Published: August 21, 2023
Struggling with tough volunteer problems? Ask the experts who’ll give real solutions!
Volunteers are the backbone of children’s ministry, the feet on the ground that get the job done. They’re also the biggest need most ministries have, and they require ongoing coordination, care, and affirmation. We love our volunteers and know children’s ministry wouldn’t be possible without them.
Yet with all the many volunteers lending their hands and hearts to sharing God’s love with children, problems are nearly inevitable. Different personalities, commitment levels, expertise, and other complexities can create common problems leaders must deal with. As a leader, you’ve no doubt had your share of issues related to volunteer management. We tossed a few common issues to volunteer management experts and asked for help. They delivered! Read on for expert, practical advice.
Volunteer Problem 1: How do I handle volunteers who never prepare for their lessons?
Consider how much preparation you’re requiring of volunteers. Are you making it easy for them? Some volunteers don’t prepare because they simply don’t have time to do everything required.
Make lessons prep-friendly.
One solution is to make sure your curriculum is prep-friendly. Does it require a rotten banana that they need to buy a week ahead of time so it can get rotten? Supplies that they can only get online? That kind of advanced planning is unrealistic for a volunteer. Right-size your expectations by using a curriculum like Simply Loved, which has easy-to-find supplies and many low-prep options each week.
Have a prep-volunteer.
Another solution is to recruit someone whose job is just to gather and prep supplies. This is a great spot for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable teaching kids (and maybe doesn’t even like kids!), but wants to get involved. Let this person gather supplies a week or two in advance, preparing a bag or bucket for each classroom. They can pre-cut things that need to be pre-cut, make sample crafts, and essentially provide a get-here-and-go option so your other volunteers only need to prepare their hearts.
Choose curriculum wisely.
Third, consider how user-friendly your curriculum is. For example, DIG IN can be accessed online and taught right from a tablet. Or you can print a copy for your teachers. Perhaps they’d prefer to be emailed a copy. Having a lot of options enables you to equip each teacher with lessons in the format they find easiest. And that will make it easier to prepare.
Another great feature of DIG IN is that you can let your volunteers be as involved or as uninvolved as they want in planning the lesson. Your purchase of DIG IN includes unlimited logins for teachers, who can get into the engine and create their own lessons with a few easy clicks. If you have volunteers you think would be interested in that, let them loose! They’ll be forced to prepare because that’s the only way to have a lesson! But they’ll find it fun and easy, and they can choose which activities best fit their interests. Have teachers that aren’t willing to do that? No problem. You can easily assemble the lessons yourself (keeping in mind the preferences of each teacher), and send the lesson off in their preferred mode of communication.
Remember, your volunteers are just that: volunteers. They’re doing this because they love kids; not to add another job onto their busy lives. By right-sizing your expectations and communicating those to each volunteer, you’ll make everyone happy.
Volunteer Problem 2: How do I handle volunteers who say “yes”—and then don’t follow through and show up?
Volunteers who say yes but then don’t show up to serve may be viewing their service as a task rather than a ministry. There are a couple of causes to consider.
First, it’s not uncommon for children’s ministry leaders to encourage prospective volunteers by saying, “This is really easy; anyone can do it!” Unfortunately, this sentiment devalues the service and can lead a volunteer to think that if anyone can do it, someone else will. Connecting acts of ministry to the mission is critical for new volunteers to buy in. For example, explain that preparing a snack for children silences their hungry tummies so they can focus on the lesson.
Another contributing factor to “no-show syndrome” is when a volunteer doesn’t consider him or herself part of a team or fails to see the bigger picture. Asking the volunteer to always think about who’ll be affected if he or she agrees to the role but then doesn’t show will help that person see the impact of actions/inactions on the entire ministry.
If you’ve clearly connected ministry to mission and helped the volunteer see the big picture, yet the problem persists, then your issue may be placement. If a volunteer isn’t excited about or gifted for the ministry, it’s easier to disregard the commitment. Simply asking, “Do you find your ministry fulfilling?” can open the door for an honest conversation and provide the opportunity to engage the volunteer in a gifts-discovery process. This can lead to a more fulfilling ministry placement where the person will actually show up and serve.
Volunteer Problem 3: How do I deal with my hard-earned recruits who jump ship if they get a better offer—to sing in the choir, take off for a football game, or just leave?
When I recruit volunteers, they commit to one year of serving in our children’s ministry. When someone jumps ship, before they jump, I take that person through an exit interview. This lets me find out why the person is leaving and get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes the reasons are valid; sometimes they’re not. I know I can’t make volunteers stay, so I appeal to their heart.
I remind the person that children’s ministry is the greatest mission field and that God can work through him or her to change the landscape of eternity. I’m not necessarily trying to talk the person into staying because a ministry is more effective when volunteers want to be there. It’s important, though, to communicate to volunteers that they can be the “hands and feet of Jesus” to children. I also use situations like this as teachable moments in their walk with God. When we make commitments, we honor God when we keep them. In a church setting, I believe all ministries are important. However, very few ministries impact the future as powerfully as children’s ministry.
Volunteer Problem 4: I have unreliable volunteers who assume I’ll fill in for them when they call in at the last minute—over and over again.
Nothing’s more frustrating than a volunteer who can’t be relied upon to show up. Almost every leader at one time or another must step in to fill the gap when a volunteer bails out unexpectedly, so a measure of grace is necessary. But what about when you have a volunteer who’s perpetually calling in at the last minute? Here are three actions you can take.
- Provide a detailed ministry description with step-by-step instructions (a checklist is ideal) and a realistic estimation of the time required for the ministry, as well as the attendance expectation. Go over this information with your volunteer and explain the impact on the ministry when someone calls in at the last minute.
- Ensure necessary tools and supplies for the ministry are on hand, and ensure the volunteer knows where to find them. Keep your storage area well-stocked and orderly.
- Consider the volunteer’s temperament. Behavioral style assessments can offer you valuable insights into your volunteer’s motivation and habits. And you may discover that you’re asking the impossible when you assign a person with little attention for detail to a ministry that’s detail-oriented.
If you’ve successfully completed these three actions and your volunteer continues to expect you to step in or pick up the slack, initiate a candid conversation by asking, “What can I do to help you be prepared for your ministry?” You’ll either discover how you can better support your volunteer or you’ll learn whether the person is misplaced in the role or ministry.
Volunteer Problem 5: What do I do with a volunteer who shows up late—always?
This is a serious issue. First, look at your own actions. Did you thoroughly take the volunteer through orientation? Were the vision and mission of the ministry clearly communicated? Did you carefully outline your expectations for timeliness?
Once you’ve determined those answers, pray before you approach the person. Affirm your volunteer and remind him or her how important the role is in ministry. Then remember that God’s Word is a two-edged sword that cuts right to the heart of the matter. When volunteers are never on time, I believe it’s a heart issue. First Corinthians 14:40 and Colossians 3:23 remind us to do things well as if for God rather than people. When you look at these verses, we’re all really serving God. Assume all volunteers are good-hearted and mean well. Keep that in mind when you approach them. Then work together to create an accountability plan for how the volunteer will begin to arrive on time.
Volunteer Problem 6: I have very inconsistent teaching abilities and commitment levels from room to room. How do I address these inconsistencies?
Teaching is hard—that’s why professional teachers have to get a special degree! But most of your volunteers probably aren’t professionals, and some will have different skills than others.
Focus on curriculum.
Some curriculums are so open-ended that teachers aren’t quite sure how to lead it. They’re not quite sure how to pull meaning out of a game or other experience. My suggestion is to use a curriculum that’s user-friendly for various abilities. For example, DIG IN curriculum provides questions that will help kids make discoveries, plus teacher talk to sum it all up. Your more experienced teachers might be able to ad lib more, but your newer teachers will have an easy-to-follow guide to successfully transform kids’ faith.
Focus on strengths.
Another great way to address inconsistencies is to focus in on strengths and interests that your volunteers already have. Maybe Mary loves doing crafts, but can’t carry a tune. Rose might be the opposite—theatrical and musical, but can’t glue two craft sticks together. With a curriculum like DIG IN, each teacher can choose blocks that specifically match their skill set. Mary can lead a craft every week, but can opt out of the music videos block. Rose can leave the crafts out and focus on music videos. Other volunteers can choose from games, object lessons, or digging deeper into Scripture. There’s something for everyone, so no one will feel ill-equipped to lead a Sunday school class.
Because leading the way God equipped you is so rewarding, when you focus on leader’s strengths and interests, they’ll want to come back! You’ll see commitment levels rise as everyone can use their gifts to reach kids.
One thing that can have a negative impact on commitment is boredom. If you’ve had teachers volunteering for a few years, they might start seeing the same content repeating—and that can make them bored. This leaves you with two choices: Lose your volunteers, or find a new curriculum to make your teachers happy. But new curriculum means new training, bringing you back to square one on inconsistent teaching abilities.
Avoid that by using a curriculum that has fresh, new content every year! With curriculum lines like this, you can use the same familiar curriculum in its easy-to-follow format, but offer fresh activities your teachers haven’t already taught. They’ll stick around, they’ll become more and more comfortable with teaching, and you won’t have to research new curriculum programs or recruit new volunteers.
Want more volunteer management ideas? Check out these articles!
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