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From recruiting to reproducing, here’s how to lead passionate servants into effective ministryf-Rutland-VolunteerRevolution

The volunteer is a unique hybrid—almost an employee and not quite a friend. Volunteers don’t get paid, yet they perform services of their own accord that benefit the local church. They are not co-workers with the paid staff, yet a bond of mutual ministry is often formed. Friendships can develop between volunteers in the pursuit of mutual service, but that is not the goal of the volunteer.

If a senior pastor understands who potential volunteers are, what they want from volunteer service and how they can be developed for effective service, 50 percent to 80 percent of a church’s staff needs could be filled—by volunteers!

 Who are potential volunteers?

Anyone who shows up is a potential volunteer. The mom who attends youth group with her teenager to keep an eye on the kid should be greeted, signed in and welcomed. At the end of the service she should be asked to pour soda at the refreshments table.

If she returns the next week she should be given a “youth staff” lanyard with her name on it and told: “Your assistance was so helpful last week. Could you wear this at the refreshment table?”

If she comes the third week, invite her to the youth staff-leaders meeting before the service. You can now observe her ability to follow direction, her responsibility and her servant attitude. In three weeks you have drawn in a new volunteer.

f-Rutland-VolunteerRevolution2Creating a broad front door and immediate identification with potential volunteers is essential. Always assign new people jobs systematically on four levels: basic, relational, organizational and ministerial. Never skip any level but move the new volunteer up through the levels, even if he or she has past leadership experience.

This is the process of detecting ability and disability and channeling the volunteer into effective service. A person gifted and mature enough to serve at the ministerial level (teaching, discipleship, visitation and exhortation) can be moved up more quickly as gifts are observed by his or her direct report.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I assigned a new church member to chair an annual women’s luncheon, putting her immediately on the organizational level. She had just retired from a regional sales position so I assumed she could easily manage eight volunteer committees.

She was a disaster! She understood organization but had few gifts at the relational level. She gave direction like a drill sergeant, never affirmed efforts and changed plans at will. I would have known her abilities if I had started her out pouring soda.

What do volunteers want?f-Rutland-VolunteerRevolution3

I came to realize after several decades of not only serving as a volunteer but mobilizing and directing volunteer programs, that the average volunteer wants three things from his or her service: (1) personal affirmation, (2) connection with a community of significant service and (3) measurable results.

Chris, one of my university students, shared an experience that highlights these three points. Responding to a radio appeal for volunteers to serve Thanksgiving meals at a homeless shelter, Chris showed up at the appointed time and served green beans all day. But he left unsatisfied and made a mental note not to volunteer there again.

Why? He had physically helped hundreds of needy people receive a hot meal, worked alongside other volunteers and invested seven hours of his personal time. He seemed on the surface to have accomplished his goal of “helping others.” Yet he hadn’t had any of the three results that volunteers desire from their service.

Personal Affirmation

In our culture, personal affirmation is sadly lacking at all levels, but for the volunteer it is at the top of the “felt-needs” list. When Chris arrived to serve he was not greeted, guided through a registration process, given a name tag or instructed in the shelter’s mission or program.

He wandered past bustling workers setting up tables and looked for someone official. Finally asked if he came to help, he was directed to the green beans serving table. After the turkey and fixings were consumed, no one thanked him meaningfully or spoke personally with him. He was told: “Thanks for coming. You can go now.”

The homeless shelter received seven hours of service from a new volunteer who had potential to become a valuable asset for their ministry. They intersected with Chris and let him leave with no way to contact him for future service. Because the shelter failed to affirm him, it lost the human resource of Chris.

f-Rutland-AlisonAffirmation is as easy as making eye contact, listening, and speaking phrases such as “Thank you,” “I’m so glad you are here” and “You do that well.” Affirmation is communicated by human warmth and is reinforced by a preplanned process of welcome, which include introductions, tours, printed materials and food.

Connection With Community

Connection with a community of significant service is the glue that binds healthy teams of volunteers. Volunteer teams have an organic relational experience, but it doesn’t just happen. Volunteers must be able to articulate their mission, which should be rehearsed and celebrated at every opportunity. As the leader communicates the significance of the mission, he or she creates an atmosphere of group pride that will promote personal connection within the team.

Measurable Results

Producing measurable results is vital to any volunteer service and is the most overlooked element in the church world. If Chris had simply been called together with all the other volunteers at the shelter to be thanked and to hear a report of how many meals had been served, it probably would have brought Chris back to serve again. Every volunteer ministry has measurable results, and the effort of counting, reporting and record keeping is well worth it.

Finally, how can volunteers be encouraged to be consistent and effective in service? The overarching goal is productivity and the identification of individuals who can become team leaders of other volunteers.

Senior pastors who wish to have a productive army of workers should require every staff pastor to develop a new volunteer team leader each year. This will include identification of possible leaders, cultivation of relationship with them and plugging each one in at an appropriate level while giving informal oversight to their efforts. Some will become lay team-leaders, and some will not.

For the senior pastor who has no paid staff, his own job description will include developing two or more volunteer team leaders each year. As volunteer teams are created, a framework for church growth is prepared. As paid staff members are added, the structure will continue to expand, as long as the paid staff understand the importance of their management of effective volunteers.

Start Small

If this all sounds overwhelming, start small. Select the program most needed in your church, and apply these steps with the end goal of developing volunteers who can lead the whole program.

For example, if you need a team to phone visitors and do follow-up with them, it is shortsighted to simply train them in phone outreach. As you are training the group, you are casting vision that will be ignited in a future leader. Watch for that leader and assign tasks and test passion; and when the team is functioning and producing, turn it over to that leader so you can develop the next program.

Of course, you will also continue to meet with the leader of phone outreach and should organize a team leader’s council that will grow with the development of new programs. This council will provide a communication channel and an opportunity for you to thank and celebrate team leaders, keeping them on track.

Respect your volunteer workers by expressing your gratitude often and embracing the powerful reality that every member of your church can serve and some who serve can lead. 

Volunteer service creates energy, ownership, friendship and personal satisfaction. Volunteer teams led by volunteer leaders are the foundational network for growth that establishes a healthy church composed of active, engaged members.  

Connection with a community of significant service is the glue that binds a volunteer team. Volunteers share a relational experience, but it doesn’t just happen.


Alison Rutland and her husband, Mark, have worked together in pastoral ministry, conference seminars and the founding and development of their ministry, Global Servants ( After completing her master’s degree she taught at the graduate level on the recruitment, development and management of volunteers. Currently, Alison directs the Office of the First Lady and serves as an adjunct instructor at Oral Roberts University. She has three children and six grandchildren.


7 steps to developing a volunteer program:

1. Envision the mission with passion. Be able to see and articulate the end result at the beginning.

2. Structure and organize the outreach by developing a mission statement, logo, T-shirts, manual and so on.

3. Clarify the functions, or “jobs,” by making everything a job and every worker a team member.

4. Recruit workers even when you think you have enough, in order to keep adding new energy.

5. Train regularly through model leadership, inspiring trainees and making examples of workers who “get it.”

6. Release responsible ownership by giving regular assignments, admitting your mistakes and affirming team ideas.

7. Celebrate, affirm and reward workers by assessing, reporting results, praising excellence and holding parties.

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