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How to Elevate Volunteers From “Helping” to Leading

How to elevate your volunteers from “just helping out” to leadership roles in your ministry.


Just uttering the words “we need leaders” in the church is likely to send people running for cover. That’s because there’s a gap between the volunteer leadership needs of our ministries and the number of people both qualified and willing to lead. I’ve yet to meet a staff person who can honestly say, “We have all the leaders we need. This isn’t an issue for our church.”

If you’re reading this article, finding and growing leaders is likely an issue for you. You recognize the need for volunteer leaders. You can present a biblical mandate for shared leadership (everyone serves, not just the staff). Now comes the hard part — convincing people, in particular, those already serving as volunteers, to lead. And once convinced, equipping leaders to flourish in ministry. The problems Moses faced in Exodus 18 were nothing compared to the challenges of 21st-century ministry (or so we think)!

Why is it so difficult to move volunteers toward becoming leaders? Many of our most committed volunteers are reluctant to take on a leadership role. What are their objections to leading, and how can you overcome them?

Objection 1: I Make a Better Follower Than Leader

This statement may very well be true of many of your volunteers. Some volunteers do make better followers and are more effective and fulfilled in serving in a follower role. A good place to start in determining the answer to the leader/follower question is to identify what you’re looking for in the leaders of your church and ministry in terms of character, commitment, and competency.

Prayerfully develop a leadership covenant — a document that captures the attributes and behaviors of a ministry leader for your church. In creating such a document, consider including expectations for self-leadership (relationship with God), organizational leadership (commitment to church), and leadership of others (relationships with followers).

Once you’ve created expectations for leadership in your church, you can assess each potential candidate in light of those expectations. Which behaviors and characteristics are already evident in a volunteer’s life? Would additional training and development strengthen any areas that are lacking? If the volunteer possesses the gifts and attributes of a potential leader, then you can address reluctance through training and development opportunities, along with providing the individual assurance of ongoing support.

Objection 2: I’m Uncertain About the Ministry’s Vision

Not all people with leadership potential are meant to lead in your ministry — or even in the church. You may or may not have a “litmus test” for leadership, but consider the potential impact of a leader who isn’t in agreement with the overall direction of your ministry. Differing opinions can be helpful when determining the tactics for achieving goals and objectives — a little conflict might actually sharpen leaders’ skills and ministry effectiveness. If, however, a volunteer can’t support your ministry’s vision and mission, his or her leadership can have disastrous results.

It’s worth the time and effort to communicate the vision for the ministry in which they’ll serve and lead. A clear and compelling vision bridges the gap between service offered and fulfilling God’s purposes for your church. You will inspire people to lead, fueled by a passion that’ll provide lasting motivation for serving.

People have a basic desire to “make a difference” — to give of their time and service in support of something significant. “Difference-making” should be easy for us to point out in the church where God-empowered ministry can affect kingdom impact with eternal value. Now, take it a step further. How will the person’s contribution support the vision and mission of the church?

To provide the incentive for a volunteer to deepen his or her commitment level, the vision and mission of your ministry must be compelling. You must also communicate the difference people can make as God works through them, especially those in leadership.

Objection 3: You Always Ask the Busy Person

You’ve likely heard the old adage, “If you want something done, ask the busy person.” After all, we have a tendency to keep asking the busiest people in the church to take on additional responsibilities. In some ways, this makes sense. Our busy volunteers usually rate high in commitment and consistency. Plus, since they’ve always said “yes” to us before, they’re likely to do so again and make our task easier.

While it’s great to have “go to” people who can help out in a pinch, we need to develop a more long-term and healthy invitation strategy. Instead of burdening our existing leaders with additional responsibilities, what would happen if we instead found co-leaders to come alongside as partners to share their ministry load? In doing so, we not only communicate care for the leader, but we also create a sustainable model for leadership development as the leader trains an eventual replacement.

To take this idea a step further, equip your existing leaders to find their own co-leaders. Challenge them to intentionally find an apprentice — someone they can mentor in the same way as Paul did Timothy. Chances are they’ll find their “Timothys” from the ranks of your current volunteers.

Objection 4: I’m Already Overcommitted

Just because a volunteer has leadership potential and is “sold out” to the vision and mission of the church doesn’t mean he or she is ready to lead. A stumbling block in moving toward leadership is the issue of availability. Passion for ministry is necessary, but so is time.

As a society, in general, we’re overscheduled and overcommitted. It’s no wonder people are reluctant to take on additional work, even the Lord’s work. Part of the solution here lies in taking a realistic approach in defining leadership roles. As you create ministry position descriptions, give consideration to the actual time it takes to complete every element of the position.

Factor in the time it’ll take for the leader to interact with the volunteers under his or her care, or those served by the ministry. Think about the issue of “span of care.” That is, how many people can the leader effectively guide and shepherd before the quality of care begins to suffer? We’ve all experienced the tension of being overwhelmed by people-related needs. Much depends on the type of leadership required by the given role — the more hands-on the approach, the fewer people are placed under the care of that leader.

You can add responsibilities to the leadership position later — the greater challenge is resuscitating the leader who’s collapsed under the weight of unrealistic expectations. Setting realistic expectations for leadership roles is challenging in the beginning by the very fact it’ll mean you’re going to have more roles to fill. In the long run (and aren’t we in this for the long run?) your efforts will produce rewards. Leaders will find more joy in serving, and your ministry will develop a reputation as a great area in which to become involved.

Objection 5: I Don’t Have the Skills for the Role

What type of training can the potential leader expect — before serving and on an ongoing basis? Before beginning in the leadership role, the volunteer will likely need basic equipping. The basics might include training in specific skills, such as facilitation or teaching. This training might also include elements of the vision and mission of the ministry and an overview of operational details. List the specific duties of the role and the gifts, knowledge, and skills of the potential leader. Identify and train to fill the gaps between the two.

Once in the role, what ongoing support can the leader expect to receive? A powerful tool for ongoing leadership development is coaching. Coaching involves giving and receiving feedback that’s timely and constructive. Good coaching invites the individual’s perspective and promotes continual learning and improved performance.

“People love to be encouraged. Great leaders know how to encourage others,” writes Adam Hamilton in Leading Beyond the Walls. “They constantly praise others and build them up. They love to help others succeed and be their best, and they exercise restraint in criticism but pursue praise and encouragement with a passion. Part of this quality and mission of encouraging others is used to mentor and develop other strong leaders around you. Successful leaders mentor others and help others hear God’s call into ministry.”

In a typical coaching conversation, you as coach might ask the leader questions about a recently performed duty such as facilitating a meeting for volunteers or teaching a class. Always begin with a positive question such as, “What went well (with the meeting/class)?” A follow-up question: “What would you consider doing differently next time?” After the leader shares his or her perspective, you affirm all or part of that perspective and offer constructive insights where needed.

The Importance of Feedback

A key to successful coaching is to provide the feedback while the event’s fresh in the minds of the coach and the leader. Celebrate and reinforce successful behavior immediately, and maximize growth and learning potential.

Jesus modeled training and coaching for us in Luke 10:1-24. Jesus appointed the 72 and sent them out for ministry. They received instruction before setting out, and when they returned they shared a time of reflection and celebration with Jesus. And the results — not only were the 72 effective in ministry, but they also returned with great joy and enthusiasm.

Take a balanced approach to leader training. The key is to offer enough for the leaders to be effective without creating information overload. Determine what’s necessary for all leaders in the ministry versus ways in which you might meet more individualized needs. Create a culture of investing in your leaders as a component of your overall strategy for growing leaders and ministry.

Objection 6: Once I Say “Yes,” They’ll Ignore Me

Have you ever found yourself in the position of starting a new job without the tools and resources you needed to succeed? How did that make you feel? Likely words such as “inept” or “unmotivated” come to mind. Before we place people into leadership roles in the church, we need to do our best to set them up for success.

Simply develop a written set of instructions and guidelines. These should include the name of the leader’s immediate contact person, along with procedures that cover everything from facility usage, to using church communication tools, to ordering supplies and resources. Place yourself in the leader’s shoes and “walk through” the position to catch all the important details. Ask your current leaders and volunteers to help you put together a resource binder — they’ll likely have a better handle on the questions and needs of new leaders than you.

Developing leaders is a continual process. And the process increases in effectiveness as you equip and encourage your existing leaders to identify and mentor other potential leaders. Setting numeric goals and holding staff accountable for developing leaders also adds weight to your efforts.

As you own, adapt, and implement these ideas, along with your own strategies, you’ll grow toward creating a leadership development culture, where willing and qualified volunteers move from “just helping” to leadership roles.

Always On The Lookout

Here are 10 ways to focus on potential leaders for your children’s ministry.

1. Look out for people who regularly attend worship service.

You’d be surprised how many people come to church every week, yet no one ever invites them to be a part of ministry. Regular attendees are dependable and committed to growing in their faith.

2. Look out for people who make themselves available to serve.

Since I’m busy each Sunday with children’s ministry, I regularly ask other church staff to tell me about people who make themselves readily available when asked to help.

3. Look out for people who are encouragers.

We recently needed a greeter for our preschool ministry, so I asked others who they thought had the gift of encouragement in our church. Having someone who’s uplifting to others will make any new family or apprehensive parent feel at ease.

4. Look out for people who like being part a team.

Team players recognize that everyone has different gifts that make the ministry stronger. I seek out people who work well with others.

5. Look out for people who are playful.

Having playful people on your team will not only be an asset to your children, but they’ll also be fun for the other adults. At a recent game night with others from our church, I saw people who loved to laugh and play games. That week I invited two of them to consider serving on our ministry team.

6. Look out for people who are on time.

People who are on time are those who make time for others. Timely people are necessary in children’s ministry. I never ask parents to serve in the children’s ministry if they’re routinely late to church.

7. Look out for people who welcome newcomers to your church.

People who naturally greet newcomers are willing to go out of their comfort zone and meet strangers for the opportunity to share God’s love. These people are the ones children love to be around.

8. Look out for people who enjoy learning.

At our women’s Bible study, I noticed a young mom who weekly had her study complete and ready to answer questions. When I asked her if she’d be willing to teach in our preschool classroom, she said, “As long as I have someone to teach me.” I was impressed with her servant’s attitude. Today, she’s one of our lead teachers.

9. Look out for people who are open to growth.

I once had a teacher say, “I will only teach if there are fewer than 10 children in my class.” I knew as our church was growing that she wasn’t going to stay much longer. So I looked elsewhere for people who had an open mind to the change and growth that was happening in our church.

10. Look out for people who enjoy being with children.

When parents are checking in their children, I watch to see which parents interact with the other children. I had a father who noticed a baby crying and went into the nursery and rocked her to sleep. I instantly recruited him!

Remember to screen people before they start serving in your children’s ministry. Our church uses the Church Volunteer Central service to get background checks on all new recruits. Go to www.churchvolunteercentral.com for more information on this beneficial program.

Jill Foster Temecula, California

For more great articles like this in every issue, subscribe to Children’s Ministry Magazine today!


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