Volunteers aren’t employees. When you’re leading in a church setting, there isn’t a single person involved who doesn’t have the real option of being somewhere else. With the consumer mindset that many people bring with them to church, despite all that we could rightly say about how a person’s commitments ought to run deep, and how they should be willing to give leaders the benefit of the doubt, or how they ought to work for God and not because they need to receive affirmation, the truth is that unless people like working with you, they won’t.
In my experiences, people who have formerly been in business or military settings have a hard time transitioning into ministry leadership. Even if they do well at it, they will struggle with how to address people’s lack of commitment, poor performance, or unreliability, which they know could never fly in another setting.
One of the more interesting books I’ve ever read is Freakonomics. The authors show a lot of strange correlations between supposedly unrelated things. The book taught me an important lesson that in almost every situation, people do what they are incentivized to do. Follow the money, and you will almost always find your answer for people’s behaviors. This is part of the struggle for people in secular settings to move into church settings. It is good to treat your employees well and you are wise to do so, but you can get away with cutting some corners because in the end, you’re paying them to work for you.
In this kind of system, churches are already at a disadvantage, because a majority of incentives for living like a Christian are assumed to be intangible. “I’m working for my heavenly reward.” It’s actually harder than that, because not only are you wanting them to work for free, you are also hoping they will donate to the cause. The Christian life is not for scrooges or slackers. Even though many people have lived powerful lives from a desire to be rewarded with eternal life in the presence of God, I think most if not all of us appreciate a little extra encouragement along the way. Where it might be easy to see the ten things they are doing wrong, you have to learn to praise the one or two things they are doing right.
Why work with you?
You’ve got to be asking this question in church leadership. People will work for God if they are Christians, but they have their choice of churches where they would choose to serve. Why would they decide to work with you personally? Just like in any other area of life, you’re going to need to incentivize the behavior you want to see, and you’ll have to do it in ways other than financial.
One of the greatest insights I’ve found into leading volunteers, I take from Maya Angelou. People will often forget what you say or do, but they will never forget how you made them feel. It’s true. Think of your relationship with a cherished family member. You couldn’t begin to remember every individual experience with them, but the thought of them makes you feel a certain way. Did you have a nemesis in school? A bully or an unfair teacher? You might remember some specific instances, but more likely you can feel a wave of emotion flow through your body, just at the thought of them. This reality can work for us or against us, and it is one of the best assets that we have.
If there is one posture that every church leader should cultivate toward all people, it is a posture of gratitude. Think often about what you are grateful for. Look for what people are doing to help your church be strong, recognize that they are choosing to do it, and go out of your way to say, “Thank you. We are a better church because you are serving the way that you do.” There are things that every volunteer needs to feel emanating from you.
“I know and respect that you are a busy person.”
Most reliable volunteers have a track record of reliability in many parts of their lives. People’s time is their most valuable asset. Even though they ought to give it to God, it is still great that they choose to give it. Every time they talk to you, it should be clear that you respect their time. You show up on time and prepared. You thank them. You don’t feel entitled to one second of their time, and you appreciate the opportunity to work with them. In fact, if they have to tell you no, you also don’t hold grudges for when they need to set personal boundaries. It’s ok. No guilt trips.
“Here is what I’m needing.”
Get to the point. People don’t want to waste their time on projects that lead to nowhere. If you ask someone for help, give them a clearly defined goal for what their efforts should produce. They shouldn’t have to be in limbo waiting for you to know what you’re wanting. If you leave them in limbo, they won’t be anxious to work with you again.
“Here are the limits.”
Let people know the two banks of the river. How much is too much? How much is not enough? Assuming that most projects require a budget, let them know a realistic budget for how much you’d want to be spent, or what threshold you hope to stay within. I have known several financial leaders at church who liked to tell volunteers, “Just do what you need.” Their intent was to be empowering, but this approach almost always led to the frustration of the volunteers because it was simply too vague. “What is too much? Will they get mad at me if I go over?” Tell them what they can do, and if you can, let them know it’s ok to ask for more if the initial budget is insufficient. Projects always go better when volunteers know what they can realistically spend.
In areas other than finances, use the same practice. What would a good version of this project look like? What would be something you don’t want it to become? What would be overshooting what is needed? Clarity, clarity, clarity.
“How are things going?”
Follow up with people. You shouldn’t scold volunteers who appear to be slacking off, but you can ask in a positive way about the status of things. People don’t usually need any help feeling guilty for what they can’t get done. But by asking about progress, you let them know you care about the work they’re doing.
Simple enough. People who worked for you voluntarily, even if only in a brief or simple way, need to know that their effort matters to you. There are a lot of ways to say, “Thank you.” It might be wise to think about the personality of the person you are thanking to determine how they would want to be appreciated.
- Public acknowledgment. For larger projects especially, stand them up and let people appreciate them.
- Letters. Keep some stationary handy, and take the time to write a note to say “thank you.” Email works, too, but letters are so rare these days, they tend to have a big impact.
- Positive gossip. This is one of my favorite methods. If you really appreciate what someone is doing, tell people other than the person about how well they are doing. Gossip works both ways. If you spread good rumors about a person, it will get back to them. It is quite an honor to find out someone said good things about you through second-hand sources. If I am especially pleased with someone, I will tell them, but I will also tell at least three other people.
“Look what a difference this has made!”
Later down the road, are there ways you can continue to point to something a person did in the past that is producing good fruit? People tend to have a long memory for their shortcomings, but a short memory for their victories. You should be different. Mark your calendar with specific dates of major acts of service and accomplishments. Follow up when you no longer need to and say, “Have you seen the way this is still helping people? Are you aware of how much of a difference this made? Every time I see this, I remember how hard you worked to make it possible. I’m really grateful for you.”
Let your gratitude run deep and have a long memory for what good things people have done.
What Memories We Keep
Make it as easy as possible for people to work with you. Whatever they’ve done, even if it’s a small thing, make it feel like one of the better memories of their life. Make them feel like they made a good decision to live into the greater Gospel story of what God is doing through our church. Make things so that every time they think of you, they have feelings that rush over them of being loved, appreciated, and encouraged.
People gravitate toward what gives them life. Do everything in your power to make serving your church feel like the thing they can’t get enough of.