There is no doubt about it. Leading volunteers is one of the most difficult and rewarding challenges a leader can face.?I can?t tell you how many times I?ve had someone call out at the last minute or show up late. On the other hand, I have often been blown away by the kindness and generosity of people whose only motive is to serve the local church with passion.?Whatever the case, volunteers are the lifeblood of our churches, and when a team of volunteers is working well it?s powerful.
There are so many questions that come to mind related to the challenge of leading volunteers, but the most common one I hear (and have often asked myself) is this,
?How do I know if I am asking too much from my volunteers?”
Let?s address three possible ways we can get off balance while leading volunteers.
1. We can abuse them by asking too much.
If we aren?t careful, our extreme expectations of volunteers will burn them out. We can use their desire to serve the church as leverage for getting them to overextend themselves. This is especially true when there is a workaholic or highly driven staff culture. It can bleed over into our volunteer teams. We can get blinded by the task and forget about the people. It?s also important to note that in situations like this, ?accountability” can quickly turn into shaming. Be careful not to cross this line. In the end, they are volunteers, not employees.[quote]If we aren?t careful, our extreme expectations of volunteers will burn them out.[/quote]
2. We can push them away by not asking enough.
People want to know they are needed. When they don?t sense there is anything significant they can do, they will move on. I failed at this often. In my effort to not ask too much of people, I actually went the opposite direction. Sadly, many times I needed help but was unwilling to ask.?I would often project my own feelings about how overwhelmed the person was without actually asking them. On a few occasions, some high capacity volunteers expressed frustration with not being utilized more. In the end, I realized that what I thought was honoring them by not putting too much of a burden on them, was actually communicating that I didn?t value them. Don’t be afraid to ask high-capacity volunteers to take on larger responsibility for things beyond the scope of a normal team member.[quote]Don’t be afraid to ask high-capacity volunteers to take on larger responsibility for things beyond the scope of a normal team member.[/quote]
3. We can take advantage of the over-eager volunteer.
Sometimes we need to help people find balance.?You may have people who are so eager to serve any time the doors open that they don?t see the burnout coming. Resist the temptation to put them on the schedule every time. Use your experience to anticipate the burnout and stop it before it happens.[quote]Use your experience to anticipate the burnout and stop it before it happens.[/quote]
Over the years, I have seen some people even use volunteering as a way to escape from difficulties at home. Their marriage may be in shambles and they see volunteering for the church every night of the week as a justifiable way to escape. As a leader you have to address this with them.
So, how do you know if you?re asking too much from your volunteers? I don?t have the answer to this question for your specific situation. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, but there are some general principles we can follow. Here are three key principles to keep in mind that will help you get the balance right.
Principle 1: ?Embrace the challenge of leading them well.
Great leaders create momentum that moves the mission forward and they take good care of people along the way. Yes, it?s a challenge to lead volunteers, but embrace it and choose to use your creativity to develop unique solutions. Don?t forget that these are people and not just slot fillers. You and I both know this is an easy trap to fall into. No matter how menial the task, don?t just get the job done. Choose to lead them well.
Principle 2: Put yourself in their shoes often.
Whether you are a paid staff member or a volunteer leader, it?s important to remind yourself of where your team members are coming from. It?s easy to get disconnected from that experience when you are on staff or highly committed to the organization already. Most volunteers are not like you. They are serving in the margins of their lives. This is not their occupation and it?s probably not their passion like it is yours.?This is only one part of their busy lives. At any given moment, something that is a higher priority may come up and require their attention. When you get frustrated with someone and you are ready to delete them from your list, step back and put yourself in their shoes.
Principle 3: Educate yourself on their lives.
The best way to get the balance right is to invest in relationships with your volunteers. Get to know the people, their faces, their names, their families, and their situations. You have to become intelligent about who they are and why they are serving. You need to know what kind of capacity they have to handle tasks both great and small.[quote]The best way to get the balance right is to invest in relationships with your volunteers.[/quote]
Dig into this. Seek to learn more deeply about your team and you will assemble a highly effective volunteer team that lasts?one that propels the mission forward.
What has your experience been with getting the balance right? I would love to hear your insights and stories around this subject.