Quit Boring Your Volunteers!

Back in the mid-nineties, while I was between colleges, I spent some time working as a fish cutter in a wholesale seafood market.  It was in that job that I learned the true meaning of boredom at work.  My day would start at 2:00 am by cutting open my first fish and for the next ten to twelve hours I repeated “knife goes in, guts go out” several thousand times.  In order to keep myself entertained I would work calculus problems in my head… which was not always the best strategy, as proved by the scars on my hand and a couple of trips to the emergency room.

It was during this time that I started to serve on the student ministry team at the church that I was attending at the time.  While serving on this team I learned a great deal about keeping your team engaged, and how to make sure your volunteers don’t feel like the time they spend serving is just another job.  The leadership that I served with understood that I worked twelve hours a day, five or six days a week at a job that was pretty physically intense.  They also realized that there were a bunch of things that I could be doing from 6:00-10:00 pm every Sunday night (like sleeping before waking up at 1:00 am).  They made sure that I, and the rest of the team, knew that we were highly valued, and that we were engaged in the ministry.  This effort made me want to sacrifice the time that I would normally have spent sleeping to serve the youth of our church… if the work were boring, I would have stayed home.

Much of what the leadership of that ministry did was recently summed up in a post entitled Bored People Quit at Rand in Repose (the post is fantastic, good for volunteer AND paid ministry teams… just be warned there is some low level cursing going on).  While I am not going to summarize the entire article here, here are the three big things that Rand gets, and the leadership of the student ministry team I served on all those years ago got:

  • People will tell you when they are bored.  Long before someone leaves your team, they will let you know that they are no longer feeling challenged, engaged, or excited by what they are doing.  While there are times when they are being called to another area of ministry, which is to be celebrated, many times a simple conversation will help you understand what makes them tick… and help them serve in a way that better uses their giftings.  A good leader is always listening for the sometimes innocuous comments that let you know that someone is losing interest in their current ministry.
  • Remove the Noise.  Your volunteers spend forty or more hours each week at their job.  Most jobs involve a degree of busy-work, tedium, and procedural nonsense that drains the life right out of them.  As a church leader, your role is to free your people up to truly serve.  Keeping the busy work, tedium, and procedural nonsense to a minimum for your volunteers is not only good leadership, it is what you get paid for.
  • Communicate.  Nothing tells a volunteer that their investment is not important than keeping them in the dark.  In one of my churches we would say that vision leaks.  In order to make sure that our team was on board, we were very intentional about overcommunicating what we were up to, why we were doing it, and how we were going to make it all happen.  Volunteers that are kept in the dark will not be serving with you for very long.

In all the ministries that I have led through the years I have been intentional about asking myself one thing, over and over again “if I were still cutting off fish heads, would I want to serve in this ministry?”

How do YOU keep your volunteers engaged?


About the Author: Matt Steen

I love Jesus, Theresa (my wife), the Redskins & Capitals, and am currently living in Waco, Texas where I am studying the finer points of BBQ (while working on my MDiv and MBA at Baylor University). When not studying, I serve church leaders through MinistryBriefing.com and am the Director of Connections for Harris Creek Baptist Church's Downtown Campus.

  • Nick the Geek

    First, loved the Simpsons reference. Once thing I started doing with my volunteers was having a regular meeting with them.  Regular works out to quarterly because I hate meetings and assume that everyone else does too.  The meetings involve lunch, talking, feedback, and info about the upcoming events for that quarter.  It’s an opportunity to get to know them more than just tell them what we are doing. 

    One thing I want to implement, is to take time between the quarterly meetings to take my volunteers out.  I started doing this with my student leaders, and I need to start with my adult leaders.

    • http://www.churchthought.com Matt Steen

      I am glad that someone picked up on the Simpson’s reference… thanks for noticing!  

      I think you get it… the regular connection is HUGE.  In each of the ministries that I served in, whether I was the youth pastor or executive pastor, my leadership development budget was larger than any other part of my budget… sometimes it would be half of my entire budget.  I used that to grab lunch with my leaders, leadership retreats, and training events.  The leadership retreats were probably the best thing I ever did as it helped really develop a close knit team… and I had an AWESOME team.

      I’d love to hear how it goes as you ramp up your investment in your leadership team…

  • http://josephmcole.com/ Joseph M. Cole

    I love this post! This is one of the fundamental things we are changing in our volunteer life at Tabernacle of Praise. “Removing the noise” and overcommunicating the vision behind the work has done wonders for volunteer morale. Now, instead of us whipping our volunteers onward with the “don’t grow weary in well doing” clause, our office is busy trying to keep up with all of their suggestions, improvements and desire to do more!

    • http://www.churchthought.com Matt Steen

      That is exciting to hear, Joseph!  Thank you for your kind words, and sharing your story!

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  • Sam

    Great post. Even greater question, one every ministry leader should ask every week.