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A volunteer training session.
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How to Successfully Train the 21st Century Volunteer

There’s a training innovation on the horizon that’ll transform your ministry and create success for your 21st-century volunteer training.

The number of volunteers has increased significantly over the past decade, according to the Points of Light Foundation. In 1987, there were 80 million volunteering adults aged 18 and over, while today there are more than 109 million. So where are all those volunteers, you may wonder.

They’re plugging into organizations that meet their needs for significance. As a children’s minister, you have the place that helps volunteers make a difference in the lives of children—that’s the first part of significance. Now learn how you can help volunteers find significance in relationships as you train them through relationships.

21st Century Volunteer Profile

Building a successful training program begins with understanding today’s contemporary volunteers. Today’s volunteer is busy. Nearly 50 percent of all adults admit they have hectic, out-of-control lives—especially those under 50 with children still at home. Multiple careers, job transfers, forced retirements, divorce, single-parenting, financial pressures, and children returning to the home are some of the challenges facing your volunteers and ministries today. However, despite all the busyness, today’s volunteers are looking for relationships and purpose when investing their time and resources.

Here’s a general description of volunteers’ needs at each life stage.

Mid 60s and up

Volunteers in their mid 60s and older are nearing retirement, and trends show that they have a very strong sense of responsibility to their churches. They’d like fewer, but significant options for service.

40s and 50s

People in this age group may be facing major transitions and decisions as they consider ways to transition from a focus on material success to spiritual significance. They may be time-crunched, but they’re looking for opportunities to make a difference.

Under 40

People under 40 have more discretionary time to commit to a significant cause, but they guard their time closely. They have a high awareness of social concerns and environmental issues, and they respond best when given freedom to develop new ministry approaches—without heavy-handed guidance by older people.

Trends also show that parents are looking for opportunities to spend more time doing something meaningful with their families, and parents are volunteering more at schools and activities where their whole families can be involved.

Volunteer Training on Their Terms

Busy volunteers can resent having yet another one of their precious free evenings taken up with a drive followed by a long training event. So make training accessible and available to your volunteers without being overly intrusive on their free time and family lives.

The first step in this process is to assign the responsibility for training where it belongs—with the volunteer. By giving your volunteers a self-evaluation tool, they can tell you what their specific training needs are. Use the “R.E.A.L Learning Grid” below. Simply have your volunteers evaluate their performance in each area and then let you know where they feel they most need help.

From there, you have several options in delivering the training to them, such as the following:


Give your volunteer an article, book, tape, or video on the topic. Better yet, match volunteers who have the same need in a study group where they can do the homework and meet to discuss it. Research reveals that teachers benefit from studying self-selected topics.

Family Weekend

If you have a weekend training event, make it family-friendly. Hold training at a YMCA or other recreational area. Start the day with a continental breakfast for volunteers and their families. Provide training and workshops during the day for your volunteers and childcare for the children. Plan for a couple of family games or events during the training to break up things and let families spend time together. This will allow your volunteers to get the training they need without taking them away from their children for an entire day.

Volunteer Training Innovations

One of the most freeing innovations in volunteer training today is the decentralization of training. That is, you no longer have to be the trainer for your ministry. In the past, you were required to have—or be able to find—all the answers. In today’s volunteer management model, leaders move from being The Trainer to The Facilitator of Training.

This paradigm shift is practically played out in two primary ways.

Team Training

The first way is by creating teams that provide encouragement, support, training, and feedback. Encourage your teams to meet together regularly. The informal training that takes place is immediate, rather than waiting for next month’s training meeting.

Team training is an excellent means of giving your volunteers hands-on training, empowering them to become strong teachers and leaders, and encouraging them to foster deeper relationships with one another.

If you create an environment where volunteers truly participate and are empowered, you don’t need to control the outcome. They’ll know what needs to be done, they’ll do it, and they’ll be more devoted to the cause. Creating volunteer interdependency (mutual dependence) creates a tighter network of volunteers who can find encouragement and help within their ministry community.

A team can be as small as two people. Pair up volunteers to help one another. Volunteers who are new to your ministry may feel isolated, but if you initiate teams, volunteers are more likely to grow and build a larger network of friends. Encourage volunteers to meet with their partners for several minutes before and after each class or event to debrief and share struggles and victories.

When volunteers share expertise with interested colleagues, the benefit of their experiences increases. Frequent communication with other volunteers promotes a greater self-reliance and more self-confidence. Encouraging debriefing between your volunteers makes them more reflective about their practices.

Encourage volunteers to keep informal journals about their teaching or leading experiences. Have them jot down brief notes about their feelings after events, or what went well vs. what didn’t go so well, and what they enjoyed the most. Having volunteers discuss their journals maximizes the benefits of their reflection. These methods put the volunteers’ growth in their own hands, making them more self-reliant so they own their training.

Master Teachers

To further the interdependence of your volunteers, use Master Teachers. Compile an informal list of your volunteers’ expertise. You may wish to take a survey, or ask your volunteers who they find to be the most knowledgeable in specific areas of teaching. For example, Monique may have an excellent discipline policy for her classes, and Nick may have a terrific storytelling style. Ask these people if they’d like to be Master Teachers in these areas. If so, place them on the Master Teacher list with their area of expertise, so volunteers who need help or inspiration in these areas can contact them.

Invest in your Master Teachers. Send your Craft Master Teacher to training classes at Hobby Lobby. Pay for your Multimedia Master Teacher to take a class at a local college. The more you facilitate depth in your Master Teachers, the better training you’ll have in your ministry.

Have your Master Teachers present brief workshops at your volunteer training meetings once a year. Your other volunteers will be encouraged to see that those who are training are right there “in the trenches” with them.

Whatever you do, focus on relationships if you want to efficiently and effectively train volunteers. And, there’s one other caveat for you in this: It’s easier for a volunteer to walk away from a task than it is to walk away from a relationship. Intentionally build caring, supportive training relationships to also help you hang onto your wonderful volunteers a little longer!

R.E.A.L. Learning Grid

Use this self-evaluation grid to determine your effectiveness in impacting children.


  • Greets children warmly.
  • Encourages children to get to know each other.
  • Contacts children outside of class.
  • Knows children’s names.
  • Knows children’s likes, dislikes, and special needs.
  • Allows children time to meet with one another before and after class.
  • Encourages children to work in groups.
  • Models healthy relationships with kids and other adults.
  • Prays consistently for each child.


  • Involves children actively in class.
  • Provides hands-on opportunities.
  • Creates multisensory lessons.
  • Makes learning fun for children.
  • Helps children discover truths rather than lecturing.
  • Provides hands-on opportunities outside the classroom.
  • Displays sensitivity to the multiple intelligences represented in the classroom.
  • Makes learning enjoyable for kids.


  • Encourages kids to make connections between the lesson and their daily lives.
  • Reports personal applications of God’s Word.
  • Creates practical—rather than philosophical—lessons.
  • Helps children understand why they need to live by God’s Word.
  • Explains several ways for children to apply the lesson.
  • Provides weekly accountability by checking to see how kids have applied what they’ve learned.
  • Provides parents with take-home activities to reinforce the lesson point.


  • Encourages children to ask questions.
  • Makes the classroom a fun place to be.
  • Gives children choices in lesson topics or activities.
  • Provides less teacher-talk, more student interaction.
  • Varies learning activities from week to week to interest all kids.
  • Understands who kids are and how they learn best.
  • Understands what children are able to do at their age level.
  • Teaches lessons with adequate pacing between active and quieter activities.

Volunteer Training Team Builders

Use these activities to build teams.

Ropes and Restrictions

You’ll need sixteen 25-foot nylon ropes of various colors, and a 15-inch beach ball. This activity will require a large empty space of approximately 400 to 600 square feet. Form a team of at least 16 people. Have the team members place the ropes on the ground, beginning with a large X and crisscrossing the strands. Once all the ropes are in place, put the beach ball in the center of the rope web.

The team members hold the rope ends. Teams must lift the ropes without losing the ball and then manipulate the strands to allow the ball to fall through the middle of the rope web.

Ask: What made this experience easy or difficult? How well did your team communicate? What roles did people play in this experience? What can this experience tell us about our teamwork?

Lego of my Volunteer

You’ll need a model vehicle made of Lego plastic toys and a packet of 50 Legos with at least two wheels for each team.

Form teams of five or six. Give each team a Lego packet. Promise a prize to the first team that creates a vehicle that most closely resembles your model. Instruct the teams to each build a replica of the model with these controls.

  • Only blue Legos may touch yellow Legos.
  • No six-hole Legos may sit on top of four-hole Legos.
  • Only the wheels may touch the ground.
  • Red Legos must always be directly on top of yellow Legos.
  • Only gray Legos may snap onto the large pieces.

Allow four minutes. Then award the prize.

Ask: Was there any pressure to perform? Explain. What motivated you as a team? How successful was your team’s communication? What did you learn about yourself during this activity? about others on your team?

Now instruct the teams to take apart their vehicles. Dispense more Legos for each team, and have them create their own vehicles. This time they have no prizes and no limitations, other than their imaginations. After four minutes allow each team to show off its creation. Affirm each team’s creativity.

Ask: How was this second activity different from the first? In which activity did you feel most empowered? What can we learn from this activity to help our teams be even stronger?

Contributors: Sharyn Spradlin, Cyndie Steenis, Amy Jones, and Christine Yount Jones

Want more volunteer management ideas? Check out these articles!

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