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Empowering and Leading Volunteers

By Jonny Radcliff

August 18, 2020

My Volunteers Aren’t Committed

Leadership has one frustrating ingredient: people. You can be the champion of the vision. It can be directly from God. But you can’t do it without people. And people can be tricky to corral.

There are going to be times in leadership where you feel like you are not on the same page as your volunteers. This could range from poor follow through, no communication, showing up last minute – or hey, not show up at all. Frustrations mount, then accumulate. As time goes by, your trust in your volunteers erodes, and your passion gets replaced by a sense of cynicism.

It may sound extreme, but this is true: feeling like you are ministering alone is the quickest path to burnout. A dedicated volunteer team who is bought in to the vision is essential to accomplish what God has called you to in your area. So what do you do if you feel like your team isn’t as committed as you need?

Human nature would tempt you to blame the team. But you’re better than that.

And since you are, here are four checkpoints to see what you, as the leader, can do to increase your team’s buy-in.


Articulated Expectations

I remember one time where I was on a completely separate page of a prospective volunteer. I was running him through my typical interview process. I went deep into our vision, beliefs, program arrangement – all of it. He nodded along, asking probing questions as fit. Once I got to the expectations page, his face dropped a bit. About halfway through I could tell something was up. He then showed his cards when he said this: “I was thinking I could just show up.”

It was in this moment we found the gap of expectations.

Many feel that “just showing up” will satiate what we are looking for on a volunteer team. After all, they’re not getting paid. Isn’t something better than nothing? There are plenty of volunteers who think they are doing exactly what’s been asked of them simply because they have not been told what is asked of them.

If we do not front-load the expectations that showing up is not enough, then we only have ourselves to blame if a volunteer isn’t fulfilling our expectations.

When I was a younger leader, I tended to undersell my expectations to a prospective volunteer. The hope was to do whatever I could not to scare them off. Then, after logging some months of service, THEN hopefully I could ask more of their commitment.

What a disingenuous approach. Needless to say, operating this way will ensure a higher turnover of volunteers. It wasn’t that I was being intentionally deceptive; it’s just that I needed people – BADLY – and wanted to fill the position with hopes of flexibility on their part.

Write down expectations. Present them to the volunteer. Hearken back often.


Areas of Ownership

A mentor implanted a philosophy in me at the beginning of my time in ministry that has greatly informed how I operate. It is a notion that doesn’t come naturally for most leaders. Still, the leader that is able to harness this reality will be set up for sustainable fruit over the years.

Here’s the phrase: It is your job to give your job away.

Sounds like rough job security, doesn’t it?

Although you may have been hired because of your talents and gifts, your mission is to unleash that in others. The more you do this, the more you are able to entrust to others, thereby rendering you the opportunity to blaze new trails and disciple new people.

You love preaching, but would sharing the pulpit allow others to develop their gifts and fall in love with it too? You are the one expected to make hospital visits, but what if you brought someone along and enabled your church to see another shepherd operate in their gifting? Could another qualified individual plan that event almost as well as you could?

We have more inner turmoil delegating away the facets of the ministry that give us life more than the ones that drain us. But these areas – yes, even the ones often deemed “by lead pastor only” – ought to be distributed to qualified men and women. After all, Ephesians 4:12 says that your role is in place to “EQUIP the saints for the work of the ministry.”

Your work is to empower others to do the work. Hoarding the ministry leads to a lack of interest for your team. Give away responsibility and you will breathe life into a leader.


Constant Encouragement

I want to be Joseph. No, not Disco Coat Joseph. And not the father of Jesus either. I want to be the Joseph of Acts 4. You know him by a different name. Apparently this “Joseph” was quite the uplifter, so much so that they gave him the nickname “son of encouragement,” which translates to us today as Barnabas.

We need to be the Barnabas of our teams.

Many volunteers are balancing jobs, schedules, kids, and everything in between, all the while trying to be faithful to their role in the church. Serving can often feel as one more thing on the to-do list, limiting their ability to recharge. Some roles have very limited visible return on investment too. It can get discouraging.

So how are we adding fuel back into our volunteers’ lives?

A leader ought to constantly evaluate if they’re taking more than they are giving. Do you only message that one volunteer to ask a favor or do you ask them how their day is going? Are your team emails only focused on the next task or do you celebrate what the team has done? Do you take opportunities to brag about a person’s willing heart when you are speaking to other people?

Serving in a thankless role will lead to higher turnover – guaranteed. Be the Barnabas of your team. Lavish them with praise. Send them random gift cards. Do everything in your power to let them know that they are appreciated for who they are, not what they give.


Space to Champion THEIR Vision

February 4, 2018 was one of the happiest days of my life. No, it’s not my anniversary. And no, it’s not the birth of a child. It’s the day the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl.

This event gave us one of the most memorable sports moments ever: the Philly Special.

Cameras caught a historic exchange between quarterback and coach. Conventional wisdom suggested that the Eagles ought to kick a field goal. But Nick Foles, the quarterback, suggests running the trick play. The coach, Doug Pederson, pauses, nods his head, then utters the phrase “Yeah, let’s do it.”

The play is executed perfectly and is instrumental in the Eagles 41-33 win.

But some, upon looking back on that play, have stated that the quarterback ought to receive the credit for the play. After all, he’s the one that suggested it. Isn’t it indicative of poor leadership that the coach didn’t make the play call?

No. The coach, the one obtaining the authority, recognized great vision and allowed his subordinate to carry it out.

The same is true when serving the church. There have been too many volunteers who, full of passion and energy, have been turned away by leadership. Nothing is more deflating.

Is there space for gifted leaders to create in your ministry? Are you coming alongside of their passions and ideas, or are volunteers just drones to carry out your mission?

The healthiest teams are able to create the “how are we going to do this” together. The mission and vision ought to be heavily directed by the leaders – no doubt. But is there enough room in your sandbox to allow other kids to build a sandcastle too?

If you are able to make a culture that welcomes new ideas and frees people up to run with them, you will certainly have a more bought in team. And the great news is that you’ll find that it will often turn out better than if you were the originator and executor.

When the whole team wins, it doesn’t matter if the coach or the quarterback called the play.


Final Thoughts

If your team is feeling less committed than you’d like, do the hard work and evaluate what you can do to change that. Perhaps one of these four areas needs a season of extra attention from you.

I’ll leave you with this final thought from James 1:5, “But if anyone of you lacks wisdom, let him ask from God who gives to everyone simply, and does not reproach, and it will be given to him.”

About the Author

Jonny Radcliff is the Student Ministry Director at Storehouse Church and the Philly Area Coordinator at National Network of Youth Ministries. He lives near Philly with his wife and the three little monsters that they rear together. His 10+ years of youth ministry have been spent in Indiana and Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Liberty University and Grace Theological Seminary.