Volunteers and technology: Accelerate or Incinerate?

by Al Newell


PAM has become a friend of mine, no not the female name, the famous cooking spray. PAM makes cooking so much easier. I would know since I routinely use it as I cook. Besides crafting beautiful fried eggs…well maybe just overly cooked fried eggs…OK…barely edible eggs (my wife, the chef is hovering over me as I write), I also create a pretty mean scrambled egg dish. (Now my wife reminded me, that I only make scrambled when I break the yokes). My culinary expertise extends to the grill, where I have been known to grill up some pretty tasty salmon (Somehow I can actually do this.)


When grilling salmon it is crucial to use PAM or some oil as it can easily stick to the grill. DON’T try this at home: One day I sprayed PAM on the grill. BTW –did you know that PAM is an accelerant? Well I found out. I started to spray and well the flame from the grill accelerated so quickly that had I not, quick like a cat, jumped out of the way, my eyebrows and perhaps my whole head of hair would have been incinerated. One the one hand, PAM enhanced my cooking. On the other, it almost fried me.


A similar dichotomy of blessing or bane occurs when it comes to applying technology to our volunteer ministry. Sometimes technology enhances or accelerates ministry and other times well… it burns it up or incinerates it.


As a consulting ministry, our team routinely confronts this dilemma with every ministry client and attendee in our training audiences. So if you think I am referring to your organization, I likely am.


Let’s examine two fatal assumptions.


Fatal assumption one: We can’t have an effective volunteer ministry without technology. Before you throw my Blackberry at me, hear me out. Years ago a large organization came to us. They had already secured the marketing firm to brand and develop materials to support the volunteer effort. When I told them all that was not needed, they were dumbfounded.


Thinking about it this way may help. What makes for a successful restaurant? Quality food, great service, atmosphere and a great price. Your landing page and online presence may accelerate people to dawn the doors of your eatery, but  without right combination of most of those elements, patrons will have a tasteless experience and your restaurant eventually will fail. Think about it, what is essential in a powerful volunteer ministry is not the bling.


Here are four essentials that make for a great volunteer ministry:


  1. Evidence that your ministry is impacting lives for Jesus
  2. Provide meaningful volunteer opportunities to impact that outcome
  3. Providing a team atmosphere where volunteers can serve with other volunteers.
  4. Provide a system of care where the volunteer grows in Christ as they serve.


Those biblical elements can be applied with or without technology. This is why we are seeing High Impact applied effectively globally.


Having said that, it would be foolish not to take advantage of technology to accelerate and support our volunteer ministry. Some ministries are on the cutting edge of technology but provide a tasteless ministry experience for the volunteer. It’s far better to include the biblical foundation and be a year or to late with your learning management system approach (for training volunteers) than the reverse.


Fatal assumption two: Technology reduces time and expenses, therefore, apply it whenever possible throughout the volunteer process. Technology allows my wife to take a quick photo of a check, deposit it, and transfer funds from her I-phone. She can shop countless stores and purchase food or furniture, or be vetted for a mortgage, all while online. Technology has drastically reduced the time and expenditure of resources.


The purchases described above are transactions. Applying technology to transactions: good. Effective volunteer ministry is relational and transformational. Reducing opportunities for relationship and transformation, bad.


Having an online presence will no doubt draw church seekers to your doors, or allow prospective volunteers to learn about your organization, but relationship will keep them there. The volunteer process of some organizations attempts to move volunteers from initial interest to selection to training via a set of online transactions. Rejecting volunteers during the selecting or equipping process solely based on impersonal transactions will leave not only leave volunteers with a horrible taste in their mouth, it will leave them questioning your ministry. Inserting relational engagement after initial interest, during interviews, and even in between training segments in your online learning will ensure you avoid the mistake Paul identifies in I Corinthians 13. You can have an incredible online process, but without love or relationship it will amount to nothing.


Bottom line, technology is not the bottom line in a volunteer ministry, people are. Technology is a powerful tool to enhance a volunteer that has a strong biblical foundation.


© May 2014 Newell and Associates Al Newell



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