Equipping Volunteers Builds a Strong Community Church

Equipping Volunteers Builds a Strong Community Church

September 2017—Volume 25, Number 9                         Copyright @ 2017 by Dana Horrell

Sociologist Joshua Packard describes an emerging population he calls the “dones.” They are “spiritual refugees” from organized religion who were once long-time members, but who pass through the exit door of the church and never look back. Though many reasons exist for their departure, a significant theme is the feeling of being of ignored or underutilized. “It's hard for me to be just a passive worshiper,” one of Packard’s interview subjects said. “I've got to do things. That's how I understand my faith and how I understand God.”[1]
Signs of Trouble
Marlene Wilson, a recognized specialist in volunteer training, explains that in many churches the Pillars do much of the work, fostering close and satisfying relationships within their clique and making a majority of the decisions. This can leave the Pewsitters with a lack of enthusiasm about getting involved. Additionally, while one can be part of an active core of volunteers and still experience a vague sense of dissatisfaction, Wilson describes some serious signs of trouble within any volunteer system.
The team leader or committee chair does all the work for the team. Though it is tempting to blame laziness, the culprit might be an overactive team leader. Imagine gathering for a team meeting where the leader lays out her vision for the team’s work, hands out printed material, and adjourns. Later, team members realize that the leader did all the talking. Unless team members are asked to contribute, it seems pointless to participate.
Leaders are asked to do several jobs at once—and retained for too long. When leaders juggle multiple tasks, they are unable to give their best effort to any one thing. Without an influx of new volunteers, the regulars may feel burdened and unmotivated. Some churches address this issue by refusing to allow anyone to be in charge of more than one ministry team.
Unrealistic time commitments scare volunteers away. The era when volunteers inhabited their jobs for a lifetime is over. “A major trend in volunteerism,” writes Wilson, “is that volunteers prefer three-, six-, or one-month assignments rather than longer commitments. The shorter time commitments fit better into volunteers’ busy lives.”
There is no system for coaching volunteers. Imagine being assigned a volunteer job with no one to be accountable to and no one to contact in case problems arise. Supervising is just as important for volunteers as it is for paid employees. The best approach is to create a documented process. Develop a coaching system and write it down.
Volunteers are more committed to the director than to the program. Inspirational leaders are never a problem—unless the leader leaves! Every team or committee needs a mission statement that answers the question, “What is our purpose?” and a written vision statement of where the team is heading.[2]
Discovery First, Equipping Second
Sue Mallory and Brad Smith lay out an equipping system for congregations structured around the journey a new member makes from entry to worship involvement to volunteer ministry.[3] At the heart of this equipping system is the discovery interview, which seeks to discover the abilities and interests of potential volunteers. It is best to recruit a team to conduct discovery interviews. Anyone who is able to ask open-ended questions and practice reflective listening would qualify. The interviewer should take prolific notes or use a pre-fabricated form to capture information. Some congregations use volunteer database software for its members, which is fine as long as confidentiality is respected regarding personal issues that might arise in the interview (see “Top 20 Volunteer Management Software Products,” http://www.capterra.com/volunteer-management-software for examples).
Here are some sample questions for a discovery interview[4]:
  • I would be interested in learning about your family. Tell me about. . .
  • What do you do (or have you done) to earn your livelihood?
  • What do you love doing?
  • What do you dislike doing and hope never to have to do again?
  • We seldom have the opportunity to share with others those things that we most enjoyed and felt we did well. Are there things you have accomplished that you are really proud of?
Matching and discovery are different tasks, and discovery must come first. Matching then requires a thorough review of the abilities, interests, and motivations of the potential volunteer before seeking to fill available slots. When matching, one should pay attention to not only positive factors, but also reasons why this might not be the best time to volunteer, such as exhaustion from previous service, personal crisis, or a significant life transition.
The Basics of Equipping Volunteers
Success in volunteer service requires encouragement and support. This is often called equipping, a reference to Paul’s call to leaders “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12, NRSV). Here are four keys to effective equipping.[5]
Apprentice your volunteers. In the Middle Ages, the apprentice served alongside the master, who provided instruction and guidance. The apprentice learned by doing. The effect here is that of the slow cooker or crock-pot, not the microwave oven. Demonstrate how it is done, and let it simmer.
Use a team structure. The problem with the solo approach is that we end up doing too much of the work ourselves. If you are launching a new project without a team in place, it risks collapse. If the size of your long-standing committee or team has dwindled over time, you risk burnout. Pay close attention to forming and sustaining the team.
Train for the work. Once you have a team in place, think about attending a training conference together, watching an instructional video, or visiting another congregation that does what you do. Observe and ask questions: What worked? What didn’t?
Develop leaders. While training prepares a person to complete a task, leadership development aims at developing the whole person. For instance, a church-operated food pantry may recruit new volunteers from its customers and train them to stock shelves or clean the floor. Then, invite volunteers who show interest and leadership potential to serve on the board or hold other leadership roles. With proper guidance, this customer-turned-volunteer might develop into a trusted leader. Leaders may come from anywhere.
How Volunteer Ministry Feeds Us
Equipping others for the work of ministry, Paul writes, serves to build a strong, diverse community called the body of Christ. Where do you fit into that community? Are you a Pillar, a Pewsitter, or something in between? What would a discovery process look like with the newest members, your circle of friends beyond the church, the “dones,” and the “not-yet-dones”?
About the Author: The Rev. Dr. Dana Horrell, executive director of Faithful Citizen (www.faithfulcitizen.net) and United Methodist pastor, works to engage congregations in social ministry.
[1]Joshua Packard, “Meet the ‘Dones’,” Christianity Today, Summer 2015, http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2015/summer-2015/meet-dones.html.
[2]Marlene Wilson, Creating a Volunteer-Friendly Church Culture (Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2004), 47-53.
[3]Sue Mallory and Brad Smith, The Equipping Church Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 244-346. Also see Sue Mallory, The Equipping Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).
[4]Ibid., 287-288.
[5]Dan Entwistle, Recruiting Volunteers (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 39-50.


The Parish Paper

The Parish Paper offers "ideas and insights for active congregations" and is co-edited monthly by  Dana Horrell and Cynthia Woolever. Go to The Parish Paper page for other editions and information on reprinting.  

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