If you’ve been a pastor for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve noticed a burnout epidemic.
But not just for you or your staff; for your volunteers. I’ve seen the same, and have come to realize there’s a big difference between volunteers going through the motions versus actually being engaged and keeping the initial softness of heart that they had while committing to serve initially.
Here are three strategies I’ve been able to use with the volunteers at my church, to combat burnout and turnover.
1.Set a start date and end date right away.
Whenever a volunteer is starting with your church, there is something remarkably powerful to a predetermined start date and end date. Before they ever do any work for you, set these dates and let the volunteer know what they mean. I like for this initial duration of service to span six months, since it’s a significant amount of time to commit to but not so long that anyone will suffer if it doesn’t work past that. Keeping the relationship as shephard to them must always remain priority one.
Here’s an example. Let’s say we have a new volunteer who wants to lead a small group. He’s got a lot of knowledge about the bible, and a background as an associate pastor, so he seems like a great fit. But we find out quickly he has a tendency to be argumentative and easily offended when someone disagrees with his interpretation of a certain passage or topic. For six months, I feel we can work with this issue and see if there is possibly any growth that can happen. If things continue as difficult though, we wouldn’t want to keep enduring it beyond that, so our preset end date would give me an easy transition to move in another direction. When the time comes, we’d sit down together. I’d thank him for his willingness to give, and then discuss with him why we won’t be using his service in this role at this time. I might find another area of need that his abrasiveness would would work well in and if I felt led I might even invite him to come back to serving as a small group leader in another season of life, when he can find different ways to handle disagreement.
If you think about it, this predetermined period of time is healthy for both parties. If we get a volunteer who is willing to serve, but isn’t very skilled, we can find a place for them to contribute for six months. Or if we find someone who is insanely skilled, but wants to control everything and doesn’t have the right heart for service, we can enjoy their talents for six months knowing they won’t be exerting control past that period. This is also great for the volunteer. If they end up serving in an administrative role, they may find out they can’t stand the work and are frequently frustrated. The prescribed end date will give them a chance to move on gracefully, and have a way out.
2. Let them spread their wings.
I’ve written before about how hard it can be for pastors to delegate, and I’m going to reiterate a little bit of that here. I have a vision for my church, and it can be challenging to inform and train volunteers – then let them execute how they see fit. But my job is to communicate my long-term vision to them, and equip them with the right resources to succeed. From that point forward, they should be able to own the short-term path they take toward that vision.
Think about it like this. When Jesus left the earth, He said to go and make disciples. He left His Holy Spirit with us, even though He wasn’t with us any longer. Well, in context, I find myself as a result of the current measure of faith I have hearing the Holy Spirit differently than even my closest assistant.. This means we might hear the voice of the Lord different in how to accomplish a certain task. But if we all have the same genuine baseline in our hearts that we’re listening for the HIM to guide us, then I need to trust my volunteers to follow what they hear. More often than not, your volunteers will surprise you (in a good way) when they’re given room to fly.
3. Thank them, specifically, thoughtfully and repeatedly.
It can be easy to start viewing volunteers as staff members, but we have to remember they’re not. Whether our personalities perfectly mesh, or their skills are perfectly suited for the area of service they’re in, they’re still serving. They are giving of their time, which is the one thing none of us can ever get back. So with this in mind, it’s imperative we thank them.
I make an effort to go way over the top with thanking our volunteers for the things that many people take for granted. For instance, showing up on time. If I noticed a very timely volunteer greeter come in with a Starbucks cup, I might take a peek at the label and make a note of it. The next Sunday, when that same volunteer is on time as usual, I’d have her favorite cup of coffee in hand along with genuine thanks for her timeliness and service.
Another example of showing gratitude to volunteers is by serving them. There was a recent Sunday when I overhead that our printer wasn’t working. Our worship leader was stressed out, and unable to print the copies he needed to. I told him to just go up on stage and sing, and went to a business next door to print his copies. He was so touched by this small act, but really it was the least I could do to serve him. He has his own job and his own stressors outside of church, so I want to minimize his stressors here. Leading from below, rather than above, builds trust and empowerment – and engagement.
The biggest takeaway when it comes to volunteer engagement is this: Look at your volunteers as part of your team, rather than employees.
You’ll be able to see God more clearly at work in them, and your heart will naturally find ways to serve them, which will make engagement a foregone conclusion.