In my former life, I worked as a Field Representative for a labor organization in New York. In addition to fighting for justice for nursing home workers in workplace disputes and negotiating employees’ contracts, a large part of my job responsibility was recruiting, training, and managing on-site delegates, who served as volunteer representatives at each nursing home. It didn’t take me long to learn that leading volunteers requires a totally different skill set and different habits from that which is used to lead paid staff.

There’s no question that volunteers are the engines that keep churches running. The mistake many church leaders make is letting their volunteers’ engines burn out or forgetting that volunteers have less of an incentive to stay if they’re suffering poor treatment or frequent frustration.

Here are five things you need to know about leading volunteers.

1. Make sure they fit.
One of the leading causes of volunteer burnout is having people serve in areas in which they’re not called or equipped to serve. One of the principles we can take from the corporate world is the job interview. Too many churches throw people into positions where they may not fit because of one aspect of their personality or experience, and never really get to know the person or attempt to find out whether the person will be able to work well with the leader. This also shows volunteers that you take the job seriously, and that you’re running a ministry, not a circus.

2. What’s In It For Them?
Though most job-seekers consider benefits, opportunities for advancement, and building up their resumes, the main factor most applicants consider is compensation. Since most church workers aren’t paid, it’s important that you as a leader can articulate what’s in it for them. It not only helps them to stay motivated, it also helps you to know how to develop their skills, talents, and gifts. Perhaps they are looking for a position where they can grow spiritually or professionally. Maybe they recognized a character flaw, such as impatience or pride and are looking for something that will help them develop patience or humility. Maybe they want to practice some skills they learned in school or are looking for an opportunity to socialize more after a recent life change.

Of course the rewards that come from God are the best benefits, but identifying other benefits will help keep your volunteers motivated. If volunteer work isn’t rewarding, volunteer workers won’t stick around too long.

3. Be Crystal-Clear on the Roles, Rules, and Expectations!
Just because you’re leading a team of volunteers doesn’t mean you can’t set expectations and rules. At the same time, leaders must know that what works on your day job may not work as well with volunteers. Make sure they know what is expected of them and what they can expect from you (this should come out in the interview process). Put everything in writing, and communicate clearly and adequately. At work, you can get away with changing things up at the last minute every month. At church, not so much. Don’t be too demanding or unreasonable, or else you might end up having an army of grumpy, resentful, or burned out volunteers. Some things you shouldn’t do:

  • Yell. Actually, you shouldn’t yell at paid staff either, but especially not at volunteer staff. Totally uncool, either way.
  • Work their fingers to the bone. Keep in mind unpaid church workers have lives outside of church: jobs, families, hobbies. Don’t demand too much of their time and don’t make them do the work of 2 or 3 people. Either YOU do it (that’s leadership, after all) or recruit more volunteers to help.
  • Assume they love the Lord so much they won’t ever quit. Ha!!!
  • Chastise or demean when you can coach or develop.
  • Take them for granted.
  • Forget that they don’t have to do what they do.

4. Make sure they have the tools they need
There is nothing more frustrating than trying to do a job well, and not being able to because you don’t have what you need. Those tools might include support, leadership, a computer, a work space, supplies, staff, or a host of other things. In some cases, you can learn to get by or cut corners – you may even tap into some creativity you didn’t know you had. But volunteers are more likely to burn out or even quit if they have to work harder because they don’t have what they need to get the job done.

5. Motivate, Reward, Acknowledge
One church I worked with had an annual volunteers celebration. Each year, the leaders (pastors and pastors’ wives, clergy, and department heads) put on black pants, a white tuxedo shirt and a black bowtie to serve lunch to all their volunteers. They decorate the banquet hall, cook all the food themselves, don waiter uniforms and serve those who serve all year long.

Not every church has the resources (or desire) to do something like that, and that’s okay. There are so many other ways to motivate your volunteers. From what I’ve seen, most volunteers truly are in it for the love of servanthood, so they don’t necessarily look for celebrations or appreciation services. But they will admit it feels good to hear encouraging words from time to time, receive a “Thank You” card once in a while, or even just an e-mail that says “thanks.” Nothing makes you feel appreciated like a random, out of the clear blue “I’m-not-asking-for-anything” note. Acknowledge the extra things your volunteers do; make mention of their growth or skill improvements. When they do something especially well, let them know you noticed it.

Motivation is the most important item on this list. You MUST keep your volunteers motivated by making sure they can see the goal they’re working towards, by rewarding them, by appreciating them, treating them well, and developing them. If you want your church to grow, you’ve got to take good care of your volunteers. They are the engine.