1] One-year commitments.
McIntosh and Arn (2013), in their book, What Every Pastor Should Know, say that “each ministry position, from the lowest level of influence to the highest, should be a one-year term [so the volunteer] can try a new activity and have the freedom to leave without guilt at the end of the year…” (p. 136). I wholeheartedly agree. All of the volunteers who work in the hwcYouth arena are contracted to one-year commitments. I ask them that every year. I tell them that they are signing on and committing to being involved for one ministry year. If it does not work out, then they are welcome to not recommit the following year. People really appreciate the one-year commitment because they don’t feel trapped in a ministry till they die. Even my most faithful volunteers that have served with me for years, I ask them every July or August if they would like to return. I always want to give people an easy out if they need to make a change—guilt-free. I think we get more committed and faithful volunteers because of this.
2] Clear, defined expectations.
Simpson (2005) shares in Management Essentials for Christian Ministries: “I have generally found that volunteers are more likely to volunteer and do the job well with a sense of satisfaction when they have been given a job description that is honest about the tasks they are being asked to do” (p. 178). A few years back I came across a manual for small group leaders at stuffyoucanuse.org and it gave me an idea for getting all of our volunteers on the same page—literally. So that’s what I did. I used their template and wrote clear and defined expectations of hwcYouth volunteers. The manual has morphed over the years and has almost nothing from the template anymore, but stuffyoucanuse.org really helped get the ball rolling on this one for us! The volunteers that work with me have a very clear understanding of what I’m asking them to do and what they are committing to do. This makes accomplishing these things actually happen!
3] Listen and be open to their feedback.
Volunteers are smart. They see things you as the ministry leader don’t see. Volunteers also hear things that you don’t hear. They sense things you don’t sense. It’s extremely wise to illicit their opinions and feedback about the area that they are serving. Asking volunteers for their honest feedback means that you as the ministry leader need to have thick skin, a Christ-like humility, a rightly ordered identity in Christ, and a relentless passion for seeing things improve in reaching kids for Christ rather than remaining in the status quo or in decline. I highly recommend asking your volunteers for feedback and critique.
4] Appreciate them.
I used to think that if someone volunteers with me and they are doing it for the right reasons, then they don’t need my thanks or appreciation. After all, it’s God they are serving and pleasing Him, right? Why do I need to appreciate them? Well, that’s not how we humans are wired, and we need all need encouragement to make it from week to week (especially middle school small group leaders). I think this realization turned for me when I had children. Even though I felt fairly confident (that didn’t take long to fade!) in my parenting early on, I found myself craving encouragement from other parents (who were further on down the road than me). I realized that even though most of my volunteers are definitely serving for the right reasons, they still need encouragement and appreciation to fuel that service (so they know they are doing a good job). I encourage my volunteers weekly and we do a huge catered dinner with them mid-year as a small token of appreciation.
5] Communicate with them.
Your volunteers need to hear from you… often. Probably on a regular, consistent basis. You need to share details, evaluate the previous week’s program or event, talk about what is coming up, etc. This can be done through a variety of means (letter, email, blog post, etc.), but it needs to be done. Volunteers like to feel like they know what is going on. They want to know how they can help. They want their service to matter. They also want to know how they are doing from week to week. I recently had an older Mom who is a middle school girls small group leader ask me if I still wanted her to lead her girls or if I wanted a younger person to do it. Of course not! The relationship she has with her group of girls and the time she has invested in them is invaluable and irreplaceable. Just having a younger, “hip” person leading will not give the students what they really need. They really need you. She was encouraged by that. I realized that I need to individually and corporately encourage our leaders more when I communicate with them weekly.
6] Be flexible.
You have to be flexible. You just have to be. If you are a full-time or part-time staff leader then you get paid to be present and lead week to week. Your volunteers actually volunteer their time and don’t get paid for their service. Be flexible with them. If they can’t make it because they are sick or out-of-town for a vacation, let them be gone with your enthusiastic blessing. If it’s a chronic kind of absence then it’s worth a conversation about whether their commitment has changed. The goal is to not make your volunteers feel guilty if they are gone for a legitimate reason (which, if you have set clear expectations, one-year commitments, listen to their feedback, encourage, and communicate with them, any reason they would be gone will be legitimate). Let them be gone with your enthusiastic blessing, not with your resigned: “I don’t know if we’ll make it without you, but okay, if you force us to, I guess we will.”
Usually my response is: “No worries. Have fun! I’ll see you next week.” (if they are on vacation or something cool has happened with their kids). Or it’s: “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’ll be praying for you. We’ll miss you, but no worries. Get better.” (if they are sick or have something tragic happen last minute).