Far too often, ministry volunteers receive only a skeletal training before they are released to work. For certain roles (making coffee and directing traffic), on-the-job training is more than sufficient. For pastoral care and other people-oriented ministries, there's simply too much at stake. Over the years, my husband and I have learned how to both prepare our volunteers and offer meaningful support. In my previous article on this topic, I wrote about how to begin the process of team building. In Part 2, I would like to take this further and explore how we train, handle conflicts, and resource our volunteers.
The discipleship and healing programs we run generally require a nine-month commitment from team members. Several months before our programs begin, we typically ask each team member where they feel most—and least—competent. These self-assessments inform our three-month training module which also includes several non-negotiables that we offer annually (how to recognize transference, sharing your testimony in 10 minutes, etc.).
Our teams include both experienced and novice volunteers. This instantly creates a challenge for us since we cannot start at ground zero without boring the skilled leaders. Over the years, we have learned to take advantage of the experience in the room by assigning seasoned leaders the task of coaching and teaching the newcomers. Rather than my husband and I teaching on small-group dynamics or soaking prayer, we ask returning team members to prepare the 30- to 45-minute teaching. Not only does this free us from having to do everything, it also creates a context for us to further develop these leaders. After their presentation, my husband and I do a debrief with them which is unequivocally positive, but which also highlights areas where they may need to grow.
This practice easily carries over to other types of teams. For example, my husband will have his best musicians give workshops to new worship team members. We believe that this strategy builds confidence in our leaders and communicates that sharing the load is an essential component for a healthy team.
We also encourage those who demonstrate sustained commitment and gifting in specific areas to get further training by going to conferences and workshops offsite. Whenever possible, the church will help fund these extra trainings.
Because conflict is unavoidable, this topic has become one of the non-negotiable components of our annual training. Few of us enjoy conflict and even fewer know how to handle it well. We tend to either ignore it or blow it up, and neither of these options engenders healthy dynamics. After nearly two decades of leading, I now understand that many individuals need to be taught a completely new paradigm regarding conflict.
In light of this, we explicitly give our team permission to both feel and express anger toward us. I clearly remember the look on their faces the first time I said, "If you can't be angry with us, we're not doing our job well." We do ask that team members not process any anger or frustration with a third party, but that they go directly to the specific person, assuming the best, in a posture of humility, and begin simply by communicating their experience. Teammates are held accountable to confess their sins toward one another and also offer forgiveness. Yes, this has created messes but we have also seen it bring tremendous healing.
Team members also need help understanding how to navigate conflict in the groups they lead. Haven't we all been in church settings where conflict is palpable but the leaders deftly avoid addressing it? We have found it helpful to acknowledge the situation with a simple statement such as "There seems to be some tension in the room tonight. Why don't those of you who are feeling angry pause for a moment and see if you can understand what's at stake for you and then share as you are able." This takes courage on the part of the small-group leader as well as a commitment to value honesty more than business as usual. (If you have not read Difficult Conversations, we highly recommend it!)
Supporting Your Volunteers
This is unequivocally the most enjoyable component of team leading—it's also one that I have had to grow into. Early on, I failed to understand that my first priority needed to be seeing and caring for volunteers as my sisters and brothers, rather than my teammates. This might seem like semantics, but it's not. Volunteers have full-time jobs, health concerns, aging parents, and perhaps young children. As such, they may need to be asked questions like "How are you faring as a single 40-year-old in the church?" more than they need input about their recent talk.
We believe that the most important method of supporting our team is through prayers. Each month, I hand out three-by-five cards and ask the team to take five minutes to write down their prayer requests. My husband and I communicate that we are the only ones who will see these so they are free to be as honest as they want. Throughout the week, we can then pray for their needs in an informed fashion. Repeatedly, our team members have communicated how loved they feel by this small act. We also set aside several nights each year to pray for an extended time (roughly an hour) for each team member. If our ranks are thin, we might invite the church intercessors or prayer team to join us. For many, this in-depth prayer is one of the highlights of the year.
Finally, my husband and I create multiple opportunities to voice appreciation for our volunteers. At the close of each season, we have an affirmation circle. (And if there is no clear program cycle, you could schedule it once a year.) We communicate that each person should be prepared to affirm his or her teammates in two minutes or less. Having someone verbalize your strengths and offer affirmation in a public setting is very powerful and without fail, there are lots of tears. Christopher and I also write each person a note expressing our appreciation. When budget permits, we may give them a small token, such as a gift card or flowers, as well.
Leading teams is much like parenting: hard work, lots of unexpected detours, but incredibly rich and fulfilling. We often have volunteers on our teams for many years, which allows us to both develop friendships with them and see them mature into faithful, well-equipped leaders, many of whom take these same lessons with them as they move on to the next phase of their lives.
Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days writing, making photographs, pastoring, and trying to keep her three teenage sons adequately fed. She and her family live surrounded by apple orchards, just outside of Boston, MA. You can find more of her words and images at www.dorothygreco.com.