The dictionary calls a volunteer

1. a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking.
2. a person who performs a service willingly and without pay.

I call them irreplaceable!

Generally speaking when people sense they belong to a worthwhile cause they support it. They give their time, money, energy, expertise, skills, sweat, prayer, loyalty, miles driven, vacation time, talent, even sleep!

Independent Sector indicates that volunteered time is currently worth $18.04 an hour in the U.S. If your church has a healthy, vibrant community of volunteers associated with it, you’re tapping into a substantial resource!

Respect and treat your volunteers well and they’ll amaze you with their loyalty, willingness to sacrifice and faithful service year after year. I’m convinced that effective managers of volunteers are THE best managers since personal commitment is all that holds a volunteer in place. Let that commitment wane, or worse yet damage or abuse it and you’re in trouble. “No thank you” or “not this year” is all they have to say and they’re gone.

I’ve found (and have been taught) six things that go a long ways in creating and maintaining a healthy community of volunteers. Help yourself to these and use them in good organizational health. Naturally I’m thinking about church ministry as I write, but these transfer easily into other venues.

  1. Pray for them. Don’t make a show of it, just pray for them. Oswald Chambers said “When men work men work. When men pray, God works.” By praying for your volunteer teams you invite and invoke God’s involvement in day to day ministry and in the lives of people they touch first-hand. I served for several years with a pastor who went over to the church every Saturday evening, walked through the sanctuary, aisle by aisle, section by section, praying for whoever would happen to sit there the next morning. Those places where a family sat in the same place each week he could pray for them by name. He walked the platform, praying for the worship team that would lead the next morning. He walked through each Sunday School room, praying for teachers and pupils, asking God to work the next day. He didn’t make a big deal of it; I was one of his associates for several months before I learned —quite by accident— of how he faithfully prayed for our volunteers. No WONDER God blessed!
  2. Communicate with them. Keep them informed. When a member of your volunteer force knows more than the average attender he or she is able to serve with understanding. Discover the two or three ways your volunteers most-like to receive information and put those tools to work. It doesn’t have to be glitzy or polished, just pertinent information, clearly stated. Don’t be afraid to say “this is subject to change or review, but as it stands right now, a…b…c…” When a volunteer feels like he or she is in the know, loyalty stands taller, service comes more easily and dis-satisfaction evaporates more readily.
  3. Listen to them. Hear their concerns. Don’t just hear them out so you can go back to what you were doing. I’ve done that a few times too many and have lived to regret it. Hear their concerns so you and your organization can grow (and remember, growth doesn’t mean just numbers!). Who cares more than a devoted volunteer? Mom – maybe. Knowing they care, respond with respect and appreciation for their insight and courage to speak up, especially if the subject is an uncomfortable one at the time. Each of your volunteers have eyes, ears and a heart for your church or organization that extend beyond your own. If you can make full use of their observations and suggested improvements or solutions, you’ll be glad you did. Granted, whiners sometimes volunteer but that’s OK, they’re not the core of your corps.
  4. Feed ’em! When you call everybody together for a meeting, feed them! It’s amazing. Everybody comes. People talk while they munch and sip. It’s easier to talk to a group when tummies are quiet and smiles prevail. I learned this the hard way years ago. I had a quarterly volunteer meeting on the calendar and the afternoon-of, I set the room attractively for the 75 I expected. My handouts and PowerPoint were in great shape and ready in plenty of time. Five came. I was distraught! How are we ever going to move ahead in step with each other if we don’t all know what’s going on?!! All kinds of questions and mis-givings swirled in my head. I picked up the phone and called a friend who’s great with volunteers, hundreds of them. “What am I doing wrong?!” I wanted to know. “Did you feed them?” “no” “Do you usually?” “no” “Start feeding them. Have munchies, punch and coffee waiting for them when they arrive, decaf if it’s an evening meeting,” said the cheerful voice in my ear, “They’ll start coming; some will start coming early! I’m serious. It works.” Take it from me, it DOES work.
  5. Thank them. Acknowledge your volunteers individually for what they do, and how well they serve. It’ll make their day. Be sincere, don’t gush, but let them know you’re grateful and appreciate what they bring to the team. Face to face works best, but phone calls, E-cards, notes in the mail work too, especially if you don’t use the same device time after time. Let them know you value their contribution to the ministry — you’ll strengthen the team, encourage a heart, and keep the doors open for future blessing.
  6. Honor them. Some enjoy being called up front once in a while so the congregation can see, acknowledge and thank the team with rousing applause. Others hate that! They’d rather give from the shadows and stay there. So how to honor them? Respect their wishes and vary your approach. Try this for six months and see if you like its results. Put an appreciation plan in place only you and your leaders know about. Over time express appreciation in terms each person or family will appreciate most. For some it will be a gift card. For others, an invitation to come over for ice cream sundaes on your deck some summer evening. For another, a memento. Be creative, taylor-making your expressions to the personalities of those on your team.

Oh – and when a volunteer thanks you for your kindness as a leader, smile and limit yourself to four words, “You’re welcome. Thank YOU!”