The Volunteer Communication Gap
With tears in her eyes and a quiver in her voice, she pleaded for my help. Sally was new to our church and was desperately trying to find her place. She had moved to Nashville all alone – not knowing a single person – to pursue her dream job for a company that abruptly downsized and dismissed her just six short months after her arrival in music city. While she had been attending the church for much of that time, she was still just one of the crowd. She hadn’t found a place to serve and where she could begin building relationships. It wasn’t for lack of effort. She had filled out numerous cards on Sunday mornings expressing interest in serving and a willingness to get plugged in, but as of yet had not been connected. Now here she was jobless, with too many idle hours on her hands, and looking for a place to serve to distract her from the lonely hours of job hunting.
As I listened to her account of repeated attempts to connect, I tried to subdue the guilt I wrestled with in feeling like we had failed her. But as I continued to listen, I discovered that her inability to get connected was a bit more complicated than that. It wasn’t that no one had reached out to her; it was that we had failed to truly communicate and build a relationship with her. We had unintentionally seen her as a name on a card rather than a person looking for a place of belonging, connection, and purpose.
In my years of ministry, I’ve repeatedly lived and observed the challenges of effectively communicating with volunteers, especially in a way that values their worth and keeps them engaged.
Communication and relationships go hand in hand. If you communicate without relationship, the result is sterile and impersonal. And you can’t foster genuine relationship without regular communication.
Let me share with you four ways that I believe we as ministry leaders can use communication to foster relationship with the volunteers we lead and serve:
1. Be quick to respond.
Volunteering one’s time is a big commitment. People are consumed by job responsibilities and family dynamics. When they finally take the step to sign up and get involved, they are exposing themselves. They are putting themselves out there saying, “Use me.” And when we are slow to respond or don’t respond at all, it’s a painful form of rejection. We’re unintentionally saying, “You aren’t necessary. We don’t need you.” As church staff, we have plenty of great excuses. I know the pressure and lack of resources – including time – that keep us from fulfilling our good intentions of getting back to our volunteers. But we all long to feel needed and valued. And our timely response to volunteers speaks volumes about how we value them.
2. Be consistent and persistent with vision.
Vision leaks. I recently heard Patrick Lencioni say that if your staff (or volunteers) can’t mimic you, you’re not saying the vision enough. You want to be stating the vision so frequently that volunteers can quote the phrases verbatim and with great energy and passion. Make them believe it. Repeat it until they believe it. You may make yourself a little crazy saying the same thing repeatedly, but repetition is key. You’ll know you’re doing this well when you overhear a volunteer repeat key points of the vision to another volunteer.
3. Be thorough.
The details matter. Sometimes in our haste we throw a volunteer into the proverbial fire so we can attend to another spark about to flare up. I realize sometimes this is unavoidable, but let me challenge you to do everything you can to train your volunteers well. Give them the tools they need. Be consistent and clear with directions and expectations. Set them up to succeed. Training gives you an opportunity to further deepen the relationship by spending intentional time with them.
4. Be faithful with feedback.
Don’t abandon your volunteers once you have equipped them. It’s easy to move onto the next volunteer who needs your attention and neglect the volunteers who are in action. But volunteers need to be told what they are doing well and reminded of why it matters.
These are just a few things I’ve found critical to developing great communication in relationship with volunteers.
Remember, volunteers are not there to meet your needs or help you get your job done. In fact that should be the last motivation in employing volunteers. Your primary responsibility is to help volunteers understand their God-given gifts and be able to use those gifts for service. Many of the volunteers who serve within your ministry may never be able to use those gifts in their day jobs. Many of them are trudging along in jobs that don’t inspire them in order to pay the rent and make ends meet. All the while a little bit of their heart is starving because their gifts are going undeveloped or underutilized, and their passions are flickering under the weight of obligation.
As leaders of volunteers we have the amazing privilege of helping bring God-given dreams and gifts to light for our volunteers. Our intentionality in communicating well with them does so much more than equip them to do a task; we communicate to people like Sally that they have found a place to belong, connect, and find purpose.