Leading Volunteers

Here are some things to keep in mind when money isn't a factor.

Since many of us who serve in ministry end up leading volunteers, the editors at Gifted for Leadership wanted to find out how leading volunteers differed from leading paid staff. So we asked Nancy Beach, a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church as well as a GFL editorial advisor, who has vast experience in leading staff, volunteers, and the staff who lead volunteers.

Gifted for Leadership: What is the difference between leading a group of volunteers and leading paid staff?

Nancy Beach: My very first reaction is there aren't a lot of differences. I think many times we think that, because people aren't getting paid, they're automatically motivated differently or that they need to be led differently. But what I've observed over the last several years is that in church work, the staff isn't in it for the money anyway—they are motivated by someone who is leading them toward a cause.

And I think the vision of what you're trying to do and why has to be really clear for both volunteers and staff.

So it's about getting people excited about your vision, whether they're paid or unpaid?

Yes. But then the other thing that's so clear to me is that both volunteers and staff people, if they're really going to make it—go the distance and hang with you for a long time—it's going to be because of another need being fulfilled, which I think is community.

I think it's so important for both volunteers and staff to feel somebody knows them, knows their life outside of the church, and cares about their personal struggles and their family and health and things like that. So I've just been very intentional about that.

How so?

Volunteers can feel used and sort of spit up very easily in church, unfortunately. They can feel as though the only thing people care about is that they show up and do the task. And I think a lot of good leadership is looking at them as whole people, recognizing that volunteers are going to go through seasons where they have to take a little break. Or maybe because of something going on in their family or their work, they can't be as big a contributor in terms of their time as they once were.

But if you have a long-term view of leading them, you see that there will be ebbs and flows, and you care about the whole person. And if you have a short-term view, you just try to pump people up to do something noble and very time-consuming for a bit. And just about anybody can do that, but my question would be: Are those people still going to be with you two or three years from now?

What's the best way to get to know volunteers when you don't have a lot of time for socializing?

Maybe people could come 15 or 20 minutes earlier or stay a little bit longer, and go around in a circle and just ask each other some simple questions: "What was the high point for you last week and what was the low point?" "How can we pray for you this week, specifically?" And as soon as you ask a question like that, you're going to get something substantive out of that person's life that will then allow you to know them a little better.

Volunteers are longing for this so much, because God wired us up to want community. If they're going to walk away feeling more known, they will give a little more time.

Nancy Beach is a speaker, author, visionary leader, and champion for the power of the arts and artists in the local church. She served for more than 20 years as the programming director for Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago.

Interested in learning more about successfully supervising the leaders of your church's small-groups ministry? Check out these training downloads from BuildingSmallGroups.com:

  • Creating a Plan to Strategically Develop Small-Group Leaders: Building a solid corps of committed and skilled leaders requires strategic planning. Explore how to craft an intentional, strategic and proactive plan for developing current and future small group leaders in your church context.
  • Intentional Shepherding: Shepherding others can be an intentional experience. Discover what it means to intentionally shepherd people within your sphere of influence.
  • Sharpen Your Shepherding Edge: Explore how spiritual practices and sacred pathways can enrich the spiritual lives of leaders and help them model intimacy with God to their small groups.

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