How to Acquire, Train and Sustain Volunteer teams

How to Acquire, Train and Sustain Volunteer teams

Churches and ministries thrive on volunteer teams; People who consider it worship to practically work for the cause of the Church & the Gospel, for no financial gain.

But leading volunteers is complex. Many great leaders in the business world find themselves surprised by their inability to lead in the volunteer sector, as they suddenly realise, their employees had been responding to them for years because of a wage, and not their great leadership! Volunteer teams don’t run on money, but on pure leadership skill! It takes great learning to lead volunteer teams.

So, in this complex area, here’s my best bits of advice that I’ve gleaned from 27 years leading in this sector:

  1. Get better at BIG asking. Generally, it’s easy to be shy and reticent at asking for big sacrifice and big investment from people, when there is no wage packet to offer. But you know what, people want meaning and fulfilment, and will often sacrifice passionately if the cause is worthy and the team is fun. Ask big. Ask lots. Take people out to lunch and for coffees and tell them “I think you would be incredible at….” Don’t worry if half your “big asks” come to nothing; that just means your asking lots!
  2. Make good selections. It’s easier to lead GOOD people. Good people make you look great! Ha! I would rather leave an area fallow, than create a high maintenance war zone by picking poor volunteers for a task. You want to look for people who embody the culture you want. Be careful with new Christians the Bible warns, and avoid argumentative people (check their social media profiles!). Ask people’s previous team leaders, or previous ministers for references. If you pick great people, you’ll build a great team quickly.
  3. Book-end service. I often ask “Will you do this for 3 months, 6 months, 1 year?” It gives us both legitimate ways to get out if it’s not working, space to review, and leaves the power in the hands of the leader if you need to change things. It’s VERY important in church life to create a flexible working environment, as you have to move people on without breaking friendship, unlike most other jobs. Create a culture where it’s normal to move around, try different roles, take sabbaticals and break times. Teach people to love the goal, not the role!
  4. Build Around Honour. Honour will make your team magic! Honour is a spiritual dynamic even Jesus could not get around. He arrived at this hometown and the Gospel of Mark says “He could do no miracles there” because of their dishonour, which is a kind of unbelief. Honour is the atmosphere of miracles, so look for honour in people’s eyes; that they “get you” in God, that they like & enjoy you, want to run with you, and build around it. Keep team culture very flexible, so if the honour goes from their eyes because of a hard season (let’s be honest, it happens), you can shift them to a new team for their next season.
  5. Build a very honest, direct but kind, culture. When things aren’t right, if you hold it all in, you end up Passive Aggressive, dropping endless hints and being grumpy! Just say it-  “Ooo that’s great, but can it be a bit more like this?”, “You never turned up, is everything OK?”, “I really need commitment if you can; if not, let’s move you to another team”. Make it caring, but don’t let it pass. What you tolerate will replicate.
  6. Create a training culture. Make your team about investing in people’s skills, their own CV’s, their value and personal dreams (Remember Jesus said “Make Disciples, not “run church”) and they will highly value the team. Allocate more budget to training, and not just frontline impact. People are your GREATEST resource. The team IS the ministry. Give people books, resources, podcasts, training events and trips away.
  7. Communicate well. Train and update verbally or through activity, and not by long emails; People don’t read them! Just use email to back up what’s been said, or for very short updates. And ask your team: “Just to make sure I’ve made sense, can you give me the feel of what you think I’m trying to say here”?
  8. Repeat the Dream and goals. Use repetition verbally, in paperwork, brochures, videos, stories, in what you celebrate, all to reinforce the dream/vision. Have short term goals too, with targets/dates to aim at so you can celebrate goals. That way it won’t seem like an endless job that’s never finished (which can be common in church life).
  9. Model what you want. They will copy what you do, not what you instruct. If you’re late, they will be. If you’re rude, bored, not learning, plateaued, task orientated, rebellious etc they will be too.
  10. Trust MORE on low impact roles, LESS on high impact. Jesus didn’t obsess about people harming his “brand”! Ha! He sent out teams to preach, to learn, to “give it a go” and so should we. Let people have a try in low impact areas, and make the criteria higher in high impact. Have jobs that brand new Christians can do, (and even non Christians as far as I’m concerned).
  11. High Calibre Volunteers are harder to lead. If you’re disorganised, lazy, if the rota is a mess or late, really good volunteers will drop off quick, because busy, capable people will not want to waste time. Great people are attracted by great leaders, so you gotta be that great leader! And when they’ve joined you, get them into influence and leadership quicker; Fast track them if needs be, but book-end the service. If you have great business or management or finance people, don’t make them hand out newsletters because they’re willing – use their brains and skills in key leadership areas (Perhaps on a trial basis, or short term teams if necessary til you know them well).
  12. Develop mechanisms to celebrate and thank. Do it publicly and privately, with notes, cards, emails. Always be thanking. Celebrate the good, ignore or confront the bad (a lot of bad simply fades away when ignored…but not all!) What you tolerate will replicate. What you celebrate will duplicate. People might not be working for a wage, but they will go a long way on thanks, honour and appreciation.
  13. Find out about people before you place them. Ask for people’s CVs. Get them through INSIGHTS, Strength Finder or a Myers Briggs type assessments. Then you’ll see how to place them. Some lovely people simply cannot DRIVE a pioneering project. Some holy people cannot do detail! Some incredible prophets cannot care for people well, and some kind people are SO RELATIONAL they cannot push projects that need hard results. Find out about people well because it’s not always obvious. We have used INSIGHTS many times, and I’ve immediately known what is wrong with a team, as I’ve been expecting results that were simply not in the skill set of the leaders. Not their fault, but mine, because of poor placement.
  14. Don’t rely on announcements from the front or newsletters, or emails to recruit (And never, ever BEG people to join a team with “desperate for help” language. All you will attract are generally the wrong, guilt driven people). Announcements are fine for reinforcing awareness, or to round up lots of people for a fun day volunteer team. But most teams should be built by “shoulder tapping” the people you want, that way you get “leaders” and not just kind (or sometimes grumpy) “doers”. Every Leader needs to be working through the room on Sunday morning, shoulder tapping key potential team members and leaders, saying “You’d be great for my team…” In fact…
  15. Delegate Shoulder Tapping to a bigger group. All the members of a youth team, children’s leaders team, worship team etc, should be tasked with finding new members. It widens the relational scope of shoulder tapping. Take time as a team to define what people you are looking for in character, competence and chemistry, and give all the team goals for shoulder tapping. Recruitment should be everyone’s job.
  16. Grow Yourself. Great people follow great people. Make yourself more magnetic by becoming a better, more secure, skilled leader. If leadership intimidates you, then read books, hang around great leaders, go to conferences and take courses til you start to sense leadership feeling more natural to you. If you sow into your gift of leadership, you will grow, and become more attractive to higher calibre  people.
  17. Evaluate your “Acquire, Train and Sustain” system. Be honest…often we don’t even have a system. But no system, really is a system; it’s just a lazy, ineffective one. So talk about your system, be ruthless about which bits don’t work by assessing  what numbers of newcomers join the team each quarter, what are their calibre, are they growing in God and in skills, and is there a quick drop off? Then design a better, more thorough system of connecting with, discipling and inspiring your teams.

Finally, remember we’re not here to “run church” or keep projects going. We are here to “Go into all the world”, and to “make disciples of all nations”. If our church cultures become places of discipleship, training, learning, exploring and adventuring, rather than just keeping meetings and projects going, then the energy, passion, sacrifice and fruit will start to go through the roof! 

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