Developing Leadership in Your Volunteers

Do you remember the first time you volunteered? Maybe it was to coach a baseball team, to lead a small group, to help out at a thrift store, or even to help rescue abandoned pets. Do you remember the training you received or the support you got from the person who enlisted you? If you were trained and coached well, you probably have fond memories. If you were just left to sink or swim on your own—well, we all have horror stories we could tell.

In churches, volunteers are the lifeblood of any ministry. We literally can’t do without them. So it’s pretty important that we take good care of them. We want both them and the people they serve to have lots of wins. 

Related Reading: Volunteer, You Are The Awesome Secret Sauce

So how can we equip volunteers to do and be their best?

It begins before they start to serve. The way we enlist volunteers can make the difference between volunteers who thrive and those who bomb out. You don’t want to scare people off by asking too much, but you do want to be honest about the depth of commitment you’re asking them to make. And make sure they buy into your vision and have the right skills for the job. Volunteers want to make a difference, not just fill a hole in your organizational chart.

One of the coolest jobs you have is making sure volunteers truly understand the significance of what they do. You may live in the world of big, but your volunteers live in the world of small. They know there’s a 40,000-foot view of your entire ministry, but that’s not where they live week after week. They take a lot of small steps. For them to thrive, you need to point out how their seemingly small steps combine with other small steps to make big things happen.

To help volunteers thrive and your ministry succeed, you need to make “owners” out of your volunteers. “Renters” give the minimum required, enough to check off the “giving back” box, but owners pray harder, work harder, and give more. The best volunteers, the ones who go beyond “normal,” are owners. They make an investment and stick around long enough to see big things happen. 

There are five things you can do to equip “not normal” volunteers to succeed:

  1. Get the right people in the right place. Make sure your volunteers understand that your goal is to help them find their best fit. That may or may not be where they start out. By observing them in action and having frequent conversations, both you and your volunteers will know if they’re well-matched to their service roles.
  2. Ask for what you really need. Again, you don’t want to scare people off by asking for too much upfront. On the other hand, you don’t want to make a minimal ask either. Most people respond best to a bite-size role that puts them in a comfortable place. But there are those unique people who have been around for a while and have been owners in other organizations. They like difficult and challenging roles. They want you to make a big ask, so don’t disappoint them.
  3. Get out of their way. You don’t want things to get out of control. But you don’t want to clamp down so hard that you stifle initiative. There should always be enough wiggle room for volunteers to be able to dream within the parameters of the vision you’ve laid out. Nobody knows a small group better than its “not normal” leader.
  4. Develop them. For most of us, the word training sends fear down our spines. When people suspect a training event will be boring, they don’t show up. But let’s be honest. We need to train volunteers, even the “not normal” ones, to do and be their best. So we have to figure out new and better ways to train and communicate with them. But, it’s absolutely doable. 
  5. Give them a platform to express their ideas. Some of their ideas will be good ones. Others will not be so good. You still want volunteers to have them. Allowing them to express their ideas deepens their investment in the ministry. And even when you have to say no to an idea, it gives you the opportunity to cast vision to your volunteers. 

Volunteers want to make a difference. They want to enjoy what they do. It’s up to their leaders to help them succeed. 

Want more?

For more on developing leadership in your volunteers, check out Leading Not Normal Volunteers, by Sue Miller and Adam Duckworth. It’s a practical guide to leveraging a volunteer’s skills, wisdom, and experience, and to showing them how much of a difference they can make.

This post was adapted from Leading Not Normal Volunteers, by Sue Miller and Adam Duckworth. 

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