Much of learning seems to happen through trial and error, and
that's true of learning to be a leader. We know when something
hasn't gone well, but often we aren't sure why.
Let's peek into new children's ministry director Sarah's first
years to glean the principles she learns along the way.
Sarah recruited a team of 10 volunteer leaders to help her. They
all attended her first two meetings, where she enthusiastically
told them about her plans for the children's ministry program. They
listened quietly and left at the end of the meeting. At her third
meeting, only two volunteers showed up. Sarah was disappointed as
she had even more new ideas to tell them about. What happened?
PRINCIPLE #1: People commit to plans they help
make-so plan with people, not for people.
Sarah had never been involved with volunteers before and was
unsure of just how to work with unpaid people. She talked to other
church staff members and heard these comments: "Volunteers are nice
but not necessary." "Volunteers are more work than they're
"Volunteers are unreliable."
The comments influenced her attitude and therefore her behavior
toward her volunteers. And her attitude had a dramatic effect on
how volunteers felt about working with her.
PRINCIPLE #2: Volunteers aren't paid-not
because they're worthless, but because they're priceless.
Sarah is an energetic and enthusiastic person who tends to just
jump in and get things done. She knows she should call on her
volunteers to take on more responsibility, but she finds herself
thinking, It's quicker and easier just to do it myself. No one does
it as well as I do. In the time it takes to train a volunteer I
could have the job done, and It's my job. After all, I'm paid, and
If Sarah continues as a Lone Ranger, she'll quickly burn out (which
is one of the major reasons church staff leave their jobs).
Sarah (and you) can use these tips for effective delegation.
1. Choose appropriate people for assignments by interviewing and
placing paid and volunteer staff carefully, maximizing strengths
and minimizing weaknesses. Actively seek out someone who knows more
than you do when you need help; then let this person do the job,
and be glad when he or she succeeds.
2. Define clearly and creatively the responsibilities delegated to
3. Delegate segments, not bits and pieces.
4. Mutually set goals and standards of performance so you clearly
5. Agree on checkpoints and a system for reporting progress and any
6. Give accurate and honest feedback.
7. Support those you lead by sharing knowledge, information, and
8. Provide necessary orientations, training, and recognition.
9. Give those who are responsible for carrying out significant
portions of the program a voice in the decision making.
10. Really delegate. Most responsible people, when given a project,
don't appreciate someone looking over their shoulder. Learn to let
PRINCIPLE #3: The key to wise leadership is
effective delegation. The key to delegation is getting the right
person in the right job (based on interests, skills, and
As Sarah watched the initial excitement and commitment of her
volunteers wane, she thought, I wish I knew more about motivating
PRINCIPLE #4: Leaders don't create motivation,
they unlock it.
Motivation lies within a person and is released when you match
the person with the right opportunity and then manage him or her
An example of good motivation was a project distributing fliers
announcing vacation Bible school. Her first year, Sarah recruited a
couple of mothers by telling them she was "desperate for help." The
mothers grudgingly distributed the fliers. But this year Sarah
applied some things she'd learned about motivation. She knew that
being desperate for help is never an effective way to recruit
volunteers. She invited several volunteers to help her with a VBS
mailing. Over coffee, she told them how important this task was to
the children's ministry mission and how grateful she was for their
help. As the volunteers worked, they brainstormed several creative
ideas for reaching out to unchurched kids in their
One of my favorite quotations about this important leadership
challenge of casting the vision comes from a plaque on the wall of
an old English church:
"A vision without a task is but a dream. A task without a vision is
drudgery. A vision and a task is the hope of the world."
PRINCIPLE #5: Mission motivates, maintenance
As Sarah got more effective in recruiting volunteers by inviting
them to help achieve the exciting mission of children's ministry
(versus arm twisting, desperate appeals, guilt, and so on), she
turned her attention to building an effective children's ministry
team. She observed other ministry areas in her church and
identified three distinct types of teams:
1. Parasitic (1+1=less than 2)-These teams were competitive and
seemed to waste people's time and energy over turf battles and
2. Symbiotic (1+1=2)-These teams seemed to cooperate and
communicate with each other and thus got much more
3. Synergistic (1+1=4)-These rare but outstanding teams had learned
the art of collaboration. They were therefore better together than
anyone could be alone. People had fun and accomplished
Sarah admired the synergistic teams and longed for hers to be
PRINCIPLE #6: The keys to collaborative
team-building are Truth, Trust, and Clear Expectations.
More tips for team leaders:
1. Hold people accountable for what they've said yes to-that's why
job descriptions and action plans are so important. Do not
2. Two questions to ask your key leaders:
l What do you need from me that you're not getting?
l What do you wish you knew that you don't to help you feel better
about your ministry?
3. If the job isn't getting done, find out why as quickly as
possible and take appropriate action. The three most common reasons
jobs aren't completed (and what to do about each one):
• Lack of Aptitude (bad placement)
1. Change the person to another job,
2. Change the job to fit the person, or
3. Put someone with the person to co-lead.
• Lack of Skill: Provide training!
• Lack of Motivation
1. Your leadership style may be the problem,
2. Conflict in the group could be the demotivator,
3. A family or personal problem could've occurred, or
4. People may just need to be reminded that what they do is
important and others count on them.
PRINCIPLE #7: People are as important as
Since one of the major reasons church leaders leave is burnout,
there's one more important principle for Sarah and other new
PRINCIPLE #8: You can't help others if you
don't stay well yourself...so take care of you!
Maya Angelou once said that better than surviving is "to thrive
with passion, compassion, and style."
This Native American legend also gives us a helpful image:
"Everyone is a house with four rooms-a physical, a mental, an
emotional, and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room
most of the time. But unless we go into every room every day, even
if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person."
What a vivid metaphor for health and wholeness! If we're serious
about staying well, we'll find time to:
• Do the necessary housecleaning to rid our rooms of clutter.
"Never stumble on anything behind you" is the advice of a
quadriplegic friend of mine.
• Know our own needs and be able to name them. Don't expect others
to guess what they are. Your needs aren't more important than other
people's, but they're as important.
• One last thing about our personal houses-be sure to not only
visit each room every day and houseclean, but slowly and lovingly
furnish your rooms with things that nourish and replenish you and
give you joy. Ask God to guide you in your choices.
My hope for new Christian leaders, like Sarah, is that they'll
rise to their challenges with clear vision and that these
principles will help guide you, as they have guided me, along the
way. To be a good leader, you need the courage of pioneers, the
ingenuity of entrepreneurs, the enthusiasm and fearlessness of
5-year-olds, the dedication and compassion of volunteers, the
wisdom of Solomon...and the faith that nothing worthwhile is ever
impossible with the help of God. cm
Marlene Wilson, for the last 35 years, has been a leader,
volunteer manager, writer, and speaker.
One of the most critical decisions leaders must make is to choose a
style of leadership. Most leaders fit into one of these
• Boss-The maker of all significant decisions.
"I'll decide and tell you what to do."
• Expert-The knower of all significant things.
People look to this leader for all the answers. If the leader
thinks he or she knows it all, it's even worse.
• Doer-The doer of all significant things leads
directly to burnout. The chairperson is the committee and doesn't
involve others. So there's no chance for others to learn and
• Hero/Martyr-It feels good to feel so bad. These
leaders are a pain to work with because they're very verbal about
• Abdicrat-This leader retires without leaving and
carries the job title but has stopped doing the job.
• Enabler/Servant Leader-This is the most
effective style. Characteristics of this style include:
1. Gets program goals met with and through other people.
2. Enables others to succeed.
3. Sees jobs in doable parts, finds the right people for the right
jobs, and then provides support, information, recognition, and
training to help those people succeed.
4. Concentrates on people.
Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and
prices are subject to change. Originally published in
September-October, 2003 in Children's Ministry Magazine.