Leaders resemble vessels. We have a limited capacity (yes, it is true!). Consider a ten-ounce bowl. It is impossible for it to contain eleven ounces of water. Once that bowl reaches capacity, additional water forces some to flow over the edge. The same is true of our leadership capacity. While some individuals possess a higher capacity than others, everyone has limits.

In many cases, ministries, programs, and organizations stall when they reach the capacity of their leaders. New people may come, new programs may start, but like the water flowing over the edge of a 10-ounce bowl, something is lost and growth withers. New growth requires additional vessels. Some ministries and organizations resort to hiring additional staff, which is an effective strategy, but still inherently possesses growth limitations. As leaders, the only way to empower continual growth is through the engagement of your people, also known as volunteers.

In leadership, it is easy for us to rely on our own abilities. We know we are committed. Anyone who has worked with volunteers knows the frustration of waiting for someone to show up, finishing a project someone else agreed to do, or jumping in to help when a volunteer is ill-equipped for his or her task. While there are some less-than-committed volunteers, most people do not offer to give of their time and energy unless they truly want to help. In some cases, the frustrations surrounding volunteer issues reflect on our failure to structure a vibrant volunteer culture. So, how do we effectively engage individuals whose skills and contributions will expand the capacity of our vision?

1.  Communicate clearly and consistently the vision/mission of your organization or program. People must understand what they are joining or committing to when they agree to volunteer! Failure to effectively understand the true heart or reality of the ministry can result in disillusionment and disengagement for volunteers when they get into their role. If the presentation of your mission is authentic and consistent, volunteers will know if it resonates with their own passion before committing, and will be reminded of why they are participating when they get discouraged. Note: Because it is close to our heart, we often feel we are doing a good job communicating our vision. I encourage you to ask your volunteers to write down the mission/vision of the ministry. If the answers are inaccurate or diverse, you may need to change your communication strategies!

2.   Develop a thorough and informative volunteer application process. When we are desperate to fill volunteer positions, we sometimes simply put warm bodies into open slots. While this is okay as a temporary solution to urgent needs, it cannot be our long-term plan. People remain committed and passionate when their gifts, interests, and passions are being used effectively. The volunteer application process should be informative for everyone involved. As the leader, you need to understand the best place for an individual to serve and be fruitful. A gifts inventory, personality assessment, or other resource might help with this process. As the applicant, potential volunteers should receive information regarding expectations and responsibilities so they know whether the role is a good fit for them.

3.   Celebrate and affirm the contributions of volunteers. Gifted and committed volunteers have many choices regarding the investment of their time and skills. When they choose to dedicate those resources to your vision, it is important for you to communicate consistently the significant contribution they are making. Most volunteers only see a small piece of the big picture: the faces of babies they care for in the nursery, the designs they create for the website, or the meals they make for the sick. It is validating and encouraging when they hear how their role contributes to the whole and know they are appreciated.

4.   Cultivate a healthy volunteer team. Leaders who cultivate healthy relationships with volunteers, rather than seeing them as tools to accomplish a task, will see much greater commitment. Leaders who develop healthy teams also empower volunteers to support one another. Someone assigned to usher is less likely to miss church on a weekend if they have a relationship with other ushers and feel like part of a team. No one wants to disappoint friends, and showing up when others care about you as a person, versus as the role you will fill, is motivating.

5.   Equip and empower your volunteers to grow and contribute. Volunteers can easily become discouraged if they lack the skills or freedom to fulfill their roles effectively and improve their areas of service. Provide resources, training, and coaching as needed to help volunteers be their best. It is also important to recognize that while individuals may be volunteers in your program, they are most likely professionals, experts, or leaders in some capacity elsewhere. Provide opportunities for them to give input, exercise creativity, and take ownership in the work they are doing. When the vision becomes theirs, their commitment will be the strongest! Note: This often requires the leaders to let go, make concessions, and allow some imperfections.

Jolene Erlacher

Author Jolene Erlacher

Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy of twin toddlers, author of Millennials in Ministry (Judson Press), speaker, and college instructor. In 2013, she founded Leading Tomorrow (www.leadingtomorrow.org) with the aim of equipping ministries and non-profit organizations for effective inter-generational leadership. Jolene lives in North Carolina, and enjoys reading and drinking coffee!

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