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The Gift of Volunteers

Operation Christmas Child’s Randy Riddle on growing and cultivating your volunteers.

The gift-wrapped shoeboxes of Operation Christmas Child are as "Christmas" as tinsel or holly for thousands of churches in the U.S. and abroad. A project of international Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse, Operation Christmas Child partners with churches in more than 110 countries to get shoeboxes filled with gifts into the hands of millions of needy children worldwide. This involves the efforts of more than 500,000 volunteers. In 2012, Operation Christmas Child celebrated a milestone: delivering more than 100 million shoebox gifts to children in more than 130 countries since 1993.

It's one of the most impressive efforts of volunteer coordination you'll ever see. But it took strategy and a lot of hard work to get there. Leadership Journal's Paul Pastor caught up with Randy Riddle, the domestic director of Operation Christmas Child, for a conversation about shoeboxes and nurturing a healthy volunteer team.

While some may think that Santa's little elves are the hands that deliver Operation Christmas Child's shoeboxes, it's actually a massive, carefully coordinated volunteer effort. Tell us what's involved.

No, there are no elves involved here! But there is a calling that is common among all Operation Christmas Child volunteers: the desire to see children come into relationship with Jesus Christ. This is an effort that only God himself could pull together.

Your volunteer team must be treated as full partners in the ministry. Volunteers can accomplish anything a staff member can.

Currently we have an army of year-round volunteers who are recruited, selected, trained, equipped, and led to serve Jesus on behalf Operation Christmas Child. More than 8,000 volunteers in local communities are mobilized to engage local churches and organizations and to pray for this ministry.

In more than 80,000 U.S. churches and like-minded groups, there's a volunteer who serves as the local Operation Christmas Child project leader. Shoebox gifts are then delivered by the church to nearly 4,000 drop-off locations where each year more than 53,000 volunteers receive the gifts and organize them for transport to one of eight processing centers across the United States. Once the shoebox gifts arrive at a processing center, more than 79,000 volunteers inspect each shoebox gift and prepare them for overseas shipment.

We have a similar volunteer structure implemented in the other 12 countries around the world that collect and send shoebox gifts. There are more than 2,100 international Operation Christmas Child volunteer leaders at the national and regional leadership level. Like U.S. volunteers, they are recruited and equipped to mobilize churches and volunteers to effectively reach children with shoebox gifts and the gospel. Internationally, there are 50,000 volunteers and local church leaders who are trained to distribute shoebox gifts and share the love of Jesus Christ. Those are the official numbers, though we anticipate that more than 150,000 volunteers assist at some level. Each shoebox gift is handed out alongside a booklet with a simple explanation of the gospel in the child's language.

Also, more than 79,000 volunteers are trained to offer and lead shoe-box gift recipients through a 12-week follow-up discipleship program called The Greatest Journey that teaches children the basics of Christian faith, and how to share their faith with others.

With our 2014 volunteer force totaling more than 500,000 world-wide—more than 100,000 of those volunteers in the United States—Operation Christmas Child hopes to collect enough shoebox gifts to reach another 10 million children.

That is a lot of volunteers! You weren't always that large though. How did you grow?

Our growth began nine years ago, when we faced a challenge common to many non-profit organizations: we realized that the small staff we had in place, as well as the few volunteers across the U.S., were simply being asked to do too much. We were asking them to serve in too many roles, and be stretched too far. At that same time, our leader Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan's Purse, had a vision to raise up a volunteer in every community across the country for Operation Christmas Child.

I see it as God's timing that we were introduced that year to a volunteer ministry development program called High Impact, run by Newell and Associates. Utilizing biblically based development principles, we honed our volunteer strategy.

The key was finding people who are gifted at multiplying themselves. So, we began hiring staff and recruiting volunteers who were experienced at leading and empowering others—not just doing tasks themselves. We changed from wanting star players to wanting star teams. God blessed that.

Obviously, very few churches need or can mobilize on that scale. But what principles of volunteer leadership have you learned that work regardless of size?

Well, the overall numbers are huge, but outside of our large short-term effort, our year-round volunteers are made up of small teams—5 to 75.

Multiplying your ministry through volunteers is different work than "doing" all the ministry. It's different, not easier.

Regardless of size, a biblical foundation is essential for success. It is critical to engage a team who are called at their core to the vision of the ministry. In our case the common core calling is children's evangelism and discipleship.

Also, a partnering mentality is critical. Your volunteer team must be treated as full partners in the ministry. Volunteers can accomplish anything a staff member can—whether that's leading a large sized ministry by serving on the board of directors, or serving on the clean up crew.

Christian volunteers, like paid staff, want to be a part of something with eternal impact. We have found that stating tangible, measurable goals that are only reachable with God's involvement, position volunteers to witness the value of their service.

In my experience—as paid church staff and a volunteer—about 90 percent of volunteer problems come from poor communication. What have you learned about communication?

A few things:

1. It is essential to communicate up front—what the volunteer is expected to accomplish for the ministry, and what the ministry will do to equip the volunteer for success.

2. Volunteers will typically rise to effectiveness only as high as you expect them to. In other words, expecting (and communicating) high expectations is key to receiving high results.

3. Leaders of volunteers must know how to biblically resolve conflict in a loving way. Using the Matthew 18 example, God teaches us exactly how to resolve conflict. Abiding by this biblical principle will set the framework to move ministry forward in the most difficult of times. If we are able to biblically and lovingly resolve conflicts, keeping short accounts with volunteers and teams, so much can be accomplished.

4. It's critical to remain in relationship and fellowship with your leader volunteers.

What is the single biggest challenge for leaders who rely on a team of volunteers? What have you learned about responding to it?

You asked for one challenge; I'll give you two.

"Grandfathered volunteers" is a term that we used to use frequently. Grandfathered volunteers are those volunteers that staff, in our early years, would allow to serve simply because they had history with the ministry. After we put standards in place for selection, our team was hesitant to ever say "no" to a volunteer who already had been serving for a long time but may not have met the new selection criteria.

We found that these "grandfathered volunteers" can be a blessing and encouragement if they are willing to embrace the new ministry model. However, if they are not, they can be a distraction and a hindrance to the ministry moving forward. The key to partnering with these volunteers is honest, loving conversation that either brings them into full partnership, or lovingly ends their partnership.

Also, transitioning from a "do-er" model (where staff do all the ministry) to a "multiplier" model (volunteer partnership) was quite a challenge for us. Not all of those who were hired as "do-ers" are called or equipped to multiply themselves through volunteers. We experienced a pruning of our staff in this process. However, God has been faithful to build a great team of men and women on our staff who know how to multiply themselves. If your growing ministry needs to switch from "do-ers" to "multipliers" in order to grow, be prayerfully prepared that this might facilitate staff and volunteer turnover. But, in God's kingdom, pruning bears fruit!

While many church leaders rely on volunteers for the basics of operation, there's a unique opportunity for growth and discipleship that can come through the volunteer relationship. What have you learned about maximizing that inner growth for your team?

Throughout the development of the Operation Christmas Child volunteer program, our team recognized the unique dynamic for discipleship that it creates. Because of this, the Lord led us to develop "in-here" goals and "out-there" goals.

It sounds like a simple concept, but all goal setting is important to the task at hand. Spiritual growth can and should also be a goal. So, we ask our volunteer teams and our volunteers annually to set their "out-there" goals—which would be tangible ministry growth goals, such as shoebox gift collection numbers—and we also ask them to set "in-here" goals—goals that are meaningful to their spiritual growth. Examples of "in-here" goals can be as simple as a more consistent quiet time, or as complex as a struggle with spiritual warfare.

What tips do you have for using volunteers without them feeling … well, used?

Besides the obvious use of a solid volunteer recognition program, the best step a ministry can take as it seeks or experiences significant growth is a partnership mentality. A partnership model requires buy-in at the top levels of leadership, and accountability of adherence throughout the entire staff.

Once that baseline standard of partnership is established throughout the organization, all things can become geared around it. Staff members aren't allowed to "use" a volunteer again, they are only allowed to partner. If a staff member is found guilty of "using" behaviors or attitudes, he or she should be corrected, or moved off the team.

Also critical to continued alignment is the consistent casting of vision for volunteers' kingdom impact. We constantly remind volunteers how their individual role impacts the greater work of Samaritan's Purse and building God's kingdom. Continuing to cast this vision for our volunteers keeps them passionately motivated.

For leaders feeling discouraged from past failures in volunteer efforts—any words?

Multiplying your ministry through volunteers is different work than "doing" all the ministry. It's different, not easier.

"Doing" ministry vs. partnering with volunteers may feel insufficient to those who genuinely want to serve Jesus in a tangible way. Remember that multiplying your ministry through volunteers is essential to growth, and well worth it. Your volunteers will grow your ministry size, and grow deeper in love with Jesus as they serve him.

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