We Jumped the Volunteer Gap

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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.

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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.

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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.

—————-

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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