Pastoring Your Volunteers
By Mark Harper
I still remember the day I changed my strategy for recruiting and training volunteers. It was a cold winter morning in 1987 and I had just accepted a new position as a Children’s Pastor at a church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
I was frustrated because yet another volunteer had informed me they were stepping down. Like most children’s pastors, I was one of the last ones to leave the building. This memorable day my pity party was approaching epic proportions when I bumped into the head usher, Phil Winn. When I saw Phil I thought, “I wish I had the people that Phil has in his ministry.” (It seemed to me that the best men in the church were on the usher team. It was kind of like the Marines.)
I heard that still small voice inside me say: “Why don’t you talk to Phil? Maybe he knows something that you don’t know.” I explained my problem to Phil. “What do you do if everybody wants to quit and it starts a domino effect?”
Phil looked at me with his patented incontestable gaze and stated, “We don’t let our people quit. Sometimes the Lord will promote them and lead them to another ministry, but if they just want to quit, we don’t let them”
As I thought about Phil’s comment, he said something I have never forgotten:
“We find that when people get involved in serving the church, they stay in the church. The reverse is also true. If people don’t get involved in ministry, they end up leaving the church. I don’t like losing good people, but more importantly, I want them to stay connected to the church. If somebody wants to quit, I always ask him or her: “What ministry are you going to serve in?” If they don’t know, I stay connected to them until they either come back to the usher ministry or hook up with another ministry.”
A light turned on: to get someone involved by serving in children’s ministry is actually in their best interest.
Phil wasn’t just trying to get something out of people; he really cared about the spiritual well-being of his team. Phil was doing something that I didn’t know to do. He was “pastoring his volunteers.”
“Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (I Peter 5:2-3).
Peter offers us three of the four steps needed for pastoring volunteers:
1 Be an example to your volunteers. A good leader never expects from his followers what he doesn’t first expect from himself. Isn’t it amazing how many children’s pastors never participate in the main service or sit under their pastor’s ministry? I’ve actually seen children’s pastors get upset when their pastor asks them to be in at least one service per week. Your volunteers are watching your example.
When you are traveling with your children, what do the flight attendants tell you to do if the oxygen masks appear above you? Do you put the mask on your child first? No, you put on your mask first, and then you help your child. If you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t have any life left to minister to your child. The same is true in ministry. Ministry is so busy that I have to fight for my time to attend church, read the Word, and spend quality time in prayer, but if I don’t do it, I won’t have anything to give to my leaders.
2 Get a vision for each volunteer. Think about some of your key volunteers. Where do you see them a year from now? Do you see them always doing the same thing or can they grow into a new position? Do you see them overcoming their weakness?
As I am writing this, I’m thinking about a young man named Bill who started to help me when he was 12 years old. I saw that Bill was creative and had a gift for puppetry. I asked him to join our outreach team. (We traveled to do Kids’ Crusades at other churches.) Bill loved it and was a real asset to the team.
Bill also had some negative qualities. Sometimes he was cocky, which came off as disrespectful when he would talk to adults (causing some embarrassing moments), but I never gave up on Bill. Some of the church leaders would say things like: “Why do you take Bill with you on the road? I couldn’t stand being with him for five whole days.” When I resigned four years later, Bill was 16 years old, and people were saying, “That Bill sure has a lot to offer” A good leader is someone who knows how to develop gifts in others when there is little to be seen on the surface. Ask God to show you how to develop their individual gifts and, in doing so, you will get a vision for each volunteer.
3 Feed your volunteers. I’m not talking about coffee and donuts. I’m talking about ministering to your volunteers. Jesus told us “to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.” The word “disciple” means “a taught or trained one.” We can’t only train volunteers. We have to feed them the good Word of God. If children’s pastors would pour themselves into their volunteers with the same passion they pour themselves into their kids, then people would know that the leader cares about them personally and we wouldn’t have any recruiting problems. The spiritual growth of your kids is limited to the spiritual growth of those volunteers that are ministering to them.
4 Train your volunteers. According to W. E. Vine, a pastor is “a shepherd, one who tends herds or flocks, not merely one who feeds them”A pastor gives people an opportunity to serve.
The biggest thing I look for in a volunteer is commitment. Commitment is first base. You can’t train somebody who doesn’t show up for the class. You can’t train somebody who misses all the training sessions. Jesus expected commitment from his disciples: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”
Raise the bar of commitment and you get more committed people. “Yes, but I am going to lose a lot of people.” You just lose the uncommitted ones. It’s not good stewardship to pour a lot of time into people who don’t want to be pastored. Jesus taught the multitudes, but He was selective about whom He put a lot of time into.
The first two weeks is very important when training volunteers. Don’t just give them instruction and correction, but make sure you catch them doing something right and praise them for it.
I vividly remember my infamous first Sunday teaching in children’s church. I was 19 years old and I was serving at a church that was experiencing tremendous growth. The children’s pastor asked me to help in the preschool class which had eighty 3, 4, and 5-year-olds in one big room.
Jeanne (the lead teacher) took one look at my fearful disposition and put me out of my misery with the statement, “Why don’t you just watch today?” I nodded my head in relief. After class Jeanne gave me an assignment, “I want you to watch this filmstrip.” This was 1978, long before DVDs.
“I like the art on the filmstrip but I don’t like the story. I want you to rewrite the story and tell it next week.” I was so excited. I had been in training for six weeks and this was my first time to get up in front of the kids. I began my preparations for the big day.
One week later I found myself stunned, standing at the front of the class, staring back at the faces of 78 distracted kids and two that were slightly interested. I totally lost the class. Not knowing how to stop and ask the kids to be quiet, I just kept telling my story and turning the knob on the film strip projector. Negative thoughts raced through my mind:
“This is not your calling,” and “You stink at this.” I was only at the starting gate and I was already set to quit.
After class Jeanne approached me with genuine excitement and said “Oh, you did so well!”
“Yes,” she said, “you told the story from your heart. We can really use you!”
I understand now that I didn’t do a great job telling my story that day. I know a lot more about storytelling today; however, if Jeanne had tried to bring a lot of correction I might have quit before I got started. Jeanne saw something of value inside me and knew that I needed encouragement on that first day. When you are training volunteers, catch them doing something right and praise them for it.
Take the time to pastor your leaders. They are worth the investment.
This article “Pastoring Your Volunteers” written by Mark Harper is excerpted from K! Magazine the May/June 2008 edition.