Four Things Every Volunteer Needs To Keep Their Head From Exploding.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of any church or ministry. But more times than not, for volunteers, what began as a work of passion, love and a heart to serve, ends with frustration and burnout.

I believe there are 4 things every leader can give his or her volunteers that would combat these results.

1) Volunteers need clearly defined and communicated EXPECTATIONS.

One of the most frustrating positions for any volunteer to be in, is when they find themselves serving in an “evolving role”, a role that seems to change every time they show up to serve. Clearly defined and communicated expectations (the what, when and where of a position) will solve this issue.

This may seem like an easy thing to do, but the number one enemy of a clearly communicated plan is an unorganized leader. I’m amazed how many times I have heard or said myself in frustration, “_________ never does what they’re supposed to do.” When, the person being referred to has never been told EXACTLY what to do. That’s not their fault, it’s the leaders.

(Ps: Clearly defined and communicated expectations will also answer the question, “How often can we ask a volunteer to serve?” Well, how often did you communicate the need to them?)

2) Volunteers need to be EQUIPPED.

I was very fortunate to serve under Dr. Edwin Louis Cole at the Christian Men’s Network.

One day he called me into his office and told me that I was now responsible for emptying his office trash can everyday. He then proceeded to walk me through the exact process he wanted done. He showed me how to take out the old bag, how to tie it up and where the dumpster was. He then showed me where to find the new bags and then showed me EXACTLY how he wanted the bag tied and secured to the trash can.

I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that he was being so precise and specific with his instructions, it was like he thought I had never emptied a trash can before or that I couldn’t figure it out on my own. But the reality was, even though I knew how to empty a trash can and put a new bag in, he wasn’t going to assume I knew how. He was saving the both of us from potential future frustration. (the fact is I had emptied a trash can before, but I had never emptied HIS trash can before, and he wanted it done the right way.)

Dr. Cole used to say, “You can’t expect what you don’t inspect.” Basically, if you want something done right, you don’t have to do it yourself, but you are responsible for the training. To put it Biblically, “Philip ran over and heard the man reading from the prophet Isaiah. Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” And he urged Philip to come up into the carriage and sit with him.” (Acts 8:30–31)

3) Volunteers need to be EMPOWERED.

This is pretty simple. Create volunteer positions that can be “owned” by a volunteer. Don’t create a position that is so rigid, that the volunteer feels like if they make one adjustment or mistake it will ruin everything. Every volunteer position should have some margin built into it, that a volunteer who is passionate can add his or her own gifting and ability to improve what they are doing.

I firmly believe that ownership fuels passion, and when you’re running towards passion, you’re running away from burnout.

4) Volunteers need to be ENCOURAGED.

When I say volunteers need to be encouraged, I’m not just talking about telling them they’re doing a good job.

The most powerful way we can encourage our volunteers is to constantly communicate how the role they are filling is important to the vision of the organization. (and if it’s not, then maybe it a role you don’t need.)

Here’s an example. Take a person who works in the church nursery holding babies. Week after week they sit in a room rocking the crying babies of strangers, changing dirty diapers and constantly having their clothes ruined as they get spit up on. We could tell them they’re doing a good job and we appreciate them, and that’s good, but it won’t fuel their passion. But when you tell them about the couple who were on the brink of divorce, and that because the church was able to offer childcare at the marriage conference they didn’t have to spend money they didn’t have on a babysitter. And while at that conference they both recommitted their lives to Christ and recommitted themselves to each other, it’s not a stretch or an exaggeration to say that happened because YOU were willing to give up attending the conference yourself to take care of a strangers baby.

That’s the kind of encouragement we need to give our volunteers. They need to know that what they are doing is the work of God. That they are building His Kingdom. That what they are doing is AS IMPORTANT as the ministry that happening from the platform.

That is how a volunteer needs to be encouraged.

(FYI, I didn’t make up that scenario above, that actually happened, and stories like that happen every week, we just need to be intentional about bringing our volunteers in on the celebration)

These four things may not be the “end all” of working with volunteers or solving the burnout issue, and I’m sure you have some things you would add and I’d love to hear them, but I do believe it keeps the process heading in the right direction.

Volunteers are a treasure that need to be protected. And it’s our job as leaders to protect them, even if it means protecting them from ourselves and our leadership mistakes. (we all make them)

Originally published at on July 7, 2014.