I’m apprehensive; what will this church be like? Parking lot volunteers and greeters give a glance and offer, “Good morning, welcome to 1st Christian.” Each week, the same people perform their duty faithfully. Yet, why is it that I feel unwelcome and disconnected? Was it something I did, my facial expression, my clothing? Something’s missing in our relationship.

Still apprehensive, I visit another church. I attempt to sneak through without being noticed. A man reaches out his hand, “Hi, my name’s Jeremy; how long have you been coming? The vibe is different. It’s as if he genuinely cares and wants to know something about me. I want to come back.

The difference in those two approaches may seem subtle, but how it feels to me is widely divergent—the secret is so simple. In the first experience, it felt like I was a part of a process. I am there to support their growth and goals. In the second experience, apart from what I can bring, I am valued as a person.

The one thing every guest visiting our church, every child and parent in youth basketball, and every volunteer in your ministry needs is the same. They need to be valued apart from what they can bring. In 2 Corinthians 12:14, Paul said, “I will not be a burden to you; for I do not seek what is yours, but you;” (NASB). Paul is not about using people to build a big church to generate more money so that he can possess more power. Paul is after the Corinthians so that each person will find and live their best life, which is a life committed to Jesus.

Decades of leading volunteers and coaching leaders to lead volunteers have taught me how unchanging that truth is. Before outlining three simple ways you can value volunteers, let me mention one caveat.  

Volunteers feel your motives. Whenever there is tension in our home, Gumbo, our cat, begins meowing loudly. It’s beyond irritating. It’s incredible how sensitive he is. Similarly, over time, volunteers will feel your actual intentions. If your culture is one in which leaders value certain age groups, statuses, wealth, or dress, like Gumbo, your volunteers will sense it eventually. If volunteers exist only to help you build and grow your organization, they will feel it in your behavior and language over time. You can dress it up with an annual banquet, plaques, or certificates, but eventually, the aroma of your culture will fill their lungs. James 2:1-4 addresses how the flesh operates when we encounter well-dressed people, and he asks, “Have we become….judges with evil motives?”

Here are three simple ways to value your volunteers, each with questions for you and your teams to discuss. Before you dismiss each one too quickly, with “Yeah, we do that.” May I encourage you to sift each one and ask yourself, is this happening now? With me? With all of our leaders?

LISTEN.  During a conference, I gave the assignment to a group of leaders to learn about each person at their table during meals. Whether lunch or dinner, each time I glanced at one leader, he was not listening but engaged in full-on teaching, passionately talking. It’s incredible how loved and valued I feel when people are genuinely interested and actively listening to me. Do you know that feeling of being heard?

What percentage of time are you talking in conversations with volunteers? Are you telling them more stuff, more requirements, more about how they can perform better, more about the organization? Or are you listening and learning about their life? Are you striving to know the details of their volunteer ministry and experience? Are you listening or politely pretending to care so you can get to your agenda? Every gathering of volunteers is not just another opportunity to preach an additional message. Value volunteers by listening to them.

SHOWUP.  Our unique 12-year-old granddaughter seems to genuinely hate attention. “Don’t compliment me.” “You don’t need to come to my game.” Knowing deep down that showing up matters, I’m unlikely to stop attending. Swim meets and piano recitals are not my preference, but Jael is one of my all-time favorite humans, so it’s my favorite sport when she’s swimming. You can see the joy in her disposition as she sees her family attend.
In the same way, showing up matters to every volunteer. How you show up matters; make sure you are there to encourage and catch them doing the right thing.

In what ways do you show up and observe your volunteers? When you show up, are you distracted by your phone? If remote, do you visit your volunteers? Do your volunteers know that you love them and are for them so that they would welcome your visit? Do you spend more time affirming or telling them what they could do to improve? It took a heroic effort for Paul to visit churches he had planted, but he was eager to do it.

TREAT VOLUNTEERS AS EQUALS, PARTNERS IN MINISTRY. In the depth of your being, let your speech, actions, and attitudes reflect that you genuinely see volunteers as capable partners. Volunteers can sniff out when a staff member exudes superiority. A sizeable Christian organization hired me to do a quick assessment and to speak to their board. Though they were paying for my advice, they treated me poorly from the moment I arrived, disrespecting my experience and opinions. The arrogance was palpable. At the end of the day, they asked, “So how do you think we will do applying High Impact?” I blurted out, “I think you’ll do terrible.” I could see that their inability to treat me as a partner would spill over to volunteers who in their mind were far beneath them.

Do you respect the education, experience, and spirituality of your volunteers? Do you, your executives, believe volunteers can do anything? Do you entrust volunteers with significant endeavors? Are you, your leaders, able to divest yourselves of titles and degrees so you can relate to volunteers as equals? Deep down, do you believe that an uneducated person with a deep love for Jesus can shake the world? A volunteer’s sense of value skyrockets when trusted as a partner or given the chance to carry significant responsibility.

Lastly, when you listen, show up, and treat volunteers as partners, don’t do it to tick a box. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Romans 12:9 reminds us, Let your love be without hypocrisy, without pretense. Listen, show up, and treat volunteers as real partners. Simple enough, but executing that behavior will be felt in a volunteer’s soul, consequently increasing your volunteer ministry effectiveness. You may be thinking, listening, showing up, and being treated as a partner; that’s what I need. Exactly, don’t we all?

by Al Newell

© 2023 Newell and Associates

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