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Out of the Red

Kerri Hock

Are you volunteer poor? These debt-management principles can help you turn a shortfall into a windfall.

When I was a child, my mom frequently said I must've had a hole in my pocket because my allowance came and went and I never noticed until I didn't have the money to do the things I wanted to do. I had resources but I didn't know how to use them.

My first three years as a children's director weren't much different. I married a department that was in the red, not financially, but organizationally. I had huge volunteer shortages, but I dreamed of building mountains. I was strapped. I couldn't go forward without extending myself and my ministry precariously. Yet there was so much we longed to do.

It wasn't until I took a hard look at the real reasons for our volunteer shortage and began using my existing resources wisely that I was able to attain stability and dream big. I began an ongoing system of volunteer recruiting based on debt management principles. And now, amazingly, we have an ongoing volunteer campaign that's returned a child-teacher ratio of 5-to-1 in a community where 90 percent of homes have families with children.

Whether you have 10 kids in a rented facility or 1,000 kids in an auditorium, volunteer shortages hurt. Here's how you can transform a volunteer shortfall into a windfall. 

The Road to Freedom

If you're understaffed, you're in debt. No one likes debt. It causes sleepless nights and ups a person's stress level significantly. But this debt isn't money, it's far more serious -- it's the lack of competent teachers, volunteers, or staff equipped to connect kids to Christ -- real assets. If you're in this situation, you know the heavy feeling: undue stress, anxiety, working with your hands tied behind your back, and feeling like you'll never get over the hump. So where do you start?

• Track your spending (or expending). Once I'd made the decision to do something drastic about our volunteer shortfall, our ministry put a halt on all future goals and programming that wasn't absolutely essential to Sunday mornings. It was an extreme measure; we had sports camp plans, small group plans, tricycle derby plans, parent group plans-you name it. But we realized that programming, like spending, is addictive because it gives you short-term gratification, just like buying a new dress or a new set of golf clubs. But if you don't correct the roots of your shortage first, your programming will eventually spiral out of control and won't be able to sustain itself.

When someone is in debt financially, the first thing to turn the situation around is to put a stop to extra spending. If you're short-staffed, then don't start a midweek program or a children's choir. After all, who'll do it? Your best, most reliable volunteers who always do everything? You can't expand your program offerings without expanding your volunteer base; you'll run your best volunteers into the ground in the process. When you're facing a volunteer shortage, you have to put all your resources -- people, energy, time, and funds -- into your most critical efforts. We realized it was far more powerful and manageable to have one solid Sunday morning investment than several half-baked, poorly resourced programs.

• Don't use credit (or, stop asking for favors). I've done it, I confess.

"Please, just this one week."

"Hi, Mr. Barber. Hey, I need to ask a favor…"

Recruiting on credit (read: guilt trips, begging, or personal favors) offers no solid return, and ultimately it can bankrupt you and wreck your credit history. Think about it. How do whiny entreaties or manipulative requests really help you build a solid volunteer base? And what do you do when you've exhausted every sub list, room assistant, pastor's wife, and substitute custodian? Stop bartering in favors and guilt -- like credit, they offer only bandage fixes for a deeper problem.

• Create a cash cushion. An emergency cash fund is insurance against future debt. If the laundry room floods, the roof leaks, or the transmission slips, a cash reserve protects you from falling into debt to cover unexpected costs. Our ministry needed a reserve to withdraw from when we were broke. So we came up with a business plan for our ministry (yes, we're a business -- a business of bringing kids to Jesus), and planned for what it would take to get us out of debt, how long the process would take, and the key players we needed to help us do it.

We quickly realized that our biggest assets were our pastoral staff. We need them on board for vision casting, scouting, prayer, and support for parent involvement -- and we need them to set an example by supporting the children's ministry. Therefore, a good amount of our time went into helping pastoral staff understand our need and how a staffed children's program impacts their ministry and the congregation as a whole. And there's the cornerstone of creating a cash cushion of volunteers: Every church member is under the leadership of a member of the pastoral staff. Win the pastors' hearts, and the congregation will follow.


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