10 Principles to Get the Best From Volunteer Church Leaders

flip flopsVolunteer leaders are the backbone of the Small Church.

In bigger churches, most or all of the first- and second-tier leaders are paid staff. (Namely, the pastoral staff and department heads). That’s a great thing. When you hire someone, it’s much easier to require certain tasks and enforce your expectations. After all, they have a financial stake in how well they perform as a church leader.

But Small Churches are led by volunteers. Volunteers who can quit at any time. And when they do quit, it doesn’t hurt them financially, it actually frees up more of their spare time. So we need to give them good reasons to stick around.

It’s one of many aspects that make pastoring the Small Church a unique challenge.

Of course, in many Small Churches, it can be tough to find anyone to step up and lead. If that’s your situation, you may want to check out my previous post, How to Delegate When There’s No One Around: Six Lessons I Learned the Hard Way, then come back here.

I’ve been in Small Church ministry for almost three decades – over 22 at my current church. In that time, I’ve learned a handful of great principles that help our church attract and keep the best group of volunteer leaders I’ve ever worked with.

Here are 10 of them:


1. Tell Them Why

The days when church leaders did what they were supposed to do out of obligation are gone. Good riddance.

People – especially leaders – want to know why something needs to be done. And they should know. Leaders can’t lead without knowing why.

Oh sure, you can get away without explanations for a while, or on small projects. But for the big things – the things that matter – good leaders want and need to know why.

When leaders know why they’re doing something and buy into that reason, not only will they give more of themselves to it, they can lead others better in it. And they have a better chance of coming up with great ideas of their own to make a good idea even better. Now that’s good leadership!


2. Listen More than You Talk

Pastors and preachers are taught how to speak. But we’re seldom taught how to listen.

Well, maybe we’re taught how to listen to God in prayer, but few of us get the serious training we need to learn how to turn the monolog of preaching into a dialog with church members and leaders.

As a pastor, I always want to be the stupidest person in the room. (I know, it’s not much of a stretch). I want people around me who know more about their area of expertise than I do. Pastors who do all the talking don’t get smart volunteers. They get yes-men. Yes-men aren’t leaders.

When church leaders know that their ideas, concerns and feelings are being heard, they make stronger commitments to God, to the church and to other leaders. And they make better leaders themselves.


3. Over-Communicate

The flip side of listening is making sure you communicate well – and often. 

Rick Warren has said that when the pastor feels like the mission/vision of the church is being over-communicated, that’s when many people are probably starting to really hear it for the first time.

That principle doesn’t just apply to vision, but to process, methods, ministries, schedules… you name it.

As pastors, most of us live with church events 24/7, so it’s easy to forget that the church schedule – and even the church’s mission – is not nearly as front-and-center in the lives of our volunteer leaders as it is in ours. Even our most dedicated people will forget that “essential” meeting if they don’t get an extra phone call, text, Tweet, email or Facebook reminder

When something matters, it can never be said enough.


4. Be Patient

Volunteer church leaders are working for the church and its ministries in whatever cracks they can find in their schedule. A schedule that includes work, school, child-rearing, family crises, financial stress and more.

They’re studying, praying and preparing after the kids are finally fed and asleep, the house is semi-clean and the dishes are still piled up in the sink. Instead of relaxing in front of the TV, they’re opening up Sunday School curriculum (or something else they have to prepare for) and getting ready to give the church several hours that, quite frankly, they really don’t have time for.

If they don’t get everything right the first time they do something (or the tenth), they don’t deserve to have the pastor jump down their throat or threaten to take them out of leadership.

Many volunteer leaders quit, not because they don’t care, but because they get less hassle from the pastor when they “show up and shut up” than when they step up and try to help.

Recognize their sacrifice and be patient if the way they do it isn’t perfect. After all, you’ve never done it perfectly yet, either.

Yes, I know the above description of a church leader’s day sounds like the life of a lot of Small Church pastors, too. Especially if you’re bivocational. Give yourself a break from perfection, too.


5. Be Forgiving

People make mistakes. I do. You do. Your volunteer leaders do.

The only way to not make mistakes is not to do anything – which is a big mistake.

Be grateful for their efforts and forgiving of their failures. Then work with them to give them the tools to do it better the next time.

In our church, we tell people that if they work in an area of ministry, only to discover it’s not the right fit for them, they can quit at any time, guilt-free. When people know their mistakes aren’t fatal, they’ll step up more often.

For more on this, check out another previous post of mine on this topic, How to Deal with Church Staff and Volunteer Problems Without Losing Good People.


6. Be Prepared and Be Consistent

No volunteer leader should ever show up to a church function, ministry or meeting more prepared than the pastor. Have an agenda and stick to it. Be ready with all the necessary materials. Be on time. Stay for questions and/or fellowship afterwards.

If you’re not sure you can follow through, don’t schedule it to begin with. But if you do schedule it, keep it and prepare for it! One of the fastest ways to lose good volunteer leaders is to call, then cancel meetings and/or come to them unprepared.

Stop winging it, Pastors! Our volunteers deserve better from us.


7. Honor Them and Their Time

People are under no obligation to volunteer at your church. Or mine. None. Nada. Zip.

Sure, as believers we are called to contribute to the health and well-being of the church, but that leaves people with a lot of choices about which church they’ll choose to make those commitments to.

Leaders will attend and volunteer at churches where they are honored as people and where their hard work and leadership skills are recognized and valued. Not because they’re seeking glory (there’s not a lot of glory overseeing the church nursery) but because they want to make a real difference. Plus, honoring one another is just the right thing to do.


8. Train, Don’t Just Tell

Buying new Sunday School curriculum is not the same as training your new Sunday School leader.

Telling the youth leader to “teach the kids more bible verses” is not the same as training them how do it.

Leadership is an art. And a skill. It’s learned by spending quality time with other leaders.

People need to be trained. Training takes time, relationships and assessment.

If you want great leaders, invest in great followers by giving them your time and experience. Take them with you as you do ministry. Listen as much as you talk. That’s what training looks like.


9. Train Leaders to Train Leaders

When I came to my current church 22 years ago, I found an untrained, but passionate young man leading the church’s youth group named Gary Garcia.

We spent a lot of time together in those first years. I took him with me as we did ministry, talked about the church and figured out how to do things better. I was his mentor.

Today, he is more my peer than my protégé. And over the ensuing decades he has mentored hundreds of young people, scores of whom are in ministry today.

22 years later, that young man is no longer young, but he’s still the youth pastor (and much more) at our church. Last Sunday, he and I conducted the last of a three-week tag-team sermon series called “Better Together”, from Ecclesiastes 4:9-12.

We told the church our story, then encouraged them to find and train other leaders to become leaders themselves.

In case you’re wondering how we do this, I don’t use a curriculum for training leaders. I’ve tried several, but they don’t work for my teaching style. I wrote about how we train leaders in our church in what I promise will be the final mention of a previous post of mine (at least for today), A Simple 5-Step Discipleship Process for Any Small Church (That Won’t Wear Out the Pastor).


10. Foster an Atmosphere of Thankfulness

You can never say “thank you” enough. People need to know they’re appreciated. That their efforts are noticed. That they matter.

Stop trying to guilt people into stepping up. That never works.

Want great volunteer leaders? Infuse everything you do with an atmosphere of thankfulness. Even if you don’t have volunteer leaders right now, be grateful for the members you have. When they feel appreciated for what they do, they might decide to do more.


So what do you think? What ideas can you share about raising up great volunteer church leaders?

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(Flip-Flops photo from Lali Masriera • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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4 thoughts on “10 Principles to Get the Best From Volunteer Church Leaders”

    1. Great question, Ralph. I don’t have a set of resources, since I tailor it for the individual. In response to your question, I’ve added a link to a previous post of mine under point 9 that explains how I do it. Thanks for the nudge.

  1. Very well said, Karl! My closest relationships are with my volunteer leaders. I have built those relationship to the point that honor and value comes straight from the heart. We’re all family and love one another deeply. I think the challenge for me and for most forward-thinking leaders is to learn the art of valuing and thanking others on a regular but meaningful basis. Thanks for the words of wisdom!

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