More on Equipping and Keeping Volunteers


3.  Equip Them

Remember that most people whom we call volunteers did not actually volunteer.  Most people involved in parish ministry were called forward.  They did not step forward.  Volunteering is a process of encouraging, qualifying, understanding needs, instructing and praying.  I have heard this referred by a conference speaker as an E.Q.U.I.P. approach to training leaders:  E ncourage them to serve, Q ualify them to serve, U nderstand their needs, I nstruct them, and P ray for them (and let them know it).  Particular equipping techniques can include: sponsoring general formation workshops in your parish or parish cluster (how to pray and lead prayer, meeting skills, how to delegate, working with difficult people) which are open to the entire parish or parish cluster; create an individualized learning plan, host guest speakers, book clubs and guest speakers.  Avoid re-inventing the wheel (use seminary programs and other diocesan resources). 

In many ministries, mentoring is still the preferred approach to preparing people for ministry.  Ideally, everyone in ministry should be part of an equipping system.  I have a mentor (Lydia had Paul), a colleague (Paul had Silas), and an apprentice (Timothy had Paul).  Essentially, the mentoring process can be described as a partnership between the mentor and apprentice in which the mentor starts by doing more and ends up doing less:  I (mentor) do, you (apprentice) watch...,  I do, you help...,  We do..., You do, I help...,  You do, I watch...  You do, I find another apprentice to watch.

One reason why this approach is so effective is because the apprentice is in charge of their own learning needs - both content and extent of training.  This requires the apprentice to take the lead in determining their level of competence as their level responsibility grows in any ministry situation.  A mentor can also help by meeting with the apprentice on ocassion to observe them as they serve, monitoring their level of confidence and competence in the assigned role.  Some ministries can make significant use of google groups, facebook and other social networks to create learning communities for volunteer development and support.  These communities work best when there is a full range of expertise represented in the participants.  The coordinator is well-advised to start with clear instructions and to model and monitor the exchanges for good feedback techniques.  Learning communities are no replacement for direct supervision and whenever someone is having serious trouble the mentor should meet with them privately to avoid embarrassing them.  


4.  Keep Them

Keeping volunteers takes us back to the first questions: Do we let volunteers know about the difference that they have made?  Can the volunteer name the benefits?  Particular support strategies include: commission volunteers and thank them – publicly, thank their families - the ones whose approval the volunteer needs to continue,  have fun and make the service experience fun, give a gift with purpose at Christmas (e.g. an inspirational book), remember birthdays, anniversaries and illnesses, give regular feedback and address questions or issues immediately, host a pre-event enrichment experience with light food and prayer or faith-sharing, plan an annual family-outing day for volunteers, hold a Pentecost recognition dinner, tap into relevant diocesan conferences and workshops (with parish paying cost), be personally available.

Effective supervision is an essential ingredient for keeping volunteers because it insures a positive and rewarding service experience for volunteers.  When meeting to evaluate performance, encourage the volunteer to take the lead in the conversation.  Encourage them to do the evaluating using the following steps:

Step 1: ask the volunteer to evaluate the position description

Step 2:  ask the volunteer to evaluate the sufficiency of training

Step 3:  ask the volunteer to evaluate the adequacy and style of supervision

Step 4:  ask the volunteer to evaluate their confidence and competence to do the service

Step 5:  (if they haven’t already) ask the volunteer to evaluate their own performance and what could be done to make it more rewarding

Volunteers are usually more critical of themselves than any supervisor would consider being.  In these situations, the better role for the supervisor is to serve as a sounding board, affirming the contributions of the volunteer, offering a larger view or super-vision and provide support resources for continued growth.  In most cases, performance problems can be traced back to insufficient clarity of expectations, or insufficient training.  People want to be accountable and they appreciate the confidence that is placed in them by a leader who trusts them enough to evaluate and invite growth.  When a problem is expected, it is advisable to have an objective observer in the meeting.  Another way to supervise in a less threatening way is to hold a comprehensive evaluation of the program and involve other leaders and participants.  This allows all those directly involved the opportunity to address the issues in a cooperative way.  In any case, effective supervision affirms the volunteer for their contributions, invites them to grow from their experience, keep doing what they do well or consider something which they may do better.

For more insights on working with volunteers in ministry, consider the following resources:

The New Breed: Understanding & Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer by Jonathan McKee and Thomas McKee (Group Books in Loveland, CO, 2008)

How to Mobilize Church Volunteers by Marlene Wilson (Augsburg Publ. 1983)

Equipping the Saints: Mobilizing the Saints edited by Michael Christensen with Carl Savage (Abingdon Press 2000)

Volunteers: How to Get Them, How to Keep Them by Helen Little (Panacea Press 1999)

by Dennis Mahaney, Office of Parish Life


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