfulness
You can never say “thank you” too much. People need to know they’re appreciated. That their efforts are noticed. 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.
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