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We Jumped the Volunteer Gap

Gary Lindsay

Volunteer
Several years ago, my team and I arrived at a frustrating crossroads regarding volunteers. It wasn't about a numbers shortage, really-we had lots of people serving at various times. But we had no consistency because people wouldn't commit to regular service or would only step in to help when they could. Like other ministries in need of hands to do the work, we took whatever we could get. But we had a revolving door with people coming and going.

A snapshot:

  • We had some volunteers serving once per month in rotations, while others served twice per month.
  • We had a few consistent volunteers serving weekly.
  • We had some parents we required to serve in certain rooms every two months.
  • We had other people who served when they could, where they could.
  • When we were short volunteers in various areas, we added kids to the rooms with consistent volunteers, overwhelming them.
  • In short, we had a mess.

    Our volunteer plan was all over the place. It was time-consuming and difficult to manage, and we weren't retaining people we recruited. Our level of frustration was high, and our focus had evolved into managing logistics and crisis control rather than developing relationships with the kids we served. We were trying to patch a leaky tire using all the wrong methods, and the result was messy (and still leaky). We needed to regroup.

    After much prayer, soul-searching, and discussion, our leadership team grappled with making a change so big-and so potentially risky-that it could alienate the reliable volunteers we had. We took a step out in faith, believing that the risk would ultimately be worth it. And in the end it was. Here's our story.

A New Formation
As leaders, we dreamed about what our ministry would look like if things were perfect, if we could tell the complete history of any child who'd engaged in our ministry and came to love Jesus. What if volunteers knew their kids, could track their spiritual growth, and even follow them through our ministry to maximize their opportunity to build relationships?

Ultimately, we decided our ministry needed regular, weekly volunteers who were invested in the same kids' lives each week, year after year. We created a volunteer plan where our volunteers would move up through our ministry with their kids.

This tectonic shift in thinking wasn't because we had a spiritual breakthrough (although I believe that's part of it). I knew as a father of two young children myself that I would've never dropped off my children with a different caregiver every week. My ministry colleagues felt the same way. And we knew our all-over-the-map volunteer strategy wasn't positive for kids. Different volunteer faces every week meant we were losing kids and volunteers.

For so long, we'd been placing volunteers where we needed them and where they were willing to work-without spending time ensuring the placement was fulfilling or designed for longevity. We were focused on where we had "holes." But our consistent volunteers enjoyed themselves more-and stayed longer-when they served in their area of giftedness.

We also considered the model of our adult ministries. As a broader church, we don't ask adult small groups to disband at the end of each school year and form new small groups later-because we believe community is important. Why would that be any different in our children's ministry? We wanted our volunteer strategy to be centered around strong, personal relationships.

The Big Leap

Once we knew what we wanted our volunteer program to look like, we began building it-even though it basically meant starting over.

  • We communicated the plan to our entire volunteer team and unveiled the vision we were chasing. This meeting was key to helping our people understand what was happening and that their volunteer role would likely change.
  • We had "coffee meetings" with each volunteer and shared the vision. We met individually with each volunteer to lay out what was changing, to ask them to join us, and to give them a chance to ask questions. (The coffee meetings have stuck-we continue to do them with all prospective volunteers today.) We ended the coffee meetings with, "I want to ask you to pray about joining with us on this journey. I don't need an answer today, but I'll follow up with you in a week." And we followed up.
  • We reworked our application process. Today, each prospective volunteer completes an application, background check, and personal interview. The interview includes sharing the scope of the commitment we're looking for and uncovering the person's gifts, talents, and interests.
  • We require a regular, weekly commitment. People who can't commit to serving weekly serve on our substitute roster or in behind-the-scenes and support roles, not in upfront ministry roles with kids and parents. We're unbending on this, as the core value of our volunteer strategy is that we want kids and families to establish and build on a relationship with our excellent volunteers.
  • Volunteers move up through the ministry with their kids. This has been the most significant change we've made, and it's also been the best. A great example is Norm, an extroverted volunteer who's intentional about building relationships and can tell you about each individual child in his group-personality, likes, and spiritual journey. This is Norm's seventh year with the same group of kids. This system lets volunteers know and love the kids they work with, have great friendships with their parents, and serve as true spiritual mentors who can tell where kids are struggling and where they're thriving. No kids fall through the cracks in our ministry these days.

The Result
Recently one of our volunteers, Geoff, made this comment: "When I first started serving with the toddlers years ago, I was serving once per month. I always left frustrated. The room was chaotic, and for most of our time we had kids upset and crying. We almost never got to the point where we'd actually teach curriculum. It was very soon after I started serving weekly that those things changed. Within four weeks, we had a routine. We no longer had kids crying, but we had a routine with calm kids and we started building relationships with them-and their parents. We get to curriculum every week now, and I leave excited and fulfilled."

We restructured our volunteer approach more than six years ago. In that time, we've made many discoveries. Here are the highlights.

  • It took three years to get real traction. There have been difficult moments when we feel like we've exhausted all avenues of vision casting and recruiting. Early on, we were tempted to take a new volunteer on that person's terms like the old days because we had a strong need. We did it a couple of times and it hurt the ministry. People suffered and our vision suffered. Kids who might've otherwise had a weekly leader investing in them missed out. We actually lost a few kids in the shuffle because no one had an idea of how those kids were doing and where they were spiritually. Those setbacks made us more vigilant than ever to see our system work.
  • Communication is key. I assumed that because our entire team was in the meeting when we unveiled this new system, everyone understood and had bought into the philosophy. My mistake. The reality was that while our team heard the words, not all of them understood the reasoning behind them and many were overwhelmed by such a significant change. It took about a year of constant conversations and sharing success stories of changed lives based on weekly relationships to eventually get everyone onboard. Those who weren't onboard eventually exited the ministry.
  • Vision casting never stops. We've learned that a face-to-face meeting is far more impacting than an email or phone conversation when it comes to outlining our unique dream for children in our ministry. We've also learned that the work of spreading the vision is never truly done. We reiterate the message in hallway conversations, team meetings, visits with parents-the message runs through the fiber of everything we communicate about our ministry. And we have more time for spreading the vision because we aren't spending every week scrambling with the volunteer roster.

"Regular weekly volunteers in a room make such a huge impact on ministry," says Melissa, a veteran volunteer with our ministry. "They provide a familiar face, stronger ministry, and a greater chance for deeper relationships. Finding weekly volunteers isn't easy. When I ask [people for weekly commitment], many give the excuse that they're too busy to make that kind of commitment. And that's where vision casting comes in. That's the opportunity to share with people why we do what we do in children's ministry. It usually takes many conversations before someone finally steps in as a weekly volunteer, but in the end it's always worth it."

  • Volunteer placements aren't always intuitive. A great example is Jim, a burly football-player dad who's a gifted volunteer and communicator. Jim served in one room for a year and did a good job. But it wasn't until a personal conversation with him that we realized just how gifted a leader he was. We moved him into the role of a volunteer coach…in our nursery. You wouldn't think a burly football-player dad would make a great coach of volunteers in the nursery, but Jim has been a fantastic coach, a great troubleshooter, and a satisfied and reliable volunteer in his new role.

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We're still busy at work recruiting regular volunteers. We know we still have work to do. So we pray, refocus, vision cast, and ask the people God puts in our path. By regrouping and strengthening the core of our children's ministry-our volunteers-we've seen incredible changes. Our volunteers are happier, more fulfilled, and they stay with us much longer. But best of all, we've seen our entire ministry grow healthier as our children experience love, relationships, and spiritual mentoring like never before.

Gary Lindsay is the children's pastor at Irving Bible Church in Irving, Texas and is also a scheduled presenter at Group's KidMin Conference (group.com/kidmin).

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