When I first started in children’s ministry, my ministry consisted of 75 children, in six classrooms, managed by 13 very faithful volunteers. One year later, the ministry had grown to 150, expanded into two buildings, and I had recruited 10 new volunteers. But at the end of that first year of ministry, only one of my 23 volunteers agreed to stay with me in children’s ministry. Truthfully, the only reason she stayed was because she’d been teaching three-year-olds for many, many years, and wasn’t about to quit just because of me! What I learned in that year has proven to be an invaluable lesson about volunteers.
Let me assure you of this, there really is no secret formula to getting and keeping volunteers who will embrace your ministry. However, there are a few simple steps you can implement that will make the process of gaining and retaining your volunteers one of the easiest and most pleasant (yes pleasant) parts of your ministry.
Step One: Remember why people volunteer
Most people volunteer because they want to make a difference. They want to be able to look back on their life and see that their life had meaning. They have a purpose and they want to find it and fulfill it. Yes, some people will serve because they feel like they have to. Your goal is to resist the urge to plug those people into your ministry. You want to find the people who “get” that their work in your ministry is going to change lives, including theirs.
Step Two: Your invitation is vital
How you invite people to serve in your ministry is critical. Are you desperate? Do you have and communicate low expectations? Do you give people enough information to really know what they are committing to? The way we invite people into our ministry sets the stage for their continued success. Sometimes just a few simple adjustments are necessary.
First, adjust your way of thinking. You are offering people the opportunity of life change when you invite them to serve with you. You are not offering a life sentence of weekly burden. Believe that and communicate it to people whom you invite into your ministry!
Second, adjust your vocabulary. Avoid desperation phrases. Even if the needs within your ministry become great and you feel desperate, don’t communicate your needs from a place of desperation. Remember, no one swims toward a sinking ship, they swim away from it! It’s instinctive. Desperation vocabulary includes phrases like, “We’re just desperate for volunteers right now,” or “I just need a warm body in the room,” or even “All you have to do is . . .” These phrases send a couple of messages. Your ministry doesn’t sound like much fun if you’re begging people to join it. The other message is that your ministry must be in trouble, and it makes people wonder if their kids are safe.
Third, adjust your expectations. Jesus clearly set forth his expectations. In Matthew 19, a young man asked what it took to be a disciple. Jesus answered, “Go and sell all the things you own. Give the money to the poor. If you do this, you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me!” His disciples understood that joining his ministry was going to cost them something, but it was going to be life changing.
It is critical that you communicate your expectations clearly. You can’t expect people to live up to your expectations if you don’t know what they are. These expectations should include:
- A written job description that fully describes what they will be doing.
- A title that fits the job (Jesus said, “I will make you Fishers of Men.”)
- A time commitment, including a start and end date.
If people fully understand what you are asking of them BEFORE they commit, more often than not, they will stay in your ministry a long, long time. And, much like Jesus’ disciples, they will bring others along with them.
Step Three: Constantly share the vision
Remember, people want to make a difference. Sometimes, when they are in the midst of the day-to-day work of children’s ministry, they lose sight of the difference they are making. It’s your job to connect the dots for them. Jesus did this masterfully by telling stories of life change. There are stories of life change all around you. Watch out for them, repeat them, and celebrate them. Tell your volunteers personally and specifically how they are making a difference. Don’t just say, “Wow Bob, you are really making a difference.” Say, “Bob, last week I saw you take that extra time with Billy when he was sad. You know his dad left recently, and he’s really been having a hard time. That little bit of extra time you took with him was incredibly meaningful and something he really needed. Thanks for impacting his life that way.”
And remember this phrase, “Vision leaks every two weeks.” Sharing the vision, the why-we-do-what-we-do, must be ongoing.
Step Four: Create community
One of the most common reasons I have heard people give for leaving children’s ministry is that they feel disconnected from other adults in the church. Even people who feel like they are really making a difference will cite this as a reason for stepping down. People need to feel like they belong to a community. You can and should create this community for them and it can be achieved in a variety of ways.
- Never let someone serve in isolation. Even if it’s a job that only requires one person, find a way for them to do it with someone else, or in a room where others are working, too.
- Have regular team meetings. Share life change stories. Share common struggles.
- Do something fun together. Every team meeting doesn’t have to be a training meeting.
- Pray together every time you get together. “Huddle up” before your weekend services. Let this be a big part of your time together.
Step Five: Make sure they feel valued
This is the most often overlooked part of our ministries. We are fairly good at celebrating our volunteers in big extravagant ways or with small gifts of our appreciation. These celebrations are important, and volunteers do love those coffeehouse gift cards, but there are other more significant ways to help them feel valued. In my mind, these are the most important.
- Know who they are. Know their families, their spouses, their children. Call them by name. In a small church environment, this might not seem like that big a deal, but the bigger you get, the more difficult this can be. It is VITAL.
- Know what they are good at and the areas where they struggle. Taking the time to celebrate their strengths and helping them develop their weak areas shows that you care about them. We tend to avoid this, but it is so important when raising up volunteers who will embrace your ministry.
- Write them a personal note from time to time. Nothing says love like time. Taking the time to send a personal, handwritten note has more value than you can even imagine. Every week I send out five handwritten notes to volunteers on my team. Every week I hear back from those five people telling me how valued they felt when they received it.
- And lastly, give your volunteers a way to share their ideas for your ministry. Create an environment where challenging the process is welcomed. Provide a simple way for them to communicate their ideas on an ongoing basis. For our weekend services, we have a card that each volunteer receives that asks for two things: “Share a story of life change you witnessed this weekend,” and “Share something that we can do to make our ministry even better.”
Raising up volunteers that will embrace your ministry depends on you. How profound is that? You make the difference in their lives, their commitment, and their love for your ministry. The more you love your ministry and believe in what you do, the more that will overflow to those you invite to serve alongside you. Children’s ministry … it really is the greatest place to serve.
Carol Jones is the Lead Children’s Pastor at WoodsEdge Community Church in The Woodlands, Texas, and the founder of Out of the Box Resources. She loves kids, but that’s not where it stops. She knows that reaching families in a life-changing way takes more than a village; it takes an army! It’s that mindset that makes her passionate about volunteers.