What’s your role when it comes to shepherding your team spiritually?
“I can’t serve anymore.” Her statement was straightforward, but her demeanor was hesitant. She knew her decision meant I’d lose a volunteer from an already-anemic team. I knew she felt bad.
“But I haven’t been to church since I started volunteering, and my husband wants me to sit with him in church,” she said.
My response was immediate. “I agree! You should attend church. Volunteering was never intended to replace worship.”
We spoke a few minutes longer, and I gave her a reassuring hug as she turned down the hall toward the worship center.
I walked away with questions buzzing in my head.
How did I miss it? She’d been serving for months!
Didn’t we talk about our “Sit One/Serve One” culture?
Didn’t she know we want her to attend a worship service every week?
Doesn’t her husband understand the value of serving?
Did someone else see this coming and I didn’t?
As I digested her resignation, the truth was a tough pill to swallow.
It isn’t that I don’t care about the spiritual health of my volunteer team. I do. But without a good system in place for establishing healthy expectations and regular check-ups, my ability to know how volunteers are doing spiritually is crippled.
The health of a volunteer team determines the health of a ministry. If your volunteer team isn’t personally pursuing and growing in a relationship with God, then they can’t lead others to do the same.
And though it may be challenging, there are key practices any leader can adopt that will result in a powerful, dynamic, and spiritually healthy volunteer team.
I had the privilege of interviewing several fantastic children’s ministry leaders who are in the trenches every day leading volunteers and creating environments where kids can grow in a relationship with Jesus. We grappled with what it means to be a leader of volunteers and how we can juggle the inevitable responsibility of ensuring our teams are spiritually healthy. Listen in.
Meet the Leaders
Stacey leads a great kids ministry team at Christ Community Chapel (CCC) in Hudson, Ohio. As a multi-site church, CCC has leaders serving in different contexts from urban to suburban, portable to permanent. For our benefit, we’ve got multiple perspectives representing different areas of CCC kids ministry. These voices come from Nikki Olechnowicz, Regina Vickrey, and Stacey herself.
Debby Albrecht leads children’s ministry at Suncrest Christian Church in St. John, Indiana. Debby’s church has a phenomenal foundation upon which they build their volunteer teams. No matter what your ministry context looks like, her insights on shepherding volunteers will give some great perspective.
Andy led the children’s ministry before he transitioned to the senior pastor for Trinity Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. A transplant from “across the pond,” Andy creatively leads his volunteers in a portable (sometimes mobile) setting. The challenges might be unique, yet his approach to volunteer shepherding is amazingly effective.
Rebekah leads children’s ministry at Cross Point Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Her dynamic leadership is reshaping expectations for the volunteer experience in this movement in downtown Nashville. She pulls from several years of experience at churches like LifeChurch.tv and Cross Timbers Community Church.
Gina: What do you see as your responsibility as it relates to the spiritual health of your team?
Andy: If someone is serving on a team I lead, that means I need to be engaged with his or her spiritual growth. It means ensuring that team members are accountable for taking on opportunities to grow.
Regina: When it comes to the spiritual health of my team, my top priority is always the person. His or her relationship with Jesus has to be healthy and a priority in life. You can’t lead well if you’re not healthy, because eventually you’ll burn out, lose your joy, and forget why you’re serving.
Debby: Healthy commitments to serving are part of our plan for the spiritual growth of our team members. All volunteers have a leader who’s responsible to pray for them, encourage them to be in a small group, ensure they’re regularly attending a worship gathering, and help them take their next step spiritually.
Stacey: The value of spiritual growth is woven into our DNA. When any individual applies to serve, that’s the starting point for a conversation on spiritual health. As part of the application process, new volunteers will write their faith story—and right there we have a great springboard for conversation and continued accountability.
Gina: What’s your relational connection with volunteers? What do you know about how they’re doing and what’s happening with them personally?
Rebekah: The volunteers we lead have a great desire to not only be needed but to be known. I am intentional about connecting with my volunteers on a personal level often and in an authentic way. Just as we desire our small-group leaders to show up in unexpected ways in the lives of the kids in our ministries, we as ministry leaders must show up in the lives of those we lead. One vital component to ensuring we can stay personally connected to our leaders as our ministries grow is to develop a layer of high-capacity “coaches” or team leads who pour into volunteers relationally as a representative of our leadership. Loving volunteers with intentionality is vital in the long-term success of the ministries we lead.
Nikki: The best time to build relationships with my volunteers is when they first begin to serve. I enjoy meeting new volunteers for lunch or coffee so I’m able to learn more about them. This is also a good opportunity for me to discuss the purpose of our ministry and expectations. I also stay connected with many of my volunteers through social media such as Facebook.
Andy: It’s important that every person in my team is relationally connected to someone in leadership. But that doesn’t have to be me. It can be someone in a volunteer leadership position. Jesus only shepherded 12 people, so I’m wary of thinking that we can handle any more than that. For each of us in volunteer leadership positions, we try to regularly hang out with all of our team members and get to know what’s going on in every part of their lives—not just the ministry-related parts.
Gina: What’s your responsibility as a spiritual leader to your team members?
Rebekah: I want to be an extension of Jesus in the lives of my team members. I want to love them first and lead them second. In my leadership, love comes in the form of praying, encouraging, equipping, appreciating, and developing. My responsibility is to steward well the people God places in my ministry, in hopes that their serving experience will end up changing their lives in a meaningful way.
Regina: As the spiritual leader to my team, I work hard to build relationships by investing my time, growing them spiritually, and helping them strive to lead well. I always pray for them, provide the necessary training needed for their role, and communicate my expectations. I encourage them to pray for their ministry area—and especially to spend time listening for God’s direction in all they do.
Andy: I’m convinced that the biggest thing I can do for my team in this area is to have an active and authentic spiritual life myself. When I do that, the fruit naturally overflows to my team and they also grow. It’s really hard to lead or send people where you haven’t been yourself.
Gina: In what ways do you encourage your team to get more involved in the larger church?
Debby: We attempt to hold our volunteers loosely. When a passion changes or life circumstances are such that serving in their present role isn’t working, we do at least two things.
- Look for another area in our ministry that’ll work for them.
- Hand them off to another leader in another ministry in hopes they’ll find a good fit. We circle back to make sure they got connected.
In our context, we’ve noticed that when people “unplug” from serving they tend to “unplug” from church, so we’re pretty diligent about connecting them elsewhere.
Stacey: We want everyone serving in a capacity that brings them joy and where they’ll be most fruitful. At times, handing off to the larger church may really be guiding a volunteer to an even better capacity to serve in.
Lead the Way
I was personally challenged as I learned from these ministry leaders. Their insight shows that no matter your church denomination, the size of your ministry, or the depth of your budget, leading a spiritually healthy, dynamic volunteer team consists of some practical steps.
1. Take responsibility.
The level of ownership each ministry leader has over the spiritual development and health of his or her volunteer team is obvious. In fact, there’s an overwhelming sense of willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of a volunteer’s personal growth. When we embrace the idea that our role extends far beyond scheduling volunteers and reaches into their personal faith journey, it’ll change the way we interact.
Action Step: Evaluate your perspective. How do you view your responsibility as related to the spiritual health of the volunteers in your ministry?
2. Make time to assess.
We all need a method for assessing the spiritual health of a volunteer. The two mentioned are likely the most common—and yet are overlooked so easily.
Application: An application can do more than harvest names and contact information. It can ask specific questions about the volunteer’s spiritual journey, giving you a glimpse into his or her development and where to place the person on your team.
Interview: Invest time in face-to-face conversation to get to know the person and find out more about his or her journey. This interaction gives you great insight into how that person is doing. It also allows you the opportunity to ask questions about family, how he or she recharges spiritually, and what service time he or she plans to attend—and more.
Action Step: Create an application with intentional questions about spiritual journey and basic beliefs. How did the volunteer enter a relationship with Jesus? Where does the person see God working in his or her life today? Create a flowchart for your volunteer training process that includes a one-to-one interview. Ensure that personal conversation happens to gain insight, perspective, and that oh-so-valuable “gut check.”
3. Do a regular “pulse check.”
Though methods are different, there’s a consistency in follow-up with each ministry leader I spoke with. They all have ways to keep volunteers connected with mentors and leaders. Some-one’s designated to know them, love them and serve as a resource to them. Life is a series of ebbs and flows. Some seasons are more challenging than others. To know about these seasons equips you to know when to lean in a little closer and bring encouragement and support.
Action Step: Draw your volunteer team structure in the form of an organizational chart. Show how each volunteer is connected to a leader who takes responsibility for knowing and caring for that volunteer. Give these leaders practical ways to connect with volunteers.
- Connect via social media.
- Keep a calendar to track birthdays and significant dates.
- Show up in their lives through handwritten cards or texts.
- Take them to coffee and invest time in them.
4. Hold volunteer accountable.
Sometimes the best thing you can do for a volunteer is to hold him or her accountable. When you see unhealthy signs or evidence that things aren’t quite right, you take that next step and lovingly open the conversation. It can feel like you’re opening Pandora’s box. But when you’re gracious and the volunteer is teachable, the outcome can be beautiful.
Action Step: Invite someone to hold you accountable. Are you leaning toward or away from the hard conversations? Do you see signs in others or yourself that you hope will just go away so you don’t have to deal with them?
5. Resist holding on too tightly.
The worst thing you can do to your ministry is to hold it too tightly. When we embrace the idea that our teams will always change and need to grow on their own, we’re better equipped to handle the change when it comes. Sometimes volunteers need to move on, and that’s okay. Sometimes they need to be challenged to dig deeper. And it’s up to you to listen to God to know which is which.
Action Step: Evaluate where you’re holding on to team members who may be ready to move on. How can you help them explore new ways of serving? How will you assess team members who seem to need to move on?
Fostering a spiritually healthy team is critical to building a growing ministry. And it all comes down to relationships. There are no shortcuts, no fad diets, nothing that can substitute for pure and simple relationship building. Implement these five steps learned from years of combined experience leading volunteers, and you’ll see the spiritual health of your entire team improve.
Gina McClain is a speaker, writer, and children’s ministry director at Faith Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.