Olympic-Style Volunteer Training

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What you can learn about children’s ministry volunteer training
from Olympic athletes.

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What would happen if athletes showed up at the Olympic Games
equipped the way children’s ministry volunteers often enter their
classrooms? Some would be gripped by fear, since they’d never
really competed before. Others might quickly study the rule book as
they waited for the starter’s gun.

The image is absurd.

But now turn the image around and think what might happen if we
took passing on faith to our children as seriously as Olympic
athletes take passing on a baton in a relay. Imagine how strong a
children’s ministry volunteer team you could have if you prepared
volunteers with an Olympic-style workout program.

Search Institute surveyed about 1,500 children’s ministry
volunteers in more than 500 congregations as part of its national
study Effective Christian Education: A National Study of Protestant
Congregations. The study found that fewer than half of all churches
offer in-service training for teachers more than once a year (42
percent), and just 3 percent offer training five or more times per
year. The findings suggest several key components of a
well-rounded, Olympic-style workout program for children’s ministry
volunteers.

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GET A PHYSICAL EXAM

Athletes get a physical examination before they start training.
Your ministry also needs a physical to determine its fitness
level.

The Search Institute study is a checkup for children’s
volunteers. It reveals who volunteers are (see “The Typical
Children’s Volunteer” box) and their perceptions of their work and
needs.

Most volunteers recognize their need for a strenuous “workout
program,” because many miss some of the basics:

  • Just 38 percent of teachers know and understand the Bible.
  • Only 39 percent of teachers know how religious faith forms and
    develops.
  • Even fewer (30 percent) know about different learning
    styles.
  • Only three out of 10 know and understand their denomination’s
    theology and tradition.
  • And one out of four (27 percent) know educational theory and
    practice.

Despite the clear need for growth, many teachers don’t appear
eager to get involved. According to this study, just 44 percent of
volunteers say they’re interested in more teacher-training events.
Part of the problem may be that the available training
opportunities don’t always meet their interests and needs.

CUSTOMIZE THE TRAINING PROGRAM

By tackling the areas of greatest concern during training,
you’re more likely to get children’s ministry volunteers interested
and involved. One guide to help address volunteers’ top needs is to
know their interests. (See “Volunteers’ Top Interests” box.)

Another way to customize the training program is to ask your
volunteers what they’d like to learn about. What are they
struggling with? What challenges are they facing? Sometimes we
worry so much about meeting kids’ needs that we forget about the
volunteers’ needs.

That’s why the Christian education committee at my church calls
teachers occasionally to ask how things are going. These calls gain
important information for how to shape future training
programs-while also reminding teachers that they’re important and
supported.

EAT HEALTHY FOOD

A steady diet of healthy food ensures that the athlete is up for
the workout. Otherwise, the body gives out before the race is over.
Similarly, a healthy spiritual diet is essential for volunteers who
work with children. Search Institute found that a Christian
education program’s effectiveness is significantly influenced by
the leaders’ faith maturity.

Unfortunately, two-thirds of children’s ministry volunteers may
not be getting the kind of balanced diet they need. In Search
Institute’s study, only 32 percent of children’s volunteers express
a mature faith characterized by a life-transforming relationship
with God and a consistent devotion to serving others.

Thus a majority of children’s volunteers are at risk of burning
out early because they don’t have the spiritual resources to keep
them going. Furthermore, most churches don’t provide any regular
opportunities for volunteers to nourish their faith. Overall, only
8 percent of congregations report having teacher gatherings three
or more times each year for spiritual renewal and growth.

This problem is compounded in churches with weak adult education
programs or when the only adult education occurs during the same
time volunteers are working with children. In these instances,
teachers may never have chances to grow in their faith-which hardly
prepares them to nourish faith in children.

A workout program for volunteers must take seriously the
volunteers’ own “spiritual diets.” There are lots of ways to do
this:

  • Have volunteers gather weekly to prepare and study for the next
    week. This approach not only prepares them for the next Sunday, but
    it lets them understand the scripture with other adults.
  • Form teams of three or four volunteers per class to allow
    teachers to take breaks and participate in adult education.
  • Offer special Bible studies for volunteers as a way of
    nurturing their own faith.
  • Provide resources and skills for personal growth for volunteers
    to use at home.

The point is that something must be done to address volunteers’
needs for spiritual growth. Even the best workout program can’t
overcome the deficiencies created when volunteers don’t have
healthy spiritual diets.

DEVELOP “GAME PLANS”

Imagine what would happen to an Olympic team that spends its
entire training time in a classroom listening to the coach telling
how to play the game. Then, when it comes to game time, the players
run out on the field to apply what they “learned.” Unfortunately,
many churches rely on such an approach: They hand out curricula,
introduce a few concepts, then send volunteers out to the
classroom. No wonder many teachers feel inadequate and
ill-prepared!

Effective teachers know educational theory and practice. Yet
only 27 percent of volunteers report that they are familiar with
the theory and practice of what they do. Similarly, teachers don’t
always give themselves high marks in key areas. Only about half of
all volunteers think their teaching is good or excellent.

Part of the problem is that teachers have few opportunities to
learn how to teach. For example, 50 percent of volunteers report
never receiving training in effective teaching methods. And 82
percent report never receiving training in denominational
theology.

A volunteer training program should include the same kinds of
experience-based training that athletes use. Workshops should focus
on learning by doing-and then talking about what happened. Another
effective approach is to pair a new teacher with an experienced
teacher so that the novice can learn from an expert by watching and
imitating.

CELEBRATE THE VICTORIES

All athletes have down days. All athletes sometimes wonder if
all the work is worth the effort. All athletes need someone to
encourage and support them through the tough times.

Children’s volunteers are no different. They, too, get
discouraged and stretched beyond their limits. They, too, need
someone to give them pats on the back (or hugs) and to remind them
that their work is important to the church.

Search Institute’s research confirms that one element of an
effective Christian education is a strong sense of teacher support,
encouragement and recognition. Indeed, the Apostle Paul began most
of his letters with encouragement (see, for example, Philippians
1:3-8).

Volunteer affirmation and support can come in many ways:

Recognize volunteers in worship at least once a year (which 90
percent of churches do).

Give creative gifts that symbolize the volunteer’s personality
or role.

Sponsor a volunteers banquet or brunch. Have older children
serve their leaders.

Write one or two personal notes to volunteers so they receive a
personal appreciation occasionally through the year.

Along with these personal affirmations is the companion piece:
evaluation. Most churches apparently don’t think of evaluation as
positive, since only 16 percent evaluate teachers annually. Yet,
when done well, evaluation can be affirming and encouraging for
volunteers. It gives you an opportunity to tell volunteers directly
what they’re doing well and how important they are to the ministry.
It can also gently challenge them to improve in areas where they
may be less skilled.

REMEMBER THE GOAL

Athletes are most successful when they keep their eyes fixed on
their ultimate goal. The same principle should guide a volunteer
training program. Every element should be geared toward the goal of
helping children and volunteers grow in their faith.

In his own ministry, Paul used imagery from athletics to remind
people of this principle. “Brothers and sisters,” he wrote, “I know
that I have not yet reached that goal, but there is one thing I
always do. Forgetting the past and straining toward what is ahead,
I keep trying to reach the goal and get the prize for which God
called me through Christ to the life above” (Philippians
3:13-14).
Eugene C. Roehlkepartain is director of publication services for
Search Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

THE TYPICAL CHILDREN’S VOLUNTEER

  • Most children’s volunteers (91 percent) are women.
  • The average age for volunteers is 36.97 percent of children’s
    volunteers are “somewhat” or “very” enthused about working in
    children’s education.On average, volunteers spend 40 minutes
    preparing to teach a class.
  • The average volunteer has worked with children for four
    years.
  • The average children’s volunteer reads the Bible only once or
    twice a month when alone.
  • The average children’s worker has some college education, and
    47 percent have at least a college degree.
  • Two-thirds of volunteers (68 percent) say faith is “very
    important” or “the most important” thing in their lives.
  • Three-fourths of volunteers (77 percent) are married.

CHILDREN’S MINISTRY VOLUNTEERS’ TOP
INTERESTS

Search Institute asked 1,500 children’s workers what they’d be
interested in learning more about from their church. Here are the
percentages who say they’d be “interested” or “very interested” in
each subject.

  • Learning more about the Bible. 79%
  • Learning more about creative and innovative approaches to
    Christian education. 66%
  • Better Christian education planning in my church. 58%
  • Learning more about faith development. 55%
  • Getting more help on teaching techniques. 54%
  • Finding better curriculum materials. 50%
  • Learning more about my denomination’s theology, tradition and
    history. 50%
  • Learning how to evaluate my work as a Christian educator.
    49%
  • Learning more about moral education and development. 47%

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