Elevating Volunteers

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by Donnie Thaden
Donnie Thaden loves serving as the children and family pastor at New Union Baptist in Dayton, TN. He enjoys being married to his best friend Michelle and being the dad to Abby and Chandler. He is energized leading families in their walks with Christ and assisting other leaders in children’s ministry. He has the same energy as the kids he serves and loves to play soccer. @donniethaden

It’s been said that volunteers are the lifeblood of children’s ministry. You can’t do it alone and you were not meant to. Part of God’s great plan for ministry includes allowing others to use their gifts and abilities to glorify God. This sounds great on paper, but how do you build and keep a strong team to accomplish the vision for the ministry that God has given you?

The best place to look is at how Jesus led people to serve God. In Matthew 4:18-22 Jesus calls His first disciples. When He first calls the disciples He lets them know what they will do. He says that they will become “fishers of men.” He was giving the expectations of their position as a disciple. In the rest of Matthew 4 and into Matthew 5 with the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to train those who were serving. He first begins to train them publicly. Jesus demonstrated to them how to share the Kingdom of God as He proclaimed the gospel. He inspired them through the teaching of the Word. Jesus called His disciples to a vision far greater than themselves through the preaching of the Gospel. 

So how does this relate to building and keeping a strong team? Does your team see you proclaim the gospel in such a way that they feel compelled to follow you in Christ? Children’s ministry is leading adults as much or more than leading kids. A healthy children’s ministry sees volunteers flourish using their gifts and talents because they are serving God. They see the impact of their time. They need to be told how they are making a difference and be reminded of it often. Volunteers are busy just like we are. They have families, jobs, extracurricular activities and other everyday stresses. The children’s ministry should be a place where they feel valued and refreshed. As Jesus lays out what the Kingdom looks like, do the volunteers in your ministry see that vision of the gospel?

Don’t be so busy in the craziness of ministry that you overlook what is going on in the lives of your volunteers. In Matthew 8:23-27 Jesus calmed the storms that terrified the disciples. Jesus was there when His team needed Him. You need to be there when your team needs you. This goes a long way in building a team of committed like-minded people to serve. When you make a commitment to your team like this, they will go to war with you, because they know you care—not just about the ministry, but about them.

To strengthen your team and create a ministry with a greater variety of gifts, look for people where you have not looked before. People want to be needed and they want to be asked to serve. Look for people outside the normal group of volunteers. In other words, look beyond the parents in your ministry or the ones who have always been there. Look for traits and character in people who you appreciate. In Matthew 9:9 Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector, to be one of His followers. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day only saw contempt and condemnation. Though you would not select a person to volunteer with kids that you do not know or select one where you question their choice of career, we can learn to look in unlikely places for wonderful people to serve the Kingdom. When you look outside the normal group of volunteers, the team is strengthened, energy is boosted and God is glorified from their service. This encourages your volunteers as they see that they are not in this alone. So, get creative and uncomfortable and ask people to volunteer who demonstrate godliness, even if they may say no.

In Matthew 10 we see Jesus do something amazing. He gave the ministry away. He charged the disciples to share their faith with the nation of Israel. This is revealing about God’s desires. Your volunteers want to feel needed. They want the connection to serving Christ that you have. They want to participate in life change of kids and families just like you. This has been one of the harder lessons for me. At heart, I am a type A personality with some control tendencies. I say “some” control tendencies, but I may have more than I care to admit. God showed me how shortsighted my approach was to ministry. As I began to give away ministry to the volunteers, the sheer joy in their hearts and mine grew. Their excitement for serving Christ and leading kids is making the ministry better. Volunteers are not a means to an end but coheirs with Christ who labor with you for the glory of God. The conviction to give the ministry away brought freedom to me and fulfillment to those serving in the children’s ministry.

Through chapter 10 we see that Jesus prepared the disciples for their task. This means training, training and more training. With the hectic pace of life, the natural response is that no one has time to be trained. Technology has changed how you can train. Even if you are a small church in a rural setting, use technology to reach and teach your volunteers. Even if they say they do not have the time, they hunger for training. Use short concise messages around a subject that will improve their own lives and their ministry. In fact, training is one of the most underused tools for volunteers and one of the most necessary.   

Jesus not only equipped them to serve, He said He would be with them. He says,
“I’ve got your back.” Do your volunteers know that you have their backs in difficult situations? It only takes once to undermine the security of your team. They need to know that you believe in them and are willing to go to bat for them when the need arises. Jesus backed His disciples and believed in them when the circumstances looked bleak. Look at Peter and see how Jesus’ words brought strength and peace to Peter after he denied the Lord three times.

Jesus also promised His disciples about being rewarded for faithful service. Though serving the God of the universe should be its own reward, volunteers need to know that they are appreciated. Tell them often how much you appreciate what they do for Christ. Give them opportunities to influence the process, to shape the journey and take true ownership in the ministry they serve. Sometimes we have to remember that this is their ministry too and doesn’t belong solely to the children’s pastor.

Your volunteers need to see a person they will follow. They need to know that you are walking with Christ daily and growing in your faith. Volunteers need to see the transformed life in action as you lead, direct and relate to them and to the kids. Jesus tells the disciples “to take up” their cross and follow Him. Your volunteers will be encouraged when they see that the children’s pastor has taken up his cross for Christ in how they lead and love their volunteers. 

Jesus is also seen throughout Scripture building up the disciples around the dinner table. Volunteers enjoy food. Who doesn’t? When you have a meeting feed them. It does not have to be a fancy meal with all the trimmings. Your volunteers will love the idea that you took the time to think of them in this way. In Matthew 26 Jesus spends the Passover with them. He shares with them that He will be betrayed and the consequences of that to Judas. This is not something that you share in an email or a text. Your volunteers will love that you train and share in a vulnerable way. Gathering around food just makes you feel good and opens up the lines of communication. 

A children’s ministry leader must be able to be honest with the volunteers. Shallow relationships kill a ministry. Sincerity must be a hallmark for your team to follow. Later in Matthew 26 Jesus tells Peter where he would fail. Peter denied it vigorously but Jesus’ prediction came true. When Peter made a mistake, Jesus forgave him. As a children’s pastor, there are many opportunities to show grace with our volunteers, which creates an atmosphere of trust. 

After Jesus’ resurrection, He gave the disciples the Great Commission. He told them He was with them and to go and share the gospel with the world. The same is true for children’s pastors. We do not need to micromanage volunteers but adequately love them, train them, live life with them and watch the Kingdom flourish and grow. Remember what Ronald Reagan said, “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”

LeadershipRyan Frank