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Training: Are Your Volunteers Ill-Equipped?

Are you missing the boat when it comes to volunteer training? Leadership expert Sue Mallory says probably so.


One of my greatest surprises when asked to serve at my church many years ago was that there were no prerequisites. I have been a volunteer all my life, and have always been required to go to some form of orientation or training. There were specific responsibilities and expectations, and I was asked to commit for a very specific period of time.

So when I was asked to serve in my church, I thought, “This is pretty neat-just jump right in and swim!” I quickly experienced a new frustration in volunteer service, however; I didn’t know who to ask for direction. I assumed someone would show me the ropes, and they assumed I knew just what to do. And that was the problem.

Many churches are strong in the area of spiritual nurturing, but fall short on the practical side. As near as I can tell, the church is one of the only nonprofit organizations that depends almost entirely on volunteers, yet offers or requires little or no training.

Ephesians 4:12 commands us to ” Equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Being intentional about inviting people into ministry in an area in which they’re gifted and about which they’re passionate is just the first step. We need to provide ongoing support in the form of training, coaching, affirmation, and feedback.

Churches need to offer training at every level of service. The best training is done in the context of community. Begin your ministry leadership training by sharing a meal together, and use that time to share spiritual journeys, per­sonal stories, and prayer before getting to the nuts and bolts of their ministries. You’re inviting people to experience the joy of service, so it should be creative and fun.

Be creative in planning training sessions–mix it up. You can introduce small training segments within the body of an existing meeting, or spend an hour on a training point before a meeting. If you’re scheduling training as a separate function, consider Saturday morning when people are fresh and focused. Try to avoid scheduling training times on Sundays. They’re meant for celebration and worship, and it’s the leader’s time to replenish and refuel.

Your ministry leaders need to have a realistic idea of what to expect, so don’t be afraid to deal with the tough issues. Address conflict resolution, burnout, dealing with difficult people, and terminating a volunteer. Working through real issues will better prepare your ministry leaders to be effective and authentic in their leadership.

Leadership development has traditionally fallen to clergy, but it’s more appropriate and effective to share the task. As we equip new leaders, our clergy can lead the elements focused on spiritual direction and maturity. But practical, hands-on issues should be led by those closest to the need. Your core team of ministry leaders should be conscious of pushing this responsibility downward.

I encourage you not to overlook the basic tools of good equipping. Use accurate ministry descriptions, encourage volunteers to share ministry by inviting others to join in the effort, and encourage leaders to delegate tasks. Interview potential volunteers effectively, establish ministry support teams (such as a calling ministry), keep the ministry as your focus at regular meetings, develop a plan and vision for each ministry, and set goals that get you there.

These are just a few ideas to enhance the quality of service in your church. Next time someone invites you to serve, ask, “Will I be equipped to succeed in the task?” And before you invite someone else to serve, make sure the answer to that question is “Yes.”

Sue Mallory is executive consultant to Church Volunteer Central, author of The Equipping Church, and co-author of The Equipping Church Guidebook.

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