Have you ever found yourself wishing you had a volunteer culture that was really thriving?
You know—the kind where everyone seemingly loves to serve, you have even more leaders and volunteers than you really need, and you see the lives of your volunteers and the kids they serve being transformed as they know and love Jesus more.
I have had the privilege to visit many churches—either for regular weekend services or to attend conferences or special events.
At the churches where they seem to have a really good volunteer culture, I find myself asking: How do they do it?
What I have found during my years in ministry, is that all of these churches share a few common principles. And I want to share them with you here so your volunteer culture can be even more vibrant than it is now.
Vision and Goals
Every one of the churches I have served in or observed that has had a successful volunteer culture has had a strong and easy to understand vision and clear goals for both staff and volunteers.
I remember one ministry in particular that I toured a couple years ago. Every time I entered a building, someone on the host team made sure they got to the door before we did and held it open for all of our team to walk through.
When I mentioned my observation to a key ministry leader, I was told that part of their vision is to make people feel welcome.
One of the ways they do that is to never have a guest touch a door handle. This is a clear and tangible goal that supports their vision to be welcoming.
The people holding the doors for us were volunteers, not staff members. And these volunteers had clearly bought in to the vision.
This is an example of clear vision and goals.
Let’s be honest, these ministry leaders didn’t wake up one day with a goal to hold open the door for everyone. They started with the vision of helping their guests feel welcome.
Staff and volunteers are living out the vision, but it didn’t happen in a day. They had to set goals and train all of their teams . . . after they communicated the vision—their why—to their team.
We need to always start with the why.
Walk the Walk
A principle that really stuck with me from the book Inside the Magic Kingdom: Seven Keys to Disney’s Success by Tom Connellan is that one of the key reasons Disney has been so successful for such a long time, is that everyone walks the walk.
“Every time a customer comes in contact with your company, you have an opportunity to create value.” And you can only achieve that when you have cast a compelling vision that your staff and volunteers own.
This is something Disney and the great ministries I have observed have in common. Their teams all walk the same walk because they all know and buy into the vision.
Unless your staff know the vision and goals and can clearly articulate them and LIVE them out, your volunteers will never buy into them. Always start with the why. Not just for your staff, but for your volunteers.
When people know why, they can figure out and happily do the how’s of ministry.
If you want more ideas for how to create and communicate vision, check out these insights from Jenny Funderburke Smith in her post on How to Get Everyone Else Excited about Kids’ Ministry.
Overcommunicate the Vision
And have you ever heard the phrase, ‘vision leaks’? We’re all busy people who get distracted by all of the good things we could be doing—even within ministry. That’s why it’s so important to revisit your vision often.
Communicate the vision over and over again, post it on your walls, add it to your email signature, print it on T-shirts—so even after people are bought in, they don’t lose sight of the vision.
So, what do you do if you aren’t sure of what your church’s or organization’s vision and goals actually are (or if they’re so underwhelming you can’t even remember them)?
This is an opportunity to “lead up” to your supervisor and ask for clarity.
Communicate why it’s so important for you to better understand the vision and goals so you can live them out and bring others along with you.
This is a huge opportunity to be more of a team player and to be part of changing the culture where you are.
And if you want some free coaching on how to communicate more effectively through email, meetings, presentations, and conversations, check out 4 Steps to Get Heard—and Supported!—by Your Church’s Senior Leadership by Keith Ferrin.
When you are short on leaders, don’t start with desperation . . . no person in their right mind would have volunteered to get on the Titanic once it had started to sink.
Don’t tell people that you are short on leaders and will need to close the class if they don’t give in and volunteer.
Don’t focus on what you’re lacking—start with what you do have: “We have an opportunity for you to invest in the lives of kids in our ministry and point them to Jesus. Come and join us as we do this. You’ll be missing out if you don’t!”
Invite people to join you and the team so they can make a life-changing difference in the lives of kids. Let them know that you don’t want them to miss out being on your team.
And when they do join, make it worthwhile for them. It is alright to say you have 5 more opportunities for 5 great leaders to join your team instead of saying you only have 1.
It’s the same principle that theme parks use when they say the park is open until 10pm instead of saying the park closes at 10pm. Perspective is everything…
Although vision and mission are around the higher calling of leading people to life change with Jesus, I wanted to point out how different this is.
It is important to recognize and remember that we have a responsibility to raise up the body of Christ to do the work of Christ and point people toward Jesus!
We don’t serve because, ‘no one else will’, or ‘we have a kid in the program.’ We serve because it is a privilege in the body of Christ.
It is our responsibility to empower and lead people to be part of something much bigger than themselves.
Each person in the body of Christ has spiritual gifts. You have the opportunity to help people identify their spiritual gifts and find the best ways to leverage those gifts.
If you need a place to start, check out online spiritual gifts assessments that you can use with your team.
People want to know what you are asking them to do and that you will train them for their roles. Make sure you provide a clear job description and training for each role. Even volunteers need a job description.
I’ve included a sample of a job description I use in my ministry. You can use it for ideas or customize it to fit your ministry.
Follow up with each new volunteer. Be sure to schedule a check-in and a coaching session after they have started serving—and offer ongoing training.
With proper training and ongoing coaching, there is a good chance your volunteers will grow and need the challenge of a new role.
So, when should you offer training? It depends on the role. But whenever someone joins your team, they need to be trained. It could be done in person or by video.
These days we have a lot of opportunities with the way smart phones have revolutionized video training. A weekly email could include coaching, vision, and some training if need be.
Nothing can replace in-person training. When people see this as being valuable, they will show up!
Make sure you create a model where your volunteers train and encourage each other. Your volunteers are skilled and gifted people. Training should not be reliant on you!
Recognition and Encouragement
Rewarding good work with recognition and praise is an important part of creating a highly effective and motivated team.
When you catch people on your team who are living out your ministry’s vision—in big ways AND small ways—encourage them. This also helps reinforce the vision.
Recognizing people’s efforts goes a long way toward encouraging them to repeat those efforts. And when people on your team go above and beyond for your ministry, recognize them right away.
In his book Turn the Ship Around, Lieutenant David Marquet makes a similar point about rewards and leadership: “Immediate recognition means just that, immediate. Not thirty days. Not thirty minutes. It should be immediate.”
There are all kinds of creative things you can do to show you appreciate people—even a simple, handwritten note is appreciated by people in the where ministry I serve.
If you need some ideas to get your creative juices flowing, check out this post on 100 Useful Gifts That Say “Thank You, Volunteers!” It even includes free printables.
Changing Culture Takes Time
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see a lot of change in the first few months. Creating a healthy volunteer culture isn’t a sprint—it’s a marathon.
When you are changing your ministry culture, it usually takes at least 18 months to 3 years to complete the transformation.
Be patient and remember WHY you are doing this! I am cheering for you as you as you set to change the culture in your ministry!