June 21, 2013

The Gift of Volunteers

At first blush what could be better than a group of people willing to give their time and energy to support various facets of your work for free? In times of tightened budgets and downsized staffs, such individuals are invaluable assets for keeping various projects going.

One of the most important considerations when working with volunteers is how those individuals are recruited. Volunteerism is like a full-time job when it comes to placement - there has to be a match between what the organization needs and what satisfies the volunteer. It is not merely a matter of staffing slots with bodies.

I remember one priest who had a number of planning committees to staff. He randomly assigned me to a group that had absolutely nothing to do with my interests or strengths. When I explained what I did for a living, we agreed to make an adjustment that would better serve both me and the church. I certainly did not expect this priest to have an encyclopedic knowledge of what we all did career-wise, but I feel that discussing options rather than randomly assigning tasks would have worked better.

I am always impressed when both clergy and existing volunteers are proactively looking for new talent. There is an art to identifying who might suit a specific kind of duty and to gauging a person’s level of interest. For this to work, there must be a solid and ongoing communication link between clergy and lay leaders. Both groups need to be constantly attuned to maintaining a healthy influx of new members and a timely rotation in of new leaders. In my experience, the ministries that work best are those with some overlap between outgoing and incoming committee heads.

For new volunteers, training will make the difference in increasing their comfort in a situation and probably will strongly impact how long they stay with the work. Every church has its own methods for training – ranging from formal to informal, from all-day training sessions to “learn as you go” methods. Regardless of approach, it’s crucial that the new volunteer has a voice and is allowed to ask questions. A member of an altar guild is not a robot going through a series of memorized steps. Similarly, someone learning healing prayer needs to be able to ask both “why?” and “how?” questions.

As a volunteer, I was turned off when expected to assimilate too much new information too quickly and then forced to act on it immediately. Being put on the spot is somewhat like giving an actor a “cold read,” and nothing can make a new volunteer more anxious. Try to be sensitive to the volunteer’s need for adequate learning time. One great way for volunteers to learn is by “shadowing”—literally following an experienced person through a task until the new person is confident enough to do it on their own.

The third and most important ingredient in dealing with volunteers is how they are motivated. Remember that they have busy lives with other family and career demands. They are volunteering because they want to. They are not your employees nor should their “performance” be judged in the way a staff member’s would be. They need to be appreciated and thanked. Moreover, if things are not going well for them, you need to listen and help them figure out how to improve the situation. Just because they are working for free doesn’t put them in a less important category. In fact, their willingness to work for free makes them a valuable, special, and dedicated group of people to continuously nurture.

This post first appeared on CREDO's Transforming Work blog and is reprinted with permission.