Are you volunteer poor? These volunteer debt management principles can help you turn a shortfall into a windfall.
When I was a child, my mom frequently said I must’ve had a hole in my pocket because my allowance came and went and I never noticed until I didn’t have the money to do the things I wanted to do. I had resources but I didn’t know how to use them.
My first three years as a children’s director weren’t much different. I married a department that was in the red, not financially, but organizationally. There were huge volunteer shortages, but I dreamed of building mountains. I was strapped. I couldn’t go forward without extending myself and my ministry precariously. Yet there was so much we longed to do.
It wasn’t until I took a hard look at the real reasons for our volunteer shortage and began using my existing resources wisely that I was able to attain stability and dream big. I began an ongoing system of volunteer recruiting based on debt management principles. And now, amazingly, we have an ongoing volunteer campaign that’s returned a child-teacher ratio of 5-to-1 in a community where 90 percent of homes have families with children.
Whether you have 10 kids in a rented facility or 1,000 kids in an auditorium, volunteer shortages hurt. Here’s how you can transform a volunteer shortfall into a windfall.
The Road to Freedom Through Volunteer Debt Management
If you’re understaffed, you’re in debt. No one likes debt. It causes sleepless nights and ups a person’s stress level significantly. But this debt isn’t money, it’s far more serious — it’s the lack of competent teachers, volunteers, or staff equipped to connect kids to Christ — real assets. If you’re in this situation, you know the heavy feeling: undue stress, anxiety, working with your hands tied behind your back, and feeling like you’ll never get over the hump. So where do you start?
1. Track your spending (or expending).
Once I’d made the decision to do something drastic about our volunteer shortfall, our ministry put a halt on all future goals and programming that wasn’t absolutely essential to Sunday mornings. It was an extreme measure; we had sports camp plans, small group plans, tricycle derby plans, parent group plans-you name it. But we realized that programming, like spending, is addictive because it gives you short-term gratification, just like buying a new dress or a new set of golf clubs. But if you don’t correct the roots of your shortage first, your programming will eventually spiral out of control and won’t be able to sustain itself.
When someone is in debt financially, the first thing to turn the situation around is to put a stop to extra spending. If you’re short-staffed, then don’t start a midweek program or a children’s choir. After all, who’ll do it? Your best, most reliable volunteers who always do everything? You can’t expand your program offerings without expanding your volunteer base; you’ll run your best volunteers into the ground in the process. When you’re facing a volunteer shortage, you have to put all your resources — people, energy, time, and funds — into your most critical efforts. We realized it was far more powerful and manageable to have one solid Sunday morning investment than several half-baked, poorly resourced programs.
2. Don’t use credit (or, stop asking for favors).
I’ve done it, I confess. “Please, just this one week.” “Hi, Mr. Barber. Hey, I need to ask a favor…” Recruiting on credit (read: guilt trips, begging, or personal favors) offers no solid return, and ultimately it can bankrupt you and wreck your credit history. Think about it. How do whiny entreaties or manipulative requests really help you build a solid volunteer base? And what do you do when you’ve exhausted every sublist, room assistant, pastor’s wife, and substitute custodian? Stop bartering in favors and guilt — like credit, they offer only bandage fixes for a deeper problem.
3. Create a cash cushion.
An emergency cash fund is insurance against future debt. If the laundry room floods, the roof leaks, or the transmission slips, a cash reserve protects you from falling into debt to cover unexpected costs.
Our ministry needed a reserve to withdraw from when we were broke. So we came up with a business plan for our ministry, and planned for what it would take to get us out of debt, how long the process would take, and the key players we needed to help us do it. We quickly realized that our biggest assets were our pastoral staff. We need them on board for vision casting, scouting, prayer, and support for parent involvement — and we need them to set an example by supporting the children’s ministry. Therefore, a good amount of our time went into helping pastoral staff understand our need and how a staffed children’s program impacts the whole. And there’s the cornerstone of creating a cash cushion of volunteers: Every church member is under the leadership someone on the pastoral staff. Win the pastors’ hearts, and the congregation will follow.
4. Prioritize your debts.
When you’re paying interest on loans, you reduce the amount of cash you could use for something else. In finances, the rule is to pay high-interest-rate debt first. The basic foundations of your ministry are your highest interest areas. Focus your resources there, but be wise about it. Do the required work. If you don’t have a volunteer application and screening process established and you recruit someone to begin next week, you’re setting your ministry up for failure. True, your position is filled on paper (you paid the minimum amount due), yet you may spend more time (paying late fees and higher interest) cleaning up the mess of having recruited a poorly equipped or uncommitted volunteer. Make it a priority to create a system that attracts quality volunteers and works for you rather than against you — the long-term payout will be worth any extra time or effort you spend.
5. Simplify and systemize your assets.
It’s natural to want to focus on things that add value and make our ministries more attractive — craft projects, bulletin boards, name tags, special events, and so on. Reconsider that urge: If your car looks good but doesn’t run, no one’s going to ride with you. When our ministry was in the red, we had to spend time, energy, and resources in areas that weren’t aesthetically pleasing — refining our volunteer manual, creating a more effective rotation, selecting a curriculum that fostered parent involvement, developing a volunteer pool that could lead to long-term positions. We had to build the foundation of a system that would work for us in the long term.
6. Plan a budget.
Once you’ve trimmed the fat, determine realistic goals for your ministry. Then figure out how you’ll reach them and write your plan on paper. The only way to stick to a budget is to be able to refer to it and track your progress.
Our plan was to create a One Week, Once a Month, for One Year campaign. Our staff and the pastor personally encouraged each family to have a parent join their child’s class one week per month for a year. This wasn’t based on our need for teachers but on the need for a partnership between parents and the church in building children’s spiritual lives. We not only developed the idea, we also developed a comprehensive marketing campaign, a system that made it simple for parents to sign up, and a system that would remind parents when their week was coming up. The end result? We stuck to our budget and ultimately increased our classroom volunteer base by 50 percent after two months of aggressive campaigning.
7. Refinance high-interest debt.
If you realize you can lower your mortgage rate and the number of years you’ll be paying on your house, it’s only smart to refinance. The same principle applies in ministry. You may not be getting a good return of volunteers because your current program is flawed. Don’t be afraid to consider that it may not be the congregation’s fault that there’s a lack of volunteerism. It may be your program. Seeing your weaknesses and changing them will only make your ministry stronger. Survey families, talk to kids, send in “secret visitors” for feedback, and champion change in areas that need work.
8. Seek debt management advice.
Find people who’ve lived through volunteer shortfalls, and ask them about their successes and failures. Every children’s program, no matter the size or shape, has been or will be in the red at some point when it comes to staffing. If you’re willing to ask, it won’t be difficult to network with people who know what it’s like. We set up a meeting at a coffee shop with as many children’s directors in the area as we could gather. It was incredibly helpful to hear what others did to adapt to or learn from their struggles.
Getting out of volunteer bankruptcy won’t happen overnight. It’ll take cutbacks, change, discipline, organization, buy in, systemization, strategy, and most of all, prayer and trust that God will bless your faithfulness. Trust that your hard work will pay off. You’ll begin to see results as you implement these debt management strategies. You’ll have the pleasure of watching your volunteer shortfall transform into a wonderful windfall.
Kerri Hock is an author and director of children’s ministries in Elk Grove, California.
Bonus: Smart investments
These three C’s are the basics of your volunteer structure because each — connection, cultivation, and celebration — serves a critical purpose in triggering your volunteers to flourish in their ministries.
It isn’t enough to simply invite individuals to serve. If you fail to make a strong and secure connection between the volunteer and ministry, you risk losing individuals who at one time had willingness and enthusiasm to serve. Efficient and effective connection takes planning.
- Get the facts. Gather specific information from your potential volunteers that’ll help them serve in the right area of ministry — the area that’ll tap their strengths and passions. Begin with straightforward and essential information: a volunteer’s abilities (what they love to do and are skilled at doing) and availability (when they’re able to serve).
- Make contact. Contact the individual personally and promptly. Individual contact lets someone know he or she isn’t just one number among many. Plus, when potential volunteers see your initiative, it may just be that extra bit of encouragement that confirms their decision to get involved.
As a leader, one of your most significant roles is cultivating the development of your team members.
- Offer freedom. Part of building volunteers’ passions and strengths is giving them the freedom to tread new ground in ministry, both on a personal level and a ministry level. You may experience mishaps and blunders as they figure out where they’re best suited for service. The healthy thing to do is to accept this
process as inevitable.
- Don’t force structure. As counterintuitive as it sounds, one of the most helpful suggestions is actually beginning without structure and instead releasing volunteers to experiment in service. There’s no guaranteed good outcome every time, but this approach helps you cultivate the volunteers’ strengths and passions that God has intended for them to use for his glory. And eventually, all of that experimenting will lead your volunteers to the ministry where they’ll thrive.
People have a natural need to know that they’ve made a lasting impact with their lives and their service, so showing gratitude and appreciation for those serving in your ministry is absolutely vital if you want to see your volunteers enjoying themselves and staying committed.
- Don’t let them wonder. As much as it’s within your power, do what you can to prevent your volunteers from ever questioning the significance of their service.
- Make it meaningful. Appreciation can be simple, but it should always be meaningful. Your goal for volunteers’ enjoyment and longevity in ministry requires a solid and well-planned structure as well as the more organic, personal, and unchanging truth of the simple and indispensable gift of relationships.
Erik Rees is the leader of Serving and S.H.A.P.E. Discovery at Saddleback Church. He’s the author of S.H.A.P.E.: Finding and Fulfilling Your Unique Purpose for Life (Zondervan).
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