By Jane Fryar
In some groups of volunteers, the atmosphere is electric. You walk into the room—and sense the excitement and purposefulness shared by the volunteers there. Others, though, never quite catch the spark. What makes the difference?
It’s not just happenstance or the luck of the draw. You can make a difference! Here’s how:
- Get the right people in the group. This is key! Research shows it’s folly to think you can train for attitudes and values. Instead, recruit people who already carry enthusiasm for the ministry or task for which you’re recruiting them.
Example: Mr. Smith is lonely and critical of church staff. Pastor Brown invites him to help the office volunteers with the monthly newsletter.
Comment: Instead of the group encouraging Mr. Smith, it’s more likely that he will dampen their enthusiasm (and gain new ammunition for his negativity). It might be better to pair him with a compassionate Meals-on-Wheels volunteer who has good listening skills.
- Carefully define responsibilities. Know exactly what you want done and what the outcome should look like. Develop an accountability checklist for the group or individual volunteer. Don’t create a recipe. Instead, develop a tool to track and control quality.
Example: Larry Hodges and his family have volunteered to care for the church grounds over the summer. The trustees accept his offer and develop a list of questions, based on weekly outcomes they would like to see. For example, “Is the lawn free of trash?”; “Is the grass green?”; and “Are the sidewalks framed by bushes accessible?”
Comment: Criteria-based outcomes help volunteers feel more in control and responsible than task lists with specific commands like, “Water the grass daily” and “Trim the bushes every two weeks.”
- Match authority with responsibilities. Give people access to the resources and information they need to do their jobs well.
Example: Darlene Boswell directs the Sunday school program for children. Her duties require her to roam throughout the facility on Sunday morning. Since she can’t be in the Sunday school office, she unlocks the doors to the supply closets so teachers can help themselves to the pencils, paints, and paper they may need at the last minute.
Comment: Might supplies get lost or broken? Possibly. But teacher satisfaction is a higher priority for Darlene. If equipment problems arise, she will address them. For now, it’s more important to avoid frustration among the volunteer staff.
- Lead from out in front. Nobody likes to be bossed. Paint a picture of positive outcomes followers will find encouraging. Offer choices. Listen to the ideas of others and adopt them whenever you can.
Example: Dennis Hill leads the youth ministry board. He invites several youth and their parents to participate. Then, he listens carefully to their comments and suggestions.
Comment: Dennis won’t be able to act on every suggestion he receives. He should make this clear from the outset. However, if two conflicting, but equally viable ideas land on the table, Dennis will do well to choose the idea suggested by the youth rather than the one he himself suggested.
- Recognize your stars. Expect high quality work from everyone—volunteers, too. Then praise them for it. Everyone who works with you should hear those magic words, “Thank you!” at least once or twice each day.
Example: Pastor Rogers gets so focused on the tasks at hand that he often forgets to express gratitude to other staff and volunteers. To help himself remember to do that, he puts 10 pennies on his desk every morning. Each time he recognizes or thanks an individual, he moves one of the pennies to the pencil tray inside his top desk drawer. His goal is to “spend” all his pennies each day.
Comment: Praise in public. Correct in private. Help everyone aspire to excellence, even in the little things. And remind yourself to say thanks—often.
You can be the one to fan the flame of enthusiasm. Use these five guidelines as you lead. In addition, always watch for ways to help volunteers see how Jesus is working through them. The Making a Difference . . . Inspiring Lives Volunteer Journal helps them do just that!
This article was updated for content January 11, 2023.
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