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Volunteer Encouragement: Straight to the Heart

Craig Jutila shares the best ideas for giving volunteers encouragement that goes straight to the heart.

“Therefore encourage one another, and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” — 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Take this quiz

What item would you give a volunteer to encourage her if you had these catchy slogans?

  1. 1. You’re as cool as a cucumber.
  2. 2. You’re worth a hundred grand.
  3. 3. You make our team shine.

Okay, ready for the answers?

  1. 1. A cucumber or a facial mask with cucumber in it.
  2. 2. A 100 Grand candy bar.
  3. 3. A bottle of Windex cleaner.

If you haven’t given affirmations such as these to your volunteers, you’ve probably received something like them from someone else. These trinkets provide nice encouragement, but the truth is that their takeaway is short-lived. They don’t provide sustained encouragement the way no-gimmick encouragement does.

If I got a candy bar every Monday, it would not be as rewarding as my ministry overseer taking me to lunch twice a year. So how can you ensure that you encourage your volunteers deep down in their hearts?

Trick or Treat

Let’s determine, first of all, what a gimmick is. What separates a “gimmicky encouragement” from a “non-gimmicky encouragement”?

While writing this article, I waxed philosophically about this point on a flight home. I turned to the guy sitting next to me. I figured he might have as good an answer as anyone else on the plane. “What’s a gimmick?” I asked him. Without looking up from his computer, this well-dressed businessman shot back, “It’s a trick.”

A trick? I wasn’t satisfied so I went to my dear friend Webster. He says a gimmick is “a tricky device.” I guess my well-dressed businessman friend was right after all!

What’s Your Motivation?

So what separates a gimmicky encouragement from a non-gimmicky encouragement? Motivation.

What’s your motive for encouraging volunteers? You see, I motivate you when I encourage you for everyone’s benefit. When I encourage you for my benefit only, I manipulate you. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us think about each other and help each other to show love and do good deeds. You should not stay away from the church meetings, as some are doing, but you should meet together and encourage each other.”

If your motive in encouraging your volunteers is to get them to stay in children’s ministry, that’s wrong. That accomplishes your need for filling positions, but what about the volunteers? Meet their needs and they will stay. Spend time with them and they will stay. Create a community for them and they will stay. Love them deeply and they will stay. A candy bar once a week won’t do it.

I believe four actions in Hebrews 10:24-25 are very important when discovering what truly encourages volunteers: think about each other, help each other, meet together, and encourage each other.

Think about those goofy T-shirts: “My grandma went to Alaska and this is all I got”? The point is that Grandma thought of her grandchild while on vacation. After Mom’s or Dad’s business trip, children wait in line to see what Mom or Dad may’ve bought them. There’s something so encouraging in knowing someone thinks about us when we’re not around.

It’s the same for your volunteers. If you’re shopping and see something that reminds you of someone, buy it. Then give it with a special note, such as “I saw this hummingbird poster at the mall and thought of you and your collection!”


No amount of words or gimmicks can substitute for support and training. When your volunteers know that you’ll equip them for the tasks you’ve recruited them to, they’ll be genuinely encouraged. Train your volunteers. Then check back periodically to see how they’re doing and what you can do to continue to help.

Meet Together

You’re busy; I know that! But you can never be too busy to spend time with the people on your team. No, you don’t have to spend time with everyone, but choose carefully and prayerfully those key leaders whom you can trust to spend time with other people.

“As you go” time is just as valuable as going to lunch. “As you go” time is the time you spend running to the store and picking up supplies, decorating your fellowship hall, or planning a lesson. So take someone along even on the short trips. The only way to make this time valuable, though, is to be less task-focused and more relationship-focused. Have fun while you work. Or is that whistle while you work?

Encourage Each Other

Encouraging others has a great effect on the giver also. According to Hebrews 10:24-25, the ultimate goal of encouragement is that people encourage others. Proverbs 11:25 (NASB) says that “he who waters will himself be watered.” And Acts 20:35 (NIV) says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Affirm when you see your team members encouraging others. Even set up experiences where your volunteers get the blessing of giving. For example, one church decided to give their children special gifts as affirmations. Rather than the leadership team giving these away, they distributed the gifts to their children’s care-group leaders who were blessed to give directly to the children. Everything doesn’t have to come from you!

Launch A Thousand Ships

We must understand that what floats your boat may not float my boat. What I mean by that is people have different likes and dislikes, and what encourages you may not encourage me. In 1 Corinthians 9:22 (NCV) Paul says, “I have become all things to all people.” In other words, he met people where they were, not where he was. Non-gimmicky, personalized encouragement may take more time, but the value you’re showing, the thought you’re conveying, and the concern you’re feeling is well worth it in terms of encouraging your volunteers.

All your volunteers want to feel like they’re making a significant contribution to children’s ministry. We recently started printing our volunteer leaders’ names on their counselor book covers for our camps. Feeding 70 individual sheets through the printer took more than an hour to do. The result, though, was ownership of their ministry. We showed care and value to our leaders, rather than lumping them with the crowd!

After surveying over 300 children’s pastors across the country, here are the top 13 non-gimmicky ways to encourage volunteers:

1. Hospitality Cart

Each weekend, Debi Nixon, the director of children’s ministries at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, serves her volunteers coffee and refreshments. A special hospitality team pushes a cart from room to room to serve the teachers in each service.

2. P.E.T. program

The Prayer and Pampering, Especially for Teachers program, is the brainchild of Becky Johnson, the children’s Sunday school coordinator at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. “We ask parents to take one of our leaders for a year,” says Pam Weatherford, the church’s special events coordinator. “We give the parents a profile of the leader with his or her birthday and hobbies. Parents send anonymous notes and gifts throughout the year.” The gifts are delivered on the hospitality cart mentioned above.

3. Personal Touch

Diane Horn, the director of children’s ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Rosa, California, sends handwritten notes to each teacher. Diane writes specifically about what she appreciates about the teachers and their ministry. Beyond that, Diane says it’s critical to spend time with each teacher to get to know people and to find out how she can pray for them.

4. Good Gossip

“I talk about my volunteers’ successes in front of others,” says Mark Smith, the children’s pastor at Stillmeadows Church of the Nazarene in York, Pennsylvania.

5. Public praise

Invite your team members to the front of your church for total church recognition.

6. Training

Pay for your volunteers to attend local workshops or seminars on children’s ministry. Or pay for a volunteer to attend a class, such as a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, at a community college. The volunteer benefits and so does your ministry.

7. Reports

Ask your team members to tell your church about their ministry experiences. Videotape their stories to share with others.

8. Fun times

Pay for a babysitter for teachers who have kids. Then take your entire team to a movie.

9. Spousal approval

Call a volunteer’s spouse or send a note of thanks for letting his or her “other half” serve in children’s ministry.

10. Sunday brunch

Tim Poferl at Northgate Alliance Church in Ottumwa, Iowa, serves a training and encouragement brunch seven times a year on Sunday morning. When Poferl’s brunch replaces Sunday school (with substitutes in the classrooms), he has 95 percent attendance. The timing of the brunch encourages an already-busy volunteer force that finds it difficult to come to a weeknight meeting.

11. E-me!

Send a personal e-mail to your volunteers’ homes or offices. Rodney Hull, the children’s minister at Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, Texas, says, “It’s immediate, and it lets people know you were thinking about them.”

12. Special parking

Each month, have specially designated parking spots right next to the church with the names of your “volunteers of the month” posted.

13. Retreat

Chris Smyth, the children’s minister’s program assistant at Clovernook Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, takes a few of her volunteers away on a one-night leader retreat every year.


What’s your greatest encouragement? For me, it would be a pat on the back for a job well done or perhaps recognition in a staff meeting for an accomplishment. We all want to feel valued for the contributions we’re making in ministry. Why would our volunteers be any different?

Craig Jutila is the children’s pastor at Saddleback Community Church in Mission Viejo, California.

The Bottom Line

“You can impress people from a distance but you can only impact them up close.” — Howard Hendricks

“Anxious hearts are very heavy, but a word of encouragement does wonders!” — Proverbs 12:25 (TLB)

10 Encouragement Tips

  1. Accentuate the positive.
  2. Be liberal with praise.
  3. Compliment frequently, sincerely, and in public.
  4. Greet people by name.
  5. Keep a file of people’s hobbies or special interests.
  6. Work on your self-image. You can’t love others if you don’t love yourself.
  7. Give credit where credit is due. Don’t steal their thunder.
  8. Ask, “How can I help?”
  9. Give appropriate challenges. People are bored when they’re not challenged.
  10. Listen!

10 Discouragement Tips

  1. Underestimate people’s potential.
  2. Remove their reward.
  3. Show a lack of confidence in them.
  4. Expect immediate results.
  5. Don’t support them.
  6. Magnify their mistakes.
  7. Ignore their successes.
  8. Understate the role they play.
  9. Treat the task as more important than the person.
  10. Talk!

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

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