Voluntary Contributions: Equipping and investing in your team

We all know that children’s ministry is kept afloat by diligent, passionate volunteers; so how do we go about getting the best out of them, keeping them envisioned, helping them to enjoy themselves and enhance their skills? Catalyst Training’s Sharon Prior shares some essential tips

Children’s ministry would not be anywhere near as effective without the army of volunteers that faithfully serve in churches and organisations each week to share Jesus with children. There has been much written about whether a church employing a children’s worker disempowers volunteers from being involved. However, I would argue that it is part of the role of any good children’s worker to build a volunteer team, so that the ministry can be multiplied.

Throughout the Bible, we see teams of volunteers working together to achieve the purposes of God – in Deuteronomy we see Moses realise that he cannot lead the people of God on his own, so he chooses others to help him. In the book of Nehemiah there is an amazing story of how Nehemiah gathered a large group of volunteer helpers to rebuild the walls and Jesus gathered the disciples around him, appointed them, trained them and sent them off in order for them to be together and to do ministry together.

Various writers talk about the characteristics of an effective team and these include having a common purpose, clear roles, appropriate leadership, effective processes, solid relationships and excellent communication. What might some of these things look like in practice when leading and managing an effective team of volunteers?

VISION AND OWNERSHIP

The first thing is to develop and communicate a vision for the ministry with children and get volunteers to buy into the vision. There is nothing worse than a volunteer who is ministering to children out of a sense of duty or obligation. They need to know that what they are doing is making a difference for eternity and that they are a key person in the development of the children’s spiritual formation. Many volunteers also need to know that they are making a difference to the church or organisation they are volunteering for and this can only be done when the leader communicates the vision effectively and volunteers capture the vision and are passionate about working it out. There is nothing more rewarding in volunteering than seeing children move forward in their spiritual journey and, even better, when we see them going on to become leaders in the ministry themselves.

Secondly, there needs to be a sense of ownership from the volunteers – can they input new ideas to the children’s ministry or are they just doing as they are told, because we have ‘always done it like that’? Ownership is one of the key issues for volunteers if they are going to continue in the role for a long time. This leads to the volunteers feeling empowered to do the task, but also to make changes and stay relevant in the ministry. There is nothing worse than volunteers just going through the motions – we need them to be enthusiastic and empowered if they are are going to make a difference to the children they are ministering to.

TASKS, TEAMS AND INDIVIDUALS

Once you have volunteers who have committed to minister on the children’s team, you need to then make sure that they are led and managed well. John Adair has done some work on how we can build sustainable teams and his three-circle model is very useful when thinking about the role of the team leader and what they need to do to build an effective team.

In his book Effective Leadership, Adair talks about the importance of completing the task that the team has agreed, but this is not the only thing that it is important to achieve. The leader also needs to spend time building team and developing the individuals on the team as well. Adair would argue that it is only when all three of these things are kept in balance that the team will be truly effective. It is important that the task of reaching children with the good news of Jesus and discipling them is achieved, but we should never do this at the expense of building a team that people want to belong to, nor should we sacrifice developing individuals, so that they grow in the role.

How can we do this? I would suggest that anyone leading volunteers spends time identifying their training needs and encourages them to see training as an ongoing thing – this may be through reading a book, going on a training day or shadowing someone else who is further along on their development journey. As I travel around the country offering advice to teams of people who are ministering to children, I have seen some excellent teamwork taking place. However, there are also many occasions when I see volunteers in roles that they are not gifted for; after a while this can result in them becoming detached from the team and the ministry.

TEN TOP TIPS FOR WORKING WITH VOLUNTEERS

1.

 Help volunteers to see the vision of what they are doing – they need to see how their role fits within the big picture of the church or organisation.

2.

Identify their strengths and make sure you have them in the right roles.

3.

Make sure they are clear about what is expected of them – they need a role description.

4.

Train them for the role they are going to do.

5.

Value them as a person and not just as someone who is serving on the team. eg send them a thank you card every so often.

6.

Sit down and have a conversation about what else they might like to do within the group, perhaps something that they have not tried before.

7.

Listen to the issues that are concerning them about their role and work together on a solution to their concerns.

8.

Make sure they have the resources they need to do the role.

9.

Aim to build them as a group by doing social things together. 10. Recognise and celebrate the input from the volunteers, both individually and collectively.

10.

Recognise and celebrate the input from the volunteers, both individually and collectively.

So it is key to make sure that you have volunteers in the right roles, roles that they are gifted for and that will use their God-given strengths and abilities. Often the volunteers have no idea what these might be, so you might want to encourage the team to look at a model that would help them to find their unique place in the team. One model, from Dr Meredith Belbin, identifies various roles that are needed in an effective team and examines the qualities that these types of people can bring to the team. You can find a simple questionnaire online and this will help to identify the different team roles that the volunteers in your team might be placed in, so that they are most effective.

Leaders needs to build teams by encouraging people to spend time together outside the normal time that the children’s group runs – maybe having a meal together once in a while, so the team get to know each other socially and learn to trust each other as they work together.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

If a volunteer team is going to be sustainable for the long term there needs to be some thought given to succession planning – who will take over when the present leader steps down or moves away? Pastor John Maxwell says, ‘There is no success without a successor,’ so every leader of a volunteer team should identify and develop someone to take over from them when the time comes. It will be even more productive if the new leader comes from within the team, so the team should be working together to identify team members with leadership potential and then train them for future leadership.

Lastly, one of the most important things in building an effective team is to handle conflict quickly. As a leader, you should never be scared of conflict in the volunteer team, as conflict can be very productive if handled properly. It can enable new ideas to be thought up, challenged, tweaked and then adopted. All of us want the very best for the children we are ministering to and so we need to be prepared to debate and challenge different ways of doing things and different ideas. The important thing is that conflict is handled well: understood, challenged and resolved when things get too heated.

WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

There are many things that can go wrong when building a team of volunteers, but that should not stop us from taking on the challenge. However, if we are aware of what can go wrong, we are more likely to be proactive in dealing with these things before they happen. In his book The five dysfunctions of a team, Patrick Lencioni suggests that we need to focus on these things if we want to be proactive:

1. Absence of trust – as leaders of volunteers, we need to seek to build trust right from the outset and continue to develop this trust over time.

2. Fear of conflict – as already mentioned, it is important to identify what people are fearful of when it comes to conflict.

3. Lack of commitment – it is always worth making sure that volunteers understand the commitment they are making right from the outset, so that there are no surprises later on. Have a role description that sets out what you are asking them to do. Give regular feedback on how they are doing, especially encouragement in what they are doing well. Everyone likes to receive affirmation for something well done.

4. Avoidance of accountability – one of the most important things in any teamwork, but especially with volunteers, is an expectation that the team is accountable for what they do. So build in an accountability structure right from the beginning. If volunteers know that there will be evaluations and feedback, then there will be no surprises later on. Encourage the volunteer to be part of this feedback by giving their thoughts on how well the team is doing and what could be changed. After every event or session, I encourage volunteers to ask themselves three questions: what went well? What did not go so well? What could we do differently next time? This will help volunteer teams to learn how to evaluate themselves and to be accountable to one another.

5. Inattention to results – sometimes a volunteer team has no idea what they are supposed to be doing and so have no idea when they have achieved it. This can cause disillusionment and apathy in individuals and the team. So setting good markers of what needs to be achieved can really help them to focus on what they are doing and to aim for something. In children’s ministry, this is very important otherwise volunteers will get into the habit of just babysitting the children rather than seeing their role in spiritual formation.

Volunteers are a valuable resource for all churches and Christian organisations in their ministry with children, so the work of leading and managing them should be taken seriously and resources put into their support and development.

In my experience, good, effective volunteers in any sphere tend not to complain too much if they are unhappy, they just leave and go and volunteer elsewhere. This is a great shame and also a great loss to the church or organisation, to say nothing about the loss to the children who were benefiting from that volunteer’s input. I hope that this article will give you some practical ideas for making sure that you build a sustainable volunteer team in your children’s ministry.

Sharon Prior is the director of Catalyst Training, an organisation that provides training and mentoring for youth and children’s workers.


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