What can you learn about children’s ministry volunteer training from Olympic athletes? A lot more than you’d ever imagine!
What would happen if athletes showed up at the Olympic Games equipped the way children’s ministry volunteers often enter their classrooms? Some would be gripped by fear, since they’d never really competed before. Others might quickly study the rule book as they waited for the starter’s gun.
The image is absurd.
But now turn the image around and think what might happen if we took passing on faith to our children as seriously as Olympic athletes take passing on a baton in a relay. Imagine how strong a children’s ministry volunteer team you could have if you prepared volunteers with an Olympic-style workout program.
Search Institute surveyed about 1,500 children’s ministry volunteers in more than 500 congregations as part of its national study Effective Christian Education: A National Study of Protestant Congregations. The study found that fewer than half of all churches offer in-service training for teachers more than once a year (42 percent), and just 3 percent offer training five or more times per year. The findings suggest several key components of a well-rounded, Olympic-style workout program for children’s ministry volunteers.
6 Steps to Incorporating Olympic-Style Volunteer Training
Step 1: Get a Physical Exam
Athletes get a physical examination before they start training. Your ministry also needs a physical to determine its fitness level.
The Search Institute study is a checkup for children’s volunteers. It reveals who volunteers are and their perceptions of their work and needs.
Most volunteers recognize their need for a strenuous “workout program,” because many miss some of the basics:
- Just 38 percent of teachers know and understand the Bible.
- Only 39 percent of teachers know how religious faith forms and develops.
- Even fewer (30 percent) know about different learning styles.
- Only three out of 10 know and understand their denomination’s theology and tradition.
- And one out of four (27 percent) knows educational theory and practice.
Despite the clear need for growth, many teachers don’t appear eager to get involved. According to this study, just 44 percent of volunteers say they’re interested in more teacher-training events. Part of the problem may be that the available training opportunities don’t always meet their interests and needs.
The Typical Children’s Volunteer
- Most children’s volunteers (91 percent) are women.
- The average age for volunteers is 36.97 percent of children’s volunteers are “somewhat” or “very” enthused about working in children’s education.
- The average volunteer has worked with children for four years.
- On average, volunteers spend 40 minutes preparing to teach a class.
- The average children’s volunteer reads the Bible only once or twice a month when alone.
- The average children’s worker has some college education, and 47 percent have at least a college degree.
- Two-thirds of volunteers (68 percent) say faith is “very important” or “the most important” thing in their lives.
- Three-fourths of volunteers (77 percent) are married.
Step 2: Customize the Training Program
By tackling the areas of greatest concern during training, you’re more likely to get children’s ministry volunteers interested and involved. One guide to help address volunteers’ top needs is to know their interests.
Another way to customize the training program is to ask your volunteers what they’d like to learn about. What are they struggling with? What challenges are they facing? Sometimes we worry so much about meeting kids’ needs that we forget about the volunteers’ needs.
That’s why the Christian education committee at my church calls teachers occasionally to ask how things are going. These calls gain important information for how to shape future training programs-while also reminding teachers that they’re important and supported.
Children’s Ministry Volunteers’ Top Interests
Search Institute asked 1,500 children’s workers what they’d be interested in learning more about from their church. Here are the percentages who say they’d be “interested” or “very interested” in each subject.
- Learning more about the Bible. 79%
- Learning more about creative and innovative approaches to Christian education. 66%
- Better Christian education planning in my church. 58%
- Learning more about faith development. 55%
- Getting more help with teaching techniques. 54%
- Finding better curriculum materials. 50%
- Learning more about my denomination’s theology, tradition, and history. 50%
- Learning how to evaluate my work as a Christian educator. 49%
- Learning more about moral education and development. 47%
Step 3: Eat Healthy Food
A steady diet of healthy food ensures that the athlete is up for the workout. Otherwise, the body gives out before the race is over. Similarly, a healthy spiritual diet is essential for volunteers who work with children. Search Institute found that a Christian education program’s effectiveness is significantly influenced by the leaders’ faith maturity.
Unfortunately, two-thirds of children’s ministry volunteers may not be getting the kind of balanced diet they need. In Search Institute’s study, only 32 percent of children’s volunteers express a mature faith characterized by a life-transforming relationship with God and a consistent devotion to serving others.
Thus a majority of children’s volunteers are at risk of burning out early because they don’t have the spiritual resources to keep them going. Furthermore, most churches don’t provide any regular opportunities for volunteers to nourish their faith. Overall, only 8 percent of congregations report having teacher gatherings three or more times each year for spiritual renewal and growth.
This problem is compounded in churches with weak adult education programs or when the only adult education occurs during the same time volunteers are working with children. In these instances, teachers may never have chances to grow in their faith-which hardly prepares them to nourish faith in children.
A workout program for volunteers must take seriously the volunteers’ own “spiritual diets.” There are lots of ways to do this:
- Have volunteers gather weekly to prepare and study for the next week. This approach not only prepares them for the next Sunday, but it lets them understand the scripture with other adults.
- Form teams of three or four volunteers per class to allow teachers to take breaks and participate in adult education.
- Offer special Bible studies for volunteers as a way of nurturing their own faith.
- Provide resources and skills for personal growth for volunteers to use at home.
The point is that something must be done to address volunteers’ needs for spiritual growth. Even the best workout program can’t overcome the deficiencies created when volunteers don’t have healthy spiritual diets.
Step 4: Develop “Game Plans”
Imagine what would happen to an Olympic team that spends its entire training time in a classroom listening to the coach telling how to play the game. Then, when it comes to game time, the players run out on the field to apply what they “learned.” Unfortunately, many churches rely on such an approach: They hand out curricula, introduce a few concepts, then send volunteers out to the classroom. No wonder many teachers feel inadequate and ill-prepared!
Effective teachers know educational theory and practice. Yet only 27 percent of volunteers report that they are familiar with the theory and practice of what they do. Similarly, teachers don’t always give themselves high marks in key areas. Only about half of all volunteers think their teaching is good or excellent.
Part of the problem is that teachers have few opportunities to learn how to teach. For example, 50 percent of volunteers report never receiving training in effective teaching methods. And 82 percent report never receiving training in denominational theology.
A volunteer training program should include the same kinds of experience-based training that athletes use. Workshops should focus on learning by doing and then talking about what happened. Another effective approach is to pair a new teacher with an experienced teacher so that the novice can learn from an expert by watching and imitating.
Step 5: Celebrate the Victories
All athletes have down days, and sometimes wonder if all the work is worth the effort. Every single person needs someone to encourage and support them through the tough times.
Children’s volunteers are no different. They, too, get discouraged and stretched beyond their limits. They, too, need someone to give them pats on the back (or hugs) and to remind them that their work is important to the church.
Search Institute’s research confirms that one element of effective Christian education is a strong sense of teacher support, encouragement and recognition. Indeed, the Apostle Paul began most of his letters with encouragement (see, for example, Philippians 1:3-8).
Volunteer affirmation and support can come in many ways:
- Recognize volunteers in worship at least once a year (which 90 percent of churches do).
- Give creative gifts that symbolize the volunteer’s personality or role.
- Sponsor a volunteers banquet or brunch. Have older children serve their leaders.
- Write one or two personal notes to volunteers so they receive a personal appreciation occasionally through the year.
Along with these personal affirmations is the companion piece: an evaluation. Most churches apparently don’t think of evaluation as positive, since only 16 percent evaluate teachers annually. Yet, when done well, evaluation can be affirming and encouraging for volunteers. It gives you an opportunity to tell volunteers directly what they’re doing well and how important they are to the ministry. It can also gently challenge them to improve in areas where they may be less skilled.
Step 6: Remember the Goal
Athletes are most successful when they keep their eyes fixed on their ultimate goal. The same principle should guide a volunteer training program. Every element should be geared toward the goal of helping children and volunteers grow in their faith.
In his own ministry, Paul used imagery from athletics to remind people of this principle. “Brothers and sisters,” he wrote, “I know that I have not yet reached that goal, but there is one thing I always do. Forgetting the past and straining toward what is ahead, I keep trying to reach the goal and get the prize for which God called me through Christ to the life above” (Philippians 3:13-14).
Eugene C. Roehlkepartain is the director of publication services for Search Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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