Keeping Watch: Supervising Volunteers in Women’s Ministries
By Scott Meeks
As the young white-tailed doe timidly steps from the protection of the dense forest into the golden light of a small ‘ clearing, a proud buck carries his antlers high, watching for danger and offering protection. Though no predator is in sight, the buck knows from experience that trouble can appear without warning. The buck allows the doe and those that follow her to step out on their own, but still he keeps sharp eye out for trouble.
This scene, Safe Passage, was painted by the great American artist Dalhart Windberg (windberg.com); a print of it hangs on my office wall. This stunning painting has always reminded me that as we empower those in our care-our volunteers-to step out on their own, we must also keep watch and provide them protection.
In Hebrews, the author instructs readers to obey and submit to their leaders who, in turn, “keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account” (Hebrews 13:17, NASB). As you supervise volunteers in your ministry, keep watch over your charges, like the proud buck in the painting, but allow them freedom to step out and explore their ministries. The rewards and returns your ministry will receive from empowered, healthy volunteers far outweigh any risks.
Your instinct tells you to protect and shelter your volunteers, which is good; you want to keep them safe and save them from hardship. But if you want volunteers to grow in service and dedication to ministry, you have to let them step out and take risks-risks that may bring struggle, pain, even failure.
In his book The Volunteer Revolution, pastor Bill Hybels says you can “sum up the key to finding the perfect serving niche… in one word: experiment.” Stepping into service is an experiment. Some experiments work; some might not. The process teaches us what works and what doesn’t.
Deanne, an outgoing and friendly mother of older teenagers, wanted to serve in the preschool ministry but she felt stressed within a few weeks of starting the new teaching position. Her family’s busy schedule kept her from adequately preparing to teach. But with the support of the preschool director, Deanne kept trying other avenues to serve. Finally she found her niche as a check-in assistant and hall security monitor. Now she gets to interact with children without the time required to prepare lessons; and her leader filled an important ministry role with a committed and enthusiastic volunteer. The last experiment yielded the desired result. Keep in mind that during all this experimentation, Deanne’s leaders were still keeping a watchful eye on her, but they let her risk by trying different positions.
Patty took over a complicated weekly scheduling task for her leader. She embraced the challenge but wondered if she couldn’t improve and simplify the cumbersome process. Timidly she broached the subject with her leader, fearing she might get “shot down.” But her leader gave her permission to try her ideas. So Patty revised the scheduling methods. She found that some of her ideas worked, and some didn’t; but the overall routine ultimately became much easier to manage. When Patty saw that her ideas were valued, she became more comfortable offering ideas and suggestions.
Leaders, rightfully, tend to be careful in making decisions that affect others. The desire to see our ministries prosper and people flourish makes us cautious and deliberate. Good leaders develop a nurturing approach toward their volunteers, just as a mother nurtures her children, taking special care in decisions that affect their health and well-being. When you model this care and concern, empowered volunteers in your ministry will do the same. As the leader, keep watch and step in only when you feel certain a decision will be harmful to the ministry, children, or families.
Leaders who micromanage their volunteers are unintentionally hurting them and themselves. After all, if we can do it all by ourselves, why do we need volunteers? The fact is, we do need volunteers, and we need to let them take partial ownership of the ministry. They’ll invest more deeply if they feel they have a stake in the ministry. Just as in business, people who are personally vested tend to put forth the best effort. They pay more attention to details and the final product, which in your ministry’s case is changed lives. So allow your volunteers to make decisions, formulate plans, oversee events, and evaluate their results. Their leadership potential will grow in the process.
Risk Success and Satisfaction
Remember when you were little and your mom put a pile of some strange-looking food in front of you and said, “Try it …you might like it”? You cautiously tasted the food, usually under compulsion, and braced yourself for sensory torture. On occasion, however, we were all probably surprised to find that we really did like the strange-looking food on our plates-and that small risk opened the door to a lifetime of enjoyment.
The same thing can happen when your volunteers “taste” new ministry experiences. They just might like it and enjoy it for years to come. Audrey hadn’t found a place to plug in and serve in her church. She loved kids but didn’t feel led to teach. The preschool coordinator asked her to help organize a resource room and fill supply orders from teachers on a weekly basis. Audrey cringed at the idea of adding another organizing job to her busy life, but the coordinator was persuasive. Reluctantly, Audrey “tasted” the job one week, found she liked it, and now enjoys great satisfaction through her behind-the-scenes contribution to changing kids’ lives. Your ministry can help people take a taste by offering a variety of tasks they can try as they search for the right role.
Risk Availability and Visibility
I enjoy home improvement projects. I get satisfaction from completing a job on my own. I get very frustrated, however, when I can’t find a tool or resource I need to get the job done. It’s like knowing the answer to your dilemma is close at hand but not being able to find it. That’s how volunteers feel when they need your help, experience, and expertise but you aren’t available. Leaders frustrate volunteers when they lessen volunteers’ effectiveness. Leaders have to be available to those they lead. That means being mentally present and approachable when team members need you. Remember, if a leader expects volunteers to take risks, the leader must be visible to volunteers while they’re in the field. In Windberg’s painting, the does can see the buck the entire time they’re taking the risk of stepping into the clearing. He is always present and watchful.
Most people enjoy learning new skills, especially if they’re learning something that’ll help them get better at a job they love. So part of leading your team involves teaching and training volunteers skills that facilitate their success.
Find the best sources of training and information, and make them available to your team. Lead the way in learning and personal development. Read, ask questions, explore methods and ideas, and network with other leaders-always. You should know more about your area of ministry than anyone else in your church. But at the same time, you should be open to ideas and suggestions from your team.
When leaders provide guidance, example, and protection, volunteers will risk-and thrive-in their ministry roles. The peace that comes from knowing they’re working under a watchful leader’s eye allows them to focus on the goal of their ministry: guiding others to the eternal safety of a relationship with Jesus.
Involved and Visible Leadership
Volunteers work more effectively for leaders they know and interact with often. Use this no-fail checklist to demonstrate your involvement and visibility.
* Know your volunteers by name; know their families.
* Know your team members’ personal needs and concerns; pray for them.
* Set the example; lead by doing.
* Praise often and in person.
* Communicate vision and change in person.
* Make eye contact when communicating.
* Unify your team members; mediate peace among them.
* Move among volunteers and encourage them regularly.
* Listen to your team members’ concerns and suggestions.
* Share personal knowledge and insights to make your team successful.
* Always give credit.
* Delegate responsibility, but exercise oversight.
* Don’t delegate communications tasks you can easily do yourself.
* Always train your substitute, or possible replacement.
* Use technology (phone, email) to communicate when you’re away from your team.
This article “Keeping Watch” by Debbie Meeks is excerpted from Ladies Ministry Magazine, March/April 2007.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”