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Speak No Evil

Stephanie Martin

noevil2Ten eye-opening things actual volunteers gripe about -- and how their complaints can make your ministry better than ever...

Do you know how your volunteers really feel about your children's ministry? About you? Do you want to know?

It's tough to ask questions that dig deeper into what volunteers are really thinking. But that's one thing Children's Ministry Magazine does best -- ask the tough questions!

So to help you take an honest look at how you're sometimes perceived, we surveyed volunteers around the country and asked for their anonymous input. These volunteers shared what they like best about their children's ministry leaders and programs, with most praising their leaders for being friendly, personable, and responsible. The majority also credited their programs with being well-organized, fun, and life-changing for kids.

We also asked volunteers to tell us what irritates them and what they'd like to change -- about their leaders and their children's ministries as a whole.

Here you'll find the top 10 volunteer frustrations and advice for making changes. So get prepared for the lowdown -- and get ready to embark on improvements your volunteers will greatly appreciate. By the way, don't be discouraged! There's no way you're guilty of all 10 of these. Just find one or two that prick your heart a bit and get to work!

Complaint #1: Ignored Concerns

"I've come to leadership with several suggestions, concerns, and issues, and I felt I was largely ignored," one volunteer writes.

It takes a lot of courage for volunteers to approach you with their concerns. Not being available or dis­counting their ideas belittles volunteers' contributions. But hearing them out validates their feelings and their importance to your program. Even if you don't have an immediate solution or time to address the problem immediately, take note of it, set a time to investigate, and suggest ways you and the volunteer can find answers together.

Follow the lead of this praise­worthy leader whose volunteer says is "very helpful in response to some of my concerns." She adds that her leader "directed me to ways that I could help solve some of the issues."

Such an approach allows volunteers to seek solutions on their own, while reinforcing your trust in their decision-making and problem-solving skills. "Empowering people to make their own decisions confidently is a huge step," another volunteer notes.

Complaint #2: Unwelcome Input

"Overall I like my children's ministry program a lot," another volunteer writes, "but I can get very frustrated when I feel like leaders want me to help but don't care about what I think."

When volunteers become active in your ministry, they rightly feel a sense of pride and ownership. So they have opinions about how things are running and might be improved. As you make an effort to seek feedback and take comments seriously, you communicate to your volunteers that they matter and make a difference. This approach to ministry is also a tremendous motivator for continued and future involvement.

Collecting volunteer input can be as simple as putting a suggestion box in an easily accessible location. That encourages volunteers (and parents) to anonymously offer tips for improving your children's ministry.

Another way to solicit advice is to set aside a few minutes at each meeting to ask volunteers point-blank how they think things are going and any improvements they'd suggest.

Keep in mind, however, that it's not enough to just ask for input. Let your volunteers know that you're seriously considering their opinions. When people express themselves, watch how you react. Stay calm when they criticize, and view their comments as constructively as possible. If you become angry or dismissive, you give the impression that you really don't care what they think.

Complaint #3: Invisible Leader

"I'd like to see my leader stop in more and say hi to the different age groups on Sunday mornings," says one volunteer we surveyed. She describes her children's ministry leader as "kind-hearted" and reports that the kids "have a blast." But there's obviously a connection missing between the person ultimately responsible for the fun program and the children enjoying it.

Taking a few seconds to pop your head in each door and greet teachers and children shows that you're interested in how things are going. With this simple step, you'll be better able to connect names with faces, you'll notice who needs help and where, and you'll be able to catch people performing their duties with excellence. Plus you'll become aware of any problem areas you may need to address -- and can catch them before they become full-blown concerns.

Complaint #4: Lack of Support with Parents

One volunteer says her biggest irritation is "the lack of concern many of the parents portray when I bring to their attention a struggle I'm having with one of their children." She -- and other volunteers -- are crying out for assistance and need you to be a willing advocate when parents must be contacted.

While you should encourage volunteers to make decisions and address problems on their own, also let 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 issues that commonly arise.

On a related note, it's important to come to your volunteers' defense when they're challenged by children, parents, or church administrators. While it's essential to hear from all sides and get the facts, your volunteers will thrive when they know they can count on your support and encouragement.

Complaint #5: In the Dark

Several volunteers expressed concern that each age group seemed to be in its own little bubble. "My biggest irritation is not knowing for sure what's going on outside of one little area," writes a children's ministry volunteer. People can begin to feel isolated when their time and attention is directed toward one particular classroom or task.

Strong, effective communication can remedy this concern. Mention all ministry areas in your newsletter, publicity materials, and meetings. Also, meet briefly as a group on Sunday mornings -- before classes, if possible -- so teachers and other volunteers can share what's on their agendas.

To lessen feelings of isolation, allow time for fellowship and use icebreakers and small group discussions to pair up teachers and other volunteers who normally don't get to spend much time together during your meetings.

Complaint #6: Not Enough Training

Children's ministry volunteers want to be well-equipped for their responsibilities. Sending them unprepared into classrooms full of children is like sending them onto a ball field without a game plan or assigned positions.

"I feel like we don't get any training at all, really," says one volunteer. "What do we do with sick children? What if there's an accident? How do we report strange people in the area that maybe shouldn't be there? I think all children's ministry volunteers should learn universal precautions. If volunteers were better trained, they wouldn't feel like just baby sitters and would take more ownership in their roles in the ministry. That goes for everyone, from child-care workers to teachers, assist­ants, craft people, and more.

"I think quarterly training, at least, should be required," she continues. "It doesn't have to be long; just an update of rules and regulations. Volunteers also are ambassadors of a church and should be well-versed in its beliefs and core values."

Volunteer training comes in a variety of formats. Many leaders equip their volunteers by stocking a resource library so people can borrow books, tapes, and other materials at their convenience. Offer regular, ongoing meetings, where different subjects are addressed each time.

Complaint #7: Decrepit Rooms

It's tough to do a job well unless you have the proper tools. Volunteering and teaching are no exceptions. Have you taken a hard look at the "working conditions" you provide for volunteers? Are their classrooms in good shape? Do they have plenty of current resources? Do their supplies need to be restocked?

A children's ministry volunteer writes that her biggest irritation is the fact that there's "not a lot of replenishment of craft supplies or supplemental teaching aids." Take a written inventory of everything that's available in each classroom. Provide checklists for teachers so they can indicate to you, in writing, what they need, how much, and by when. Check your supplies regularly, and enlist help to keep supply closets organized.

Complaint #8: A Weak Bench

Once leaders have established a group of reliable, hard-working volunteers, often the last thing on their minds is recruiting still more help. But it was a common refrain we heard from children's ministry volunteers -- their frustration with a lack of substitutes and a lack of commitment.

Even dedicated volunteers need a break once in a while. Having backups and assistants will ease the stress and workload, making everyone's experience more enjoyable.

Consider these ideas for using fill-in volunteers: Recruit a team of people who do nothing but substitute; institute a team-teacher approach, where people switch off Sundays; ask parents to rotate as classroom assist­ants or as cleanup crews; and recruit a summer-only crew to teach while "regular" teachers take a few months off.

Such strategies not only give volunteers a much-deserved break, but they may also help you add to your children's ministry team. When fill-ins reap the rewards of serving children and are appreciated and encouraged, they're likely to ask for more long-term responsibilities.

Complaint #9: Lack of Communication

Judging by our survey responses, there's often a communication breakdown between children's ministry leaders and their volunteers. When asked what one thing they'd change about their leaders, participants wrote "earlier and more precise communication" and acquiring "more effective communication models."

"There seems to be a lack of follow-through between the ministry leader and the volunteers," one volunteer says. "I think our leader relies on the administrative assistant a lot but then doesn't give her all the necessary information, either.

"Sometimes the communication comes way too late," this volunteer continues. "For example, our leader decided to change one area on Sunday mornings. I was asked to do a new job but received no additional information or schedule. So I thought she decided she didn't need my assistance. Later I saw that I was actually on the schedule but hadn't been doing the new job because I didn't know what to do!"

Advance schedules and clear job descriptions would make her "more willing to volunteer in the future," she adds.

Complaint #10: Few Special Events

Volunteers agree that their programs provide great spiritual foundations for children. Even though attendance numbers may be lower than desired, volunteers say their churches take the children's ministry seriously and value its importance.

One common request, however, is for out-of-the-ordinary opportunities to engage children -- and their families -- with the church.

"I think we need to work more on sparking the children's interest in Jesus," says one volunteer. "I'd like to see more events for the children, such as movie night, craft night, parents night out, and so on."

Special events draw children to the church during times other than Sunday school and allow them to interact with Christian adults in real-world settings. Volunteers can tie in life- and faith-applications to movies, outings, and even family fun nights. Crafts, games, and snacks all convey the message that your children's ministry is a fun, safe place to grow and learn.

Special events have the added benefit of getting parents involved with your ministry and with the church as a whole. When they see how vibrant and exciting your program is, parents just might be willing to devote some time to it as volunteers, too.

• • •

Whew! Now you know what volunteers really want to say to their leaders. That wasn't so bad, was it? Consider which of these 10 areas is most urgent for you and your pro­gram, and brainstorm ways to address it. Continue through the list until you're confident that any outstanding problems have been satisfactorily resolved.

Your volunteers will be delighted to know that you're concerned with their concerns. They'll feel more fulfilled while serving, they'll have a greater impact on children, and you'll be proud of working to make your ministry the very best it can be.


Stephanie Martin is a freelance writer and editor in Colorado. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

 

If you found this article helpful, then be sure to check out Children's Ministry Volunteers That Stick now available from Group Publishing.

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