Serving Those Who Serve

How do we love (and keep) our volunteers? Ivy Beckwith has some tips.

When I was a children’s pastor at a very large church, a major part of my job was recruiting and managing all the volunteers I needed for the smooth running of the children’s ministry. I used to joke that church members would run in the other direction when they saw me coming because they were certain I was about to ask them to volunteer.

Because of the large number of people I needed, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to support them and, ultimately, how to keep them. And, because I really hated recruiting, I desperately wanted these valuable people to sign up for more than one year. So what do our volunteers really want from us in order to feel supported in their work with children?

First, they need to feel like they are seen as more than a ‘warm body’ simply filling a slot. When I recruited children’s ministry volunteers I always told them why I wanted them for the job. I once recruited a young professional couple without children to become leaders in our pre-school area. They had been volunteering as teachers with this group of young children and as I observed them interact with the children and the other teachers I knew they had the abilities to do the job I was offering them. I told them why I wanted them to do the job and they said yes. People want to know they are being recruited because they have something specific to offer the children’s ministry.

Second, volunteers, once they are in the job, want to feel supported by you and the other leaders in your church and ministry. They want to know that someone has their back. They want to know when they have a problem or a question there is someone to go to who can help them. This sometimes means that as the leader you will do a lot of listening and, perhaps, some hand-holding. In one church I was in, there was a woman who helped to coordinate the Sunday morning ministry with babies and toddlers. She was very good at her job – organised and efficient. But at least twice a month, on a Monday, she would call me with a list of all her problems and grievances from the day before. Many of the things she talked about were not things I could fix and or had any control over. At first I was concerned she’d become frustrated with me because I couldn’t solve most of these problems, but gradually I realised that she didn’t expect me to solve them, she just wanted someone to listen to her. That I could do.

You need to be there for your volunteers; ready and available to listen to them

Finally, people need to know that it is ok to quit. No-one wants a volunteer to try out a ministry for a week and then resign – I always asked for a year-long commitment and tried to hold people to that unless there were extenuating circumstances. But once that year was up people knew they could leave. Of course, I did my best to make sure the children’s ministry was a place people wanted to serve for years, but sometimes there were people who were willing to give it a try and after a year they or I knew this was not the best place for them. I always cheerfully gave them their leave and suggested other church ministries that might be better suited to their gifts and skills.

The simple fact is this: we can’t do what we do without volunteers. Whether you need two or 50, you need to be wise in how you recruit them and care for them.

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