Supporting Ladies Ministry Volunteers
By Mark H. Senter
The idea of supporting ladies volunteers for their church work is a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to the early 1970s, the assumption was that the church (or any community) was supported by volunteers. Being part of a community meant serving that community.
In 1973, President Richard Nixon changed the nation’s understanding of volunteer service when he redefined volunteerism by paying members of the “all-volunteer army” a wage comparable to the private sector. Military volunteers (usually drafted, oddly enough!) no longer served only out of loyalty to the country, but increasingly for personal gain.
As with most cultural trends, the concept of supporting volunteers soon became a major concern in church. Biblically speaking, however, the idea of leaders serving (supporting) followers is not something new or inappropriate. Jesus himself stated, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).
Unfortunately, attempts by the church to support volunteers have sometimes resulted in a greater emphasis on what the leaders should do than on what the volunteers needed. Today it is accepted that a “one size fits all” volunteer-support system doesn’t work. But what does work? How can we specifically support our volunteers as they support the church?
The Readiness of Volunteers
Our supporting volunteers are dependent upon the readiness of those volunteers to be supported. Some Christian volunteers work with great freedom and productivity without significant contact with their supervisor; others feel frustrated and abandoned without frequent interaction with leaders. The apostle Paul demonstrated little need for support, while Timothy appears to have needed encouragement and affirmation on a regular basis. Their readiness for support differed.
Hersey and Blanchard (1988) define readiness as “the extent to which a follower has the ability and willingness to accomplish a specific task.” These two factors – a volunteer’s ability and willingness – tell the pastor how much and what type of support unpaid (and paid) workers in a ministry need. Consider the following types of combinations of ability and willingness in volunteers:
– Unable/Unwilling. Though this group may be a significant portion of the congregation, support activities aimed at them will elicit little volunteer ministry. Their insecurity about ministry skills and their lack of commitment to the work of the church confirms their roles as spectators.
So, Mr. Unable/Unwilling is a prevolunteer. He has not made the decision to invest time and energy in serving others in a structured manner. We can best support him by having those involved in ministries stay in contact with him. Should the time come when he moves beyond his insecurity, supporters will be there to help him get involved.
– Unable/Willing. For many people, the first step into voluntary service comes when they express a personal commitment to the church and offer to do a job, even though they feel insecure. This insecurity may stem from either lack of training or practice in fulfilling the task.
Ms. Unable/Willing, therefore, needs three types of support. If her skills are undeveloped, she needs formal training (frequently in classes) and the encouragement of a mentor/coach. If her skills are rusty from lack of practice, she needs supervised exercise with the skill or perhaps an apprenticeship that employs the skill. In both the training and the exercise, Ms. Unable/willing needs to have her willingness reinforced by meaningful relationships with fellow workers and those she looks to for leadership. The focus of the support system through all three means is skill development.
– Able/Unwilling. Experienced volunteers have an entirely different set of support needs. Skill is not the issue. For Mrs. Able/Unwilling, there is a relationship problem associated with the volunteer task. Support for this person comes from three directions. For the person who ministers directly to people (as do teachers, counselors, musicians), affirmation must come from those being served. For volunteers working in a team situation (such as departmental teams, club leaders, visitation groups), a positive spirit must exist. And for every volunteer, the support of related leadership members (such as pastors, department leaders, board members) is extremely important.
Church leaders can best support Mrs. Able/Unwilling by preventing relational breakdowns, which cause burnout and an unwillingness to serve. Once, however, a person has become unwilling to serve, even though she possesses the appropriate abilities, the supportive leader will seek to discover source of interpersonal strain and seek to reestablish a sense of fellowship in those relationships. Like wounds, damaged relationships take time and attention to heal.
At times, Mrs. Able/Unwilling may be unable to distinguish between the effects of damaged relationships (“It’s no fun anymore”) and unsubstantiated feelings of inability (“It’s obvious that I can’t do the job any longer”). When this happens, church leaders can best support the person by helping her discover new ways of employing eheriritual gifts.
– Able/Willing. Some people are bothered when others attempt to support them. They simply want to do the job for which they are gifted and perfectly capable. Attempts by others to support and even encourage them are felt more as interruptions than as support. Not surprisingly, the self-confidence of Ms. Able/Willing is sometimes mistaken for pride or cockiness, though in reality she is freeing leaders to focus on volunteers who need their encouragement.
The type of support Ms. Able/Willing does need, typically, is material rather than relational. Suitable supplies, appropriate space, and creative freedom, paired with an occasional word of affirmation, are more than enough support to keep her satisfied.
Ways to Offer Support
Given volunteers’ need to be supported, how can leaders meet this need? Four methods or styles of support can be employed effectively with volunteers, although they are most effective when used in conjunction with the readiness of volunteers, as described above.
– Teach/Tell. Narrative is perhaps the most significant means for supporting volunteers – telling the story of why volunteer service has been essential to the church and how it complies with the dictates of Scripture. Leaders must be storytellers and cheerleaders. Church leaders support volunteers by making heroes out of those who serve.
Telling the volunteer’s story in both formal and informal settings creates an environment where volunteer ministries flourish. It reinforces the commitment of those already involved, and it sets the stage for prevolunteers to affirm the ministry vision and to make initial ministry commitments.
– Encourage/Train. “Catch them while they are good,” suggests educator Glenn Heck. The idea is simple: compliment their strengths. Church leaders need to provide emotional support and opportunities for skill development for those who have stepped out and made themselves available to meet ministry needs. Unfortunately these are the people who are most often taken for granted by ministry leaders. To reinforce their responsiveness at this stage of their personal readiness, church leaders must discover the volunteers’ fears and visions in order to minimize the former and focus the latter.
To encourage and train usually means giving the volunteer the chance to practice appropriate ministry skills, whether in the classroom or in tutorial or apprenticeship opportunities. While many leaders think first of formal training sessions for supporting volunteers, apprenticeships with gifted mentors may be the stronger approach for leadership development.
How do we provide the emotional support volunteers need? Pastoral leaders can give volunteers encouragement, but the most enduring encouragement is most often supplied in the context of a small group of volunteers who are dedicated to the same task and who come together regularly to support and stimulate one another. Times of prayer are usually an important part of these meetings.
– Support/Discover. Many times volunteers gain the impression from leaders that they are appreciated only so long as they fulfill a role in the leader’s agenda (frequently a role prescribed more by organizational need than by the volunteer’s gifts). The wise leader realizes God has provided the local church with all of the spiritual gifts necessary to function in a healthy manner. All the leader needs to do is support the members of the Body, help them discover their areas of giftedness, and strengthen (or rekindle) their passion for ministry.
Supporting experienced workers usually means giving them the freedom to undertake ministries that are new to the church or to them personally. Failure, of course, is a distinct possibility when people venture into uncharted waters. But without granting volunteers the possibility of discovering new ways God can use them, there is little left for them to do except repeat the tired ventures of the past. If staffing the church’s ministries becomes less predictable, the creative energy available for ministry increases many times.
Discovery should be a central focus in supporting volunteers. Sometimes a hidden treasure of ministry giftedness will be discovered by the church leader who finds clues in places the volunteer cannot see because she is too close to her own cache. On other occasions, a volunteer’s giftedness will be recognized by the volunteer, and all he needs is the encouragement to unlock the newly found prize. In both situations, a respected ministry leader can serve as the catalyst for supporting the volunteer in his or her work.
– Affirm/Empower. Not every believer is willing or capable enough to launch into ministries or to bring about innovation in the church without close support and encouragement. But in most churches, there arc those few who, when given the freedom, will look at old problems in new ways and move to find solutions. Their greatest enemy is a church leadership that jealously guards its “right” to control what they do. If they are to do God’s work to the best of their ability, they need to be affirmed and empowered to do freely what God has called them to do. The only affirmation these people typically need is the vote of confidence granted by a pastor who occasionally asks, “Is there anything I can do to make your ministry easier?” Otherwise, the pastor stays out of the person’s way, and ministry happens.
Empowerment here has to do with removing obstacles: eliminating irrelevant policies and procedures, providing financial aid outside of budgeted sources or expediting financial support from approved sources, publicly affirming persons or ideas, networking innovators with other ministry entrepreneurs, and resisting traditionalists and nay sayers.
Having a grasp of the basic concepts of types of volunteers and styles of support, we are ready to consider practical applications.
– Paying Volunteers. Even though there will never be enough money to reimburse volunteers for their service, each person who donates time or energy to support the ministry of the church deserves to be “paid.” The nurturing leader will find ways to provide appropriate remuneration.
For some the only “salary” they need is the inner satisfaction of a job well done. For these people the supportive leader will be careful to get out of the way and remove potential obstacles to the successful completion of the desired tasks.
Most people feel rewarded by the public or private affirmation of leaders they respect. Hand-written notes of appreciation, personal compliments that identify specific actions, pictures of volunteers in action posted in a prominent place, acknowledgement made in worship services of specific volunteer activities, gifts of gratitude, and appreciation dinners all serve as means of “paying” volunteers.
For a few volunteers who provide specialized services or who invest unusually large amounts of time, payment may be made in the form of a nominal stipend. Seldom does the money actually cover the value or the services rendered, but it may provide enough income so that the person does not need to cut back on volunteer efforts in order to seek a modest income elsewhere. Al the least, it will tell the volunteer that the congregation values the specific service she or he renders.
– Observing Volunteers in Action. The word evaluation strikes fear in the hearts of most workers, salaried and volunteer alike. Unfortunately, the idea of having someone observe what we are doing and then commenting upon it gives us the feeling of being in fourth grade taking those geography tests for which we were never prepared. It means bracing ourselves for criticism.
Against this, supporting volunteers through classroom observation means finding strengths in what volunteers are doing and helping them build on those strengths. After obtaining the permission of the volunteer to visit his or her ministry, the pastor or leader might ask the worker what he should focus on during their time together. A Sunday school teacher, for example, might request, “Tell me how well I use questions in the lesson.”
The observer should always look for strengths upon which to build. Negative comments should be offered only when persistently sought by the volunteer. Suggestions on how to build upon strengths, and suggestions on resources that the volunteer might use to complement his or her skills, may be a further means for supporting the volunteer.
– Helping Volunteers Develop. Just as a tulip follows its natural course and blooms early in the spring – not just to be the first or the most colorful flower out of the ground – so volunteers blossom from their genetic code of giftedness, which God has placed within each believer. Pastors are farmers, cultivating the seeds and ripening the fruit of ministry.
Tom Peters suggests live means for helping people develop. In a ministry context, they could be explained as follows:
– Educate: This means orienting newcomers to current ministry expectations, training novices to master ministry skills, and facilitating changes in ministry expectations.
– Sponsor: This means enabling gifted persons to make special contributions to ministry and freeing a person from a task that has been outgrown.
– Coach: This means providing special encouragement before or after a first attempt at ministering and making simple, brief corrections in ministry efforts.
– Counsel: This means providing correction when problems have damaged effective ministry and providing specific training not accomplished through educating or coaching.
– Confront: This means eliminating persistent performance problems and relocating people inappropriately placed in ministry positions. Though confronting and possibly relocating a volunteer to a more appropriate area of ministry may not seem like an act of support, it may be the most compassionate action we can take, if it is done in a spirit of edification and encouragement (1 Cor. 14:12; Gal. 6:1).
– Creating Volunteer Communities. It is impossible for a church leader to provide all the support needed for workers in the church to have a sense of sustenance. She cannot pray with every volunteer, sense the hurt or frustration of each worker, or provide individual accountability for ministry-team members. It is not humanly possible.
Leaders need to create teams of workers who provide nurture for each other. Not only do they perform the same tasks, but they can also grow in their ability to care for and support each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Above everything else, this means the team members feel the freedom to express personal concerns with the full assurance the others will support them in prayer and, when appropriate, in tangible expressions of love.
A supportive community of volunteers can be fostered by pastoral leadership through five distinct actions. Spiritual leaders should (1) use Scripture in teach the importance of loving, caring ministry teams; (2) draw upon church life to illustrate the viability of supportive volunteer groups; (3) feature people who are part of encouragement teams by allowing them to testify in public services; (4) stimulate the development of new teams by putting people with similar passions together in ministry; and (5) demonstrate the importance of mutual support by being part of a small group that provides strength and encouragement for each other.
Making Support Happen
In churches attended by fewer than 200 people, support of volunteers is a spontaneous part of a healthy, witnessing community. Everyone who serves in a leadership position, except the pastor, is a volunteer. Sometimes even he is a volunteer. Most people know who is teaching the 3-year-olds, working in the club program, or ushering in the morning service. The network of relationships is limited, and as a result, volunteers have the luxury of being supported and encouraged by a majority of the congregation.
When the spiritual vitality of the smaller church begins to ebb, support systems tend to falter. People begin to feel isolated, taken for granted, and trapped in their ministries. If the smaller church is to regain its ability to have a significant ministry in the community, church leaders must accept the fact that the spontaneous support of volunteers by the people of the church may not be enough to sustain the spirits of those who serve in the discipleship ministries. Those leaders will need to initiate intentional support activities in order to bring about a revitalized ministry.
The larger a church becomes, the more “spontaneity” must be carefully planned. Church leaders will need to formalize the support activities that seemed so natural when the church was smaller. Though the pastor continues to be responsible to shepherd the flock of God (1 Pet. 5:2-4), he or she will need to discover people within the congregation who are especially gifted for supporting and encouraging volunteer workers and then empowering them to serve the body of believers and to support the volunteers of the church.
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.”