Seven Reasons Why Volunteer Ministries Fail

by Al Newell

Golf great Ben Hogan said that when a person stands over a golf ball, every natural inclination is wrong. For instance, I once swung so hard that the ball lifted two inches straight up and plopped back down in a fresh, deep divot. Lifting my eyes too quickly and bending my knees were just a few of my instinctive tendencies that were all wrong.

That experience taught me that Hogan’s dictum about natural tendencies is dead-on when it comes to volunteerism. I’ve been a volunteer ministry consultant and trainer for over twenty years. During this time our ministry has had the privilege of working with countless Christian organizations and churches. Leaders tend to think more volunteers is better. They want to reward volunteers based on the number of hours served, but those, and other natural tendencies, are detrimental to volunteer ministries.

Let’s explore seven reasons why volunteer ministries fail. Take a look and see if you’ve adopted some of these “natural tendencies.”

Mistake #1: Executive Evasion

Ministry CEOs and pastors frequently embed themselves in fundraising and/or new-building strategies because they know it will 1) enhance their ability to accomplish their God-given vision and 2) impact future acts of ministry. But when it comes to directing an organization’s powerful volunteer resources, leaders often demonstrate the “get-it-out-of-my-office” approach. If CEOs experienced the power of a highly effective volunteer ministry – like many of our clients, they would likely invite the volunteer program to sit squarely inside their office.

Volunteer directors often attend our trainings alone. They return to their organizations with eagerness, yet their enthusiasm is quickly curbed because of the resistance they experience throughout their organization. However, when tracing it back to a common source, the resistance is often due to the very person who initiated the training: the unwitting CEO.

Leading an on-site training a couple years ago, I was pleased to see every key executive of this large organization present. Top-level leader participation showed that they valued their volunteer resource, and they were going to hold their staff accountable to making a successful change. What an example! Volunteer ministry leaders face an enormous challenge; they require a sympathetic and informed CEO. They don’t need a neglectful parent with unrealistic expectations. Sending your volunteer director off to training is a good step but going with them or sending senior officers is much better. Also, give the volunteer ministry shelf-space in side your office. If a CEO hopes to leverage volunteer resources, keeping close watch as you would a major funding effort is what is required.

Another question may soon arise: Which training events, volunteer philosophies, and leaders should we listen to amidst the ever-growing number of volunteer management advisors?

Mistake #2: Volunteer Voodoo

Leading an effective volunteer ministry is not brain surgery. I’m the proof case. In fact, you may be more likely to come across good neurosurgical advice than you are good volunteer ministry development advice.

Be careful what you read and who you listen to. Research the authors, leaders, and trainers. Have they actually applied what they are teaching? Do they have more than one successful volunteer implementation story? Very specifically, do they share a distinctly Christian and biblical view? Following a one-war-general ma y prove dangerous when it comes to fighting your volunteer ministry battles. Don’t let a so-called leader infect your ministry with bad advice.

Who you chose to be your advisor is critical and impacting. Yet, another “who” question remains: Who steers your volunteer ministry effort? Again, another natural tendency is revealed.

Mistake #3: Wrong Wanda

A gifted artist hopes to open a gallery; a celebrated chef desires to open a restaurant. Countless businesses arise as the result of one person’s unique expertise. However, the business soon flounders, as the would-be entrepreneur discovers that the skills of her expertise differ greatly from the skills that are required to run a business. Volunteer ministry is no different. A misunderstanding of the essential functions of a volunteer ministry director keeps many churches and ministries mired in ineffectiveness.

Take Wanda for example. Her intentions are good. She has a bubbly spirit and remembers every birthday as if it were a family member’s. She works long hours making sure every volunteer is thanked. Yet while Wanda makes us feel good, a question nags our collective leadership consciousness: “Is Wanda’s leadership making any kind of real impact?”

Weekly, our team interviews candidates for volunteer ministry leadership positions. Many organizational leaders choose to trust their instincts when it comes to hiring a volunteer director—after all how difficult can it be? Sadly, their natural inclinations don’t always result in success.

I recommended to one CEO that the best person to manage his organization’s volunteer efforts was one of his key executives. This person was the prototype leader of a volunteer ministry effort, having a deep spirituality, superior organizational and people skills, and ability to inspire others to follow. We need a leader, not an assistant.

Mistake #4: Inadequate Infrastructure

The National Director of Volunteers for a large Christian organization called me and said that her boss had tasked her with “doubling” the volunteer program in one year from 1000 to 2000 volunteers. Dumbfounded, I asked, “Why would you want to double your volunteer ministry in a year? I further explained the dilemma: Imagine these were paid staff. Should anyone try to double even a tenth of that many paid staff so quickly? Churches, businesses, and yes, volunteer ministries whose growth outpaces their infrastructure face a common fate: they’re doomed!

“More volunteers” is better if, and only if, the infrastructure to carefully, select, equip and care for the volunteers exist. The majority of effective volunteer ministries grow more like a tree than a weed. The pace is slower, but the fruit is sweeter. In addition, if we hope our volunteer ministry will produce healthy and genuine fruit, than we must begin by planting such seeds.

Mistake #5: The Empty Evidence Error

Once, after a long day of teaching, I bought a chicken salad and went back to my hotel room. I couldn’t wait to enjoy the dinner as I hunkered down for the evening. That’s when I opened the box. There seemed to be no chicken in my chicken salad. Not giving up hope, I poked through each leaf of lettuce. Yet, they had forgotten the most important part of a chicken salad – the chicken!

Many Christian organizations are subtly leaving out the chicken in their attempt to develop volunteer ministry. We develop volunteer ministries to increase our funding, to multiply service to the poor and homeless, to fill our Sunday Schools; but we leave out Jesus, the chicken, the main entrée. Volunteers are motivated by contributing to changed lives. The gospel of Jesus Christ possesses the power to change lives. It’s all about Jesus. The centrality of Jesus and the gospel propels Christian motivation. Whether a tutor, mentor, or advocate, the knowledge that our faithful service has contributed to the advancement of the gospel adds vigor to service and sacrifice.

Without the power of Jesus Christ infusing our good works, our works linger in impotence. The Apostle Paul taught the Colossians, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of Jesus.” Many organizations talk about sharing the “love of Jesus” but can we really do so without speaking the name of Jesus?

In addition, the compelling force for starting a volunteer ministry may also be vulnerable to another inappropriate yet natural inclination.

Mistake #6 : Financial Fixation

The financial disaster following 9/11 sent organizations and churches scurrying to explore new resources. The versatility and cost-effectiveness of a powerful volunteer ministry appealed to many organizations. The underlying rationale: volunteers are cheap labor; attendance will increase; volunteers can bring revenues; we can reduce pastoral and paid staff. However, this logic is awry. Financial benefits resulting from a strong volunteer ministry are just that—fruits that are the result of a ministry.

Seeking the fruit of more money or donor acquisition in volunteer ministry is a natural inclination. Don’t pursue volunteerism because of cost-savings or because it may ignite new income streams. Think ministry first and the other benefits will follow.

As for the volunteer, serving is an opportunity for a Christian to express their gratitude to God for the work of Jesus. Paul reminds us that in view of God’s mercy, we ought to place our lives at God’s disposal. (Romans 12:1) Volunteering is an outpouring of an authentic faith, not a favor done for the organization or church.

Authentic fruit will abound if both the organization and volunteers possess the proper motivation. That kind of fruit can help us avoid meaningless measurements.

Mistake #7: Marginal Measurements

Imagine the manager of a major league baseball team giving account for the team’s shoddy performance, saying, “We won forty games and lost 122. Attendance sank to an all-time low but we placed nine players on the field every single day and we practiced very, very hard.” That’s how we measure volunteer effectiveness. We applaud them for showing up. We post the number of hours they serve and write it in our annual report. No wonder CEO’s find it difficult to dole out budget or respect for the volunteer ministry. Departments that can’t demonstrate cost-effectiveness risk being eliminated physically, or perhaps worse, mentally.

Keep in mind two rules when measuring your volunteer ministry: first, measure your volunteer ministry based on objective data; and second, never let the data stay in numerical form but translate it into ministry messages. Measure the fruit of changed lives. Count data that might give evidence of volunteer effectiveness. For instance, for a rescue ministry, some important measures might be the number of mentoring or tutoring relationships, the number of those in Bible Study or those that have made decisions for Christ. For an advocate volunteer ministry, measure the number of times a volunteer shared the organization’s message, the number of people that become donors, the cost-effectiveness of the program. Then remember to translate data into ministry messages. For instance, “Jenny, you’ve shared our message with four churches. In doing that, one group, two tutors and one Bible study teacher have been serving in our mission–think of the lives you touched, not just our homeless guests but the volunteers who now have a meaningful place to share the love of Christ. Jenny, you’ve done an outstanding job.”

Fighting instinctive inclinations may prove difficult; after all they just “feel so right.” This is why effective volunteer ministries are currently the exception, rather than the rule.

But once corrected, the amazing fruit of effective volunteer ministry await.

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