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Leading Volunteers

Since many of us who serve in ministry end up leading volunteers, the editors at Gifted for Leadership wanted to find out how leading volunteers differed from leading paid staff. So I went to Nancy Beach, a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church as well as a GFL editorial advisor, who has vast experience in leading staff, volunteers, and the staff who lead volunteers. Below is an excerpt from our conversation:

What is the difference between leading a group of volunteers and leading paid staff?

My very first reaction is there aren't a lot of differences. I think many times we think because people aren't getting paid then they're automatically motivated differently or that they need to be led differently. But what I've observed over the last several years is that in church work, the staff isn't in it for the money anyway - they are motivated by someone who is leading them toward a cause. And I think the vision of what you're trying to do and why has to be really clear for both volunteers and staff.

So it's about getting people excited about your vision, whether they're paid or unpaid.

Yes. But then the other thing that's so clear to me is that both volunteers and staff people, if they're really going to make it - go the distance and hang with you for a long time - it's going to be because of another need being fulfilled, which I think is community.

I think it's so important for both volunteers and staff to feel somebody knows them, knows their life outside of the church, cares about their personal struggles and their family and health and things like that. So I've just been very intentional about that.

How so?

Volunteers can feel used and sort of spit up almost very easily in church, unfortunately. They can feel as though the only thing that people care about is that they show up and do the task. And I think a lot of good leadership is looking at them as whole people, recognizing that volunteers are going to go through seasons where maybe they have to take a little break or maybe because of something going on in their family or their work life outside of here, they can't be as big a contributor in terms of their time as they once were. But if you have a long-term view of leading them, you see that there will be ebbs and flows, and you care about the whole person. And if you have a short-term view, you just try to pump people up to do something noble and very time consuming for a bit. And just about anybody can do that, but my question would be: Are those people still going to be with you two, three years from now?

What's the best way to get to know volunteers when you don't have a lot of time for socializing?

Maybe people could come 15 or 20 minutes earlier or stay a little bit longer, and go around in a circle and just ask each other some simple questions: "What was the high point for you last week and what was the low point?" "How specifically can we pray for you this week?" And as soon as you ask a question like that, you're going to get something substantive out of that person's life that will then allow you to know them a little better.

Volunteers are longing for this so much, because God wired us up to want community. If they're going to walk away feeling more known, they will give a little more time.

So how about you, gifted women: How well do you know your volunteers? How might deeper community with them impact your leadership?

April24, 2007 at 3:04 PM

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