Insanely practical resources for leaders of normal-sized churches.

How to Turn Volunteers into Leaders

To experience growth in your church, you need both volunteers and leaders. There’s a vast difference between the two and if you fail to grasp it, you might fail to grow as a church.

There is a way to turn volunteers into leaders and I want to give you some practical action steps to make that happen.

Three Principles for turning Volunteers into Leaders

But first, three big principles you must understand:

1. There’s a big difference between a volunteer and a leader.

Volunteers want to do things. They want to play a part, meet a need, and have fairly clear responsibilities.

Leaders want to lead things. They want to be a part of the decision-making process and have more authority.

Some churches think they have a volunteer problem, but in reality, it’s a leadership issue. There are plenty of people to do the work, but not enough people to lead the work.

Other churches have a lot of leaders but nobody to do the real work of the ministry.

2. Many volunteers don't want to be leaders.

Some people are very comfortable staying in the volunteer lane. If you try and give them more leadership and authority, they shrink back or push away.

This has nothing to do with the fact that they don’t care about the mission and vision of the church. And it’s not a commitment issue. It’s just that God has wired some people to be volunteers and not leaders.

You can develop and disciple some people into leadership positions, but trying to force leadership roles on everyone is a big mistake.

3. Leadership development takes time.

You can’t microwave leadership development in your church. It’s more of a slow-cooker kind of thing.

This can be frustrating because there is so much ministry to do and so many opportunities to pursue, but if you want to develop leaders, you’re going to have to be patient.

You can have a class, but a class doesn’t produce leaders. You can create a program, but a program doesn’t yield quick results.

Leadership development in a church, such as the Team Training program that's a part of Church Fuel, requires the right kind of culture and time for relationships to mature.

Five Steps You Can Take to Turn Volunteers Into Leaders

With those three principles as the backdrop, let’s talk about five things you can do this week to begin the process of turning some volunteers into leaders.

1. Identify your potential leaders.

When I was pastoring a young church, we had a staff meeting on Monday nights. It was the only time our part-time and volunteer team could meet during the week.

Even though we were growing really fast, we realized we didn’t have many good systems for developing people. It turns out getting a crowd is way easier than leading a church.

So one night, we pulled out a whiteboard and tried to answer the question “Who are the potential leaders in our church?” We put several names up on the board until we realized we were making a list of hard-working volunteers. Few of these people were natural leaders. They preferred to do the ministry themselves. They worked hard, but they didn’t have followers or build teams.

This couldn’t be our long-term solution. From that meeting, only a few names emerged as true leaders.

You may not have a lot, but you have more than you realize. God has blessed your church with some potential leaders, and thought and prayer can help you identify them.

2. Have “I see in you” conversations.

One of my favorite ways to call out the potential in people is to go up to them and tell them what you see in them. It’s a conversation that might go something like this…

“Hey, Sarah. You are absolutely one of the friendliest people I’ve met. I honestly think it’s a God-given gift. You have this way of making people feel welcome and relaxed. It’s like you’re on the lookout for people who need a smile. I believe God has wired that into your personality somehow. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this before, but that’s something we really need here at River Church. I don’t know how God will use that, but I believe He is going to.”

You don’t have to give the hard sell or hand out the volunteer application. You’re simply saying what you see. You’re looking into someone’s life and speaking a positive truth.

Someone did this for me once, and I’ve never forgotten it. Calling out the potential in people is an amazing thing you can do for someone, and you can do it today.

3. Put them on your calendar.

You can’t effectively equip people to do the work of the ministry by writing sermons, sending emails, and trying to lead from behind your computer screen. You’re going to have to have conversations with people.

Leadership development takes time and intentionality. So once you have a list of a few potential leaders, make sure they are on your calendar. This is not very complicated, but it’s going to require a little bit of focus and planning.

Coffee conversations and lunches with people are really important, so don’t feel like these are diversions from the real work.

Recruiting leaders is also very different from recruiting volunteers. You can’t recruit leaders from the stage or with a sign-up sheet. You can recruit volunteers that way, but inviting leaders to be a part of what God is doing at your church is way more personal.

4. Ask questions.

Barry Banther says “Managers offer answers. Leaders offer questions.”

When you have conversations with potential leaders, you’ll definitely have an opportunity to talk and teach. You should cast vision, model a faith first life, and talk about the Bible.

But one of the most important things you can do is ask questions. Leaders love to share their opinion and you have an incredible opportunity to learn from their insights on the church.

Here are some questions you can ask potential leaders in your church.

  • What do you think we can do better?
  • What do you think are some of our biggest opportunities?
  • How can our church better serve your friends, neighbors and co-workers?
  • How could our church services be better?
  • What are the biggest needs in our community?
  • Who should I get to know in our city? Who would you like to know in our church or city?

A lot of leaders in your church are experts in a particular field. Those insights and skills are crucial to the church, but most people are never asked. I know business leaders who are sitting on the sideline because no pastor has ever asked for their wisdom.

5. Delegate results, not just tasks.

When you have identified a leader, spent time with them, and learned from them, you might find there’s an opportunity for a new leader to get involved in the church.

While you should start small, you must also give away responsibility and not just a to-do list. This is one of the biggest differences between a volunteer and a leader. Volunteers love the to-do list, but leaders often hate it.

If you want to involve a problem-solving leader, get on the same page but then get out of the way. Let them make decisions and take action. Continue to meet and coach, but let go.

Bryan Miles, founder of Miles Advisory Group says, “When you give responsibility to others, you kill the falsehood that says you can do it all and you are in control of it all.”

Don’t decide everything and hand the execution plan to a leader. Let the leader come up with the plan.