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How to Elevate Volunteers From “Helping” to Leading

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How to elevate your volunteers from “just helping out” to leadership roles in your ministry.

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Just uttering the words “we need leaders” in the church is likely to send people running for cover. That’s because there’s a gap between the volunteer leadership needs of our ministries and the number of people both qualified and willing to lead. I’ve yet to meet a staff person who can honestly say, “We have all the leaders we need. This isn’t an issue for our church.”

If you’re reading this article, finding and growing leaders is likely an issue for you. You recognize the need for volunteer leaders. You can present a biblical mandate for shared leadership (everyone serves, not just the staff). Now comes the hard part — convincing people, in particular those already serving as volunteers, to lead. And once convinced, equipping leaders to flourish in ministry. The problems Moses faced in Exodus 18 were nothing compared to the challenges of 21st-century ministry (or so we think)!

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Why is it so difficult to move volunteers toward becoming leaders? Many of our most committed volunteers are reluctant to take on a leadership role. What are their objections to leading, and how can you overcome them?

Objection 1: I Make a Better Follower Than Leader

This statement may very well be true of many of your volunteers. Some volunteers do make better followers and are more effective and fulfilled in serving in a follower role. A good place to start in determining the answer to the leader/follower question is to identify what you’re looking for in the leaders of your church and ministry in terms of character, commitment, and competency.

Prayerfully develop a leadership covenant — a document that captures the attributes and behaviors of a ministry leader for your church. In creating such a document, consider including expectations for self-leadership (relationship with God), organizational leadership (commitment to church), and leadership of others (relationships with followers).

Once you’ve created expectations for leadership in your church, you can assess each potential candidate in light of those expectations. Which behaviors and characteristics are already evident in a volunteer’s life? Would additional training and development strengthen any areas that are lacking? If the volunteer possesses the gifts and attributes of a potential leader, then you can address reluctance through training and development opportunities, along with providing the individual assurance of ongoing support.

Objection 2: I’m Uncertain About the Ministry’s Vision

Not all people with leadership potential are meant to lead in your ministry — or even in the church. You may or may not have a “litmus test” for leadership, but consider the potential impact of a leader who isn’t in agreement with the overall direction of your ministry. Differing opinions can be helpful when determining the tactics for achieving goals and objectives — a little conflict might actually sharpen leaders’ skills and ministry effectiveness. If, however, a volunteer can’t support your ministry’s vision and mission, his or her leadership can have disastrous results.

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It’s worth the time and effort to communicate the vision for the ministry in which they’ll serve and lead. A clear and compelling vision bridges the gap between service offered and fulfilling God’s purposes for your church. You will inspire people to lead, fueled by a passion that’ll provide lasting motivation for serving.

People have a basic desire to “make a difference” — to give of their time and service in support of something significant. “Difference-making” should be easy for us to point out in the church where God-empowered ministry can affect kingdom impact with eternal value. Now, take it a step further. How will the person’s contribution support the vision and mission of the church?

To provide the incentive for a volunteer to deepen his or her commitment level, the vision and mission of your ministry must be compelling. You must also communicate the difference people can make as God works through them, especially those in leadership.

Objection 3: You Always Ask the Busy Person

You’ve likely heard the old adage, “If you want something done, ask the busy person.” After all, we have a tendency to keep asking the busiest people in the church to take on additional responsibilities. In some ways, this makes sense. Our busy volunteers usually rate high in commitment and consistency. Plus, since they’ve always said “yes” to us before, they’re likely to do so again and make our task easier.

While it’s great to have “go to” people who can help out in a pinch, we need to develop a more long-term and healthy invitation strategy. Instead of burdening our existing leaders with additional responsibilities, what would happen if we instead found co-leaders to come alongside as partners to share their ministry load? In doing so, we not only communicate care for the leader, but we also create a sustainable model for leadership development as the leader trains an eventual replacement.

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To take this idea a step further, equip your existing leaders to find their own co-leaders. Challenge them to intentionally find an apprentice — someone they can mentor in the same way as Paul did Timothy. Chances are they’ll find their “Timothys” from the ranks of your current volunteers.

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