If you serve in a volunteer-intensive organization like the church, you would probably love to have more volunteers, but you may have bumped up against busyness as a barrier that keeps you from finding and maybe even keeping volunteers.
As you work on your volunteer system, one of the tensions you will encounter is leading volunteers who are busy. Busyness creates a tension in volunteers as well. There is a tension between their desire to serve and the reality of their calendars. There is a tension between wanting to grow as a volunteer and the angst of attending a training meeting.
If you were to send this post – or one of many others to your volunteers – how many do you think would read it? The reality that many won't isn't personal. It's not that they don't want to read it. They may want to read it. They may even plan to read it, but you know many of them won't. The reason they won't read it is because your volunteers are busy. For many of your volunteers, it seems it is all they can do to volunteer.
As a leader, you want to create an environment in which busy volunteers are energized and effective. Here are some things you can provide that will help create this type of environment for busy volunteers.
Provide a Clear Time Commitment
People fear the “never-ending commitment”. They don’t want to find themselves serving in a ministry they don’t enjoy or stretched too thin with no way out. One of the best things you can provide to volunteers – especially busy ones – is a clear time commitment. Let them know up front the time frame of the commitment. Communicate to them that they are serving through the school season or for a year. The time commitment itself may not matter as much as letting them know what the time commitment is. Many volunteers will continue to serve beyond the initial time commitment, but letting them know up front gives them a chance to decide.
It’s also a good idea to provide clarity on the volunteer’s weekly time commitment. If it takes 5 hours, tell them it takes 5 hours. For example, a storyteller in children’s ministry may have a 15-minute commitment on Sunday morning but they are also asked to prepare for that 15-minute commitment. Don’t forget to tell them it may take them an hour through the week to be ready to go on Sunday morning. And, don’t be afraid to ask them how much time it’s really taking them so that you and they have a clear understanding of the time commitment.
Provide Clear Responsibilities
There is little more frustrating than being asked to do something, but having no idea what you are supposed to do. There is little more challenging than getting something done when you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. Putting volunteers into any position without telling them what needs to be done is putting them in a position to be frustrated and potentially embarrassed. It is a good way to not keep volunteers for very long.
It is the leader’s job to clarify and communicate the responsibilities of every volunteer role. It is the leader’s job to know what a win looks like for each volunteer and to let each volunteer know. It is the leader’s job to know how that win connects to the mission and vision and to make sure volunteers know. Busy volunteers want to know what’s expected and how what they are doing is making a difference in the big picture.
If you ask someone to serve as a small group leader, it may be helpful to communicate the responsibilities to find a host location as well as an appropriate curriculum, form the details of the group meeting days, times, etc., fill the group with people and the people with the group responsibilities, facilitate group dynamics and meetings, and follow-up with group members and small group system activities (notice the hopefully memorable find, form, fill, facilitate, follow-up format of the responsibilities).
It is also beneficial to narrow the focus of the responsibilities for every position to a one-sentence description. For a small group leader this may be “create a small group environment where people connect with each other & grow in their relationship with God, others, and the world around them.”
It may take some time and work but providing clear responsibilities will be a huge win for you as a leader, the volunteers, and the organization.
Leaders know the value of training – so do volunteers, but the tension of the busy calendar makes providing training challenging. “Mandatory” meetings used to be the approach to training, but those days are gone. Attendance at mandatory meetings has actually shown us those days have been gone for a long time.
Training is important, but busy volunteers just aren’t going to squeeze one more thing on their calendars. So how can you as a leader provide training that connects with busy volunteers?
Simply put, get creative with how you provide training! Create a training section on the organization’s website. Post a training video to YouTube (or some other video site). Schedule a live stream or Periscope training which doesn’t require people to be onsite. Provide Twitter-style training tips or write a training blog.
Maybe there’s a good book available about a specific area of training for your volunteers. Busy volunteers may not have time to read a whole book on a subject but they may have time to read a book summary. Tony Morgan of the Unstuck Group recently wrote about this in his blog:
The avenues to provide training are limited only by the leader’s creativity. The key is to develop an intentional training strategy and implement it. Some training is better than none – but make sure it is done well. Don’t waste the time of busy volunteers with poor training.
And don’t waste the time of busy volunteers with boring training. Make it fun (and including food is never a bad idea). Play a game of Nerf dodgeball at the beginning of a meeting just for fun or Google games you can play in under a minute and do a couple of those. The bottom line is to make it fun in a way that fits your context and makes volunteers not dread the training.
Give volunteers the tools to do wants being asked of them. One of the best questions a leader can ask of volunteers is, “Do you have everything you need to do what’s being asked of you?” When they tell you what they need, do your best to provide it. Budget for ministry needs and keep volunteers from having to “foot the bill” for ministry whenever possible.
If the children’s ministry needs more crayons, find a way to get them more crayons. If the student ministry needs a case of Mountain Dew – and what teenager doesn’t need more Mountain Dew – then find a way to get them a case of Mountain Dew.
It is likely that every volunteer in your organization could think of something they want, and it’s not always possible to get them everything they want. At least make sure they have everything they need. If that’s not possible, be honest, tell them why and be willing to revisit the expectations so they are realistic within the available resources.
Volunteers probably aren’t serving for the recognition, but we all like to be appreciated when we give of our time and ourselves. Volunteers should be the most appreciated and energized groups in the church. They are the key to any effective and scalable ministry. Providing regular doses of encouragement keeps them appreciated and energized.
Be on the watch to catch volunteers doing something good, and let them know you caught them. Send a handwritten thank you notes. Brag on them publicly. Highlight them on social media. Leave a voice mail or send an e-card. Hold an annual volunteer appreciation event. Find ways to let them know what they do makes a difference and they are appreciated. Regular doses of encouragement go a long way in creating a healthy volunteer environment.
Say thank you as often as you can in as many ways as you can.
Leaders and volunteers alike bump into the tension of busyness. If you want to get and keep busy volunteers, it is your job as the leader to manage the tension. What other ways are you managing this tension?
Dan McLaughlin serves as Lead Pastor at CCC (Community Congregational Church) in Franklin, Indiana. He has 25 years of ministry experience and is passionate about church health, systems development, and leadership. Dan and his wife, Denise live in Bargersville, Indiana with their two children.