Something borrowed, but nothing blue! Check out these 20 volunteer leadership tips from us to keep from being “blue” in your ministry!
During the first 20 years of Children’s Ministry Magazine, some of our most popular articles have tackled the always-relevant topic of finding and keeping volunteers who are passionate about sharing Jesus with children. As a 20th anniversary present to you, we’ve compiled our 20 best, most-enduring volunteer insights. Use these tips as a one-stop resource for all your volunteer-leadership needs.
1. Recruit volunteers through relationships and always be in “seek” mode. Relationship is a key factor for people who agree to volunteer for children’s ministry. It’s fact that many serve because someone they already had an established relationship with personally asked them to. Extend courteous invitations, not cattle calls, and if someone says no, check back later because people’s lives change. The more people you connect with, the more possible volunteers you’ll have later. One-to-one recruiting is the single most successful recruiting technique — plus, it can be sustained throughout the year. That’s important because vibrant programs constantly need gifted, passionate volunteers.
2. Don’t limit your search to specific demographics. Look for potential volunteers of all ages and occupations. Rather than searching only for teachers, seek out leaders and problem-solvers, too. Variety in your team keeps your programs interesting, welcoming, and also gets more people involved. Abandon the stereotype that children’s ministry is women’s work. Provide opportunities for men, senior citizens, and teenagers to share their talents with kids. Help parents plug in and feel like they get to — not have to — be involved. Whenever possible, highlight your diverse crew through testimonies and newsletter articles.
3. Stay positive. Show potential teammates that children’s ministry isn’t just baby-sitting but an incredible, desirable opportunity to develop Christ-followers. Post reports about what’s happening in your program to generate excitement about God’s work in kids’ lives. When considering a volunteer role, people want to know “What’s in it for me?” So discern upfront what possible benefits exist, whether it’s emotional fulfillment, greater exposure to your church, or just a great way to make a difference. Make it clear that the role comes with wonderful rewards but also important responsibilities. Be honest about the not-so-terrific aspects so volunteers know what to expect — and know they can trust you.
4. Be choosy — even if you’re desperate. Staying in “seek” mode for volunteers should help you avoid last-minute needs. But when they arise, don’t sacrifice quality by settling. “Hiring” the wrong person will cost you hours of additional work later on and might even jeopardize your program’s integrity or children’s safety. Kids deserve the best, so fill ministry positions based on people’s talents and preferences, not simply availability. Make sure potential volunteers know about your screening process so it’s clear you won’t compromise your standards.
5. Evaluate volunteers’ interests and gifts, tailoring opportunities to people. As you recruit, match people to positions. Some are skilled at organization, while others excel at writing, music, or drama. At times, you may need photographers, cooks, drivers, painters, publicists, seamstresses, typists, carpenters, fund-raisers, missionaries, and teachers. Rather than recruit a few volunteers to wear many hats, recruit many people — with various talents and interests — to wear a few hats each. It’s easier to enlist someone for a 15-minute job than for a 15-hour tour of duty. Advertise any special needs or one-time opportunities that are ideal for people who aren’t available every week but still have a lot to contribute. When possible, accommodate busy schedules by offering options such as team-teaching.
6. Have a clear vision and expectations. Regularly share your vision with the entire church so people will think of your program first when deciding where to invest themselves. Develop a set of core values for your ministry. Talk openly and often about what you do and don’t do, and why. Don’t be afraid of clearly setting forth your requirements. Tell people precisely what’s needed to be an effective volunteer and identify the specific talents required to be successful. While maintaining your expectations, however, also leave some room for grace. Remember that people aren’t perfect; even in the best circumstances, they have different problems, needs, and opinions.
7. Use job descriptions, interviews, background checks, and evaluations. Treat volunteers like professionals. State how much time each position requires and specify a finite time of service. Fully screen each potential volunteer by doing background checks and contacting references. Let people know what training and meetings they must attend so there aren’t any schedule-busting surprises. Give detailed descriptions of specific tasks, such as leading children’s singing for one-half hour each Sunday morning. Interview potential volunteers so you know what they want out of the experience. Then take time to observe and evaluate them in action. Instead of seeming threatening, such evaluations can help people feel supported in their roles. When you check to see how things are going and brainstorm solutions to problems, it shows you care.
8. Provide valuable training. Make sure volunteers are prepared, but also respect their time. Ask volunteers what they need to know to be effective in their positions, and tailor your training. Cover different subjects.
Vary your methods — including video, podcasts, mentoring, and individualized training. For training meetings, show volunteers you value them and their time by providing a comfortable setting, first-rate refreshments, dependable child care, and take-home items and surprises. Equip volunteers by stocking a resource library so people can borrow books, tapes, and other materials at their convenience.
9. Offer variety and early success. Rotate responsibilities regularly so volunteers don’t get bored. Check in with them to see what new tasks they’d like to try and why. Don’t toss people into situations beyond their ability or without proper training. Instead, help them experience early success so they don’t become overwhelmed or discouraged. Volunteers who have early wins will enjoy their work and be much more likely to renew their commitment. For example, let new recruits team-teach for a few weeks with outgoing teachers. Ask a new volunteer to co-chaperone a field trip. Ease into challenging people with larger responsibilities.
10. Communicate and stay connected. Keep volunteers in the loop about what’s happening with your entire ministry and with their particular area. Inform people of changes. Provide schedules well in advance. Meet briefly as a group on Sunday mornings — before classes, if possible — so teachers and other volunteers can share what they have planned. As a team talk, pray, and laugh together. During meetings, use icebreakers and small group discussions to pair up volunteers who normally don’t get to spend much time together. Communicate to the entire church by mentioning all ministry areas in your newsletter, on your website, and with publicity materials.
11. Affirm, celebrate, and reward volunteers. Children’s volunteers who quit generally do so because they feel abused or tired. So it’s crucial to frequently let volunteers know you appreciate them and their time, energy, and talents. Specifically thank volunteers, both personally and publicly. Surprise them with small, customized gifts of thanks. Reward workers with time off. Jot a note to every volunteer each month to express appreciation for each person’s sacrifice and contribution. As a bonus, giving people credit draws attention to your children’s ministry and may interest more people.
12. Support and encourage your volunteers. Support is different from affirmation. Support is an ongoing, personalized concern for each volunteer. Leaders must do more than just give compliments; be your volunteers’ biggest fan. Believe in them, and they’ll believe in themselves. Let people know they’re important to your program, no matter how many hours they devote to it. Celebrate often with your volunteers. Periodically pull each volunteer aside and ask how it’s going. Remember birthdays and other special days, and find out how people are doing in their away-from-church lives. Support them through their pain, pray for them, and offer to help when needed.
13. Take volunteer concerns seriously. Get to know and respect your volunteers as people. Go out for coffee and learn about their families and interests. Build rapport as you share your passion for ministry. In doing so, you’ll convey that volunteers are important ministry partners. You need their input and ideas — and you must listen when they share concerns with you. Put a suggestion box in an easily accessible location. Set aside a few minutes at each meeting to ask volunteers point-blank how they think things are going and what improvements they’d suggest. Then follow through with solutions.
14. Provide backup. Even dedicated volunteers need a break once in a while. Let teachers know that backup is available when they need a week off or when something comes up. Having substitutes and assistants will ease the stress and workload, making everyone’s experience more enjoyable. Give time off even when volunteers don’t ask for it. As important as it is for children to see familiar faces every week, your team members’ health is equally important for your ministry’s long-term effectiveness.
15. Be the leader other people want to follow. Volunteers want a leader with vision, strength, a plan, and excellence — and someone who doesn’t rest on previous accomplishments. Help volunteers shine; their attachment to your style of ministry is also a reflection on them. In addition, be a visible leader. Taking a few seconds to pop your head in each door and greet teachers and children shows you’re interested in how things are going. You’ll be able to connect names with faces, notice who needs help and where, catch people performing their duties with excellence, and observe any problem areas before they become full-blown concerns.
16. Make serving enjoyable. Fun is contagious. When volunteering is exciting, your team will automatically recruit a network of others through their passion. Frequently share stories about volunteers who have great relationships with children. Encourage volunteers to tell their own stories, which will motivate people to consider children’s ministry as a valuable place to serve in the church.
17. Provide support. Recruit support volunteers to do most of the class preparation for teachers ahead of time (sign-up sheets, name tags, craft preparation, errands, and so on). Such support allows people to better fulfill their various ministry responsibilities. In advance, provide curriculum, supplies, phone lists of team members, and schedules. Also help volunteers work with parents by letting them know you’ll step in when necessary. Offer to talk to parents (or at least to be present when the volunteer talks to them) about discipline or other common issues. Defend volunteers when they’re challenged by others and let them know they can count on your support.
18. Help volunteers avoid burnout. Children’s ministry can attract people who don’t know how to say no and who become overcommitted and exhausted. Passionate people may need guidance for balancing ministry, work, and family responsibilities. Don’t rely on the same people all the time; tired or uninspired volunteers not only won’t serve with joy but also won’t be around for long. Engage in honest conversations about workload and how much joy people glean from serving. Encourage overcommitted volunteers to decide what to let go of before taking on a new task. Have written expectations and agreed-upon hours, and suggest a sabbatical, when necessary. Remember to model balance in your own life, too.
19. Handle departures with grace. When volunteers want or need to leave, conduct exit interviews to discover ways to improve your program. Help people get plugged into other areas at your church. Realize that volunteers who leave children’s ministry still hunger for a strong relationship with Jesus. They might return to serve in your ministry in the future or find somewhere else that’s more specific to their call. Keep in mind that God gives each person unique talents, and even the best fit may not be permanent.
20. Help volunteers grow spiritually. When worship time is on-duty time, spiritual stagnation can creep in. So ensure that volunteers’ schedules allow them to attend worship. Hold regular devotions and pray together often. Lead a Bible study for teachers. Plan prayer breakfasts or an annual overnight retreat to focus on spiritual growth. Keep volunteers informed about other opportunities to nourish themselves in Christian community. Workers must feed their own faith so they can help children develop a lifelong relationship with God.