6 ways to stop being a complete jackhole to your volunteers

Volunteer in Youth MinistryMy phone at work almost never rings. I don’t mind. Most people that actually know me know that my office hours are scattered and that the best, fastest way to reach me is my mobile. So last week when the phone on my desk rang I was pretty sure it was a solicitor. They didn’t disappoint.

The call was from a video-based subscription service targeting the leadership training needs of my ministry. Somewhere early in the conversation I picked up on the vibe that this was an “initial call,” not designed to overload me with information or draw me into a financial commitment. Having realized this, I immediately lost interest in the call. I was interested in finding out about their site, but knowing that the next call was the one that would probably give me the most information, I was ready to be out of this call. No such luck. He went on for a while, peppering me with questions about our leadership needs and offering little hints about how their product could possibly help. Finally he offered to set up the second call (which we did), followed by a painfully deliberate goodbye/reiteration of all that he’d already said. Fine, I get it; you’ve got a script you’re supposed to get through.

So I set up the call for half an hour before a standing conference call I have on Mondays, to give myself an out. They called me 10 minutes late on the phone I’d specifically asked them not to call me on. (That’s strike one AND two, if you’re scoring at home.) I then heard this odd opening greeting: “We scheduled this last week, but I hear things are pretty crazy on the east coast right now, so I’m guessing this isn’t going to work out for you today?” (If you’re reading this at a later date, Hurricane Sandy was set to whomp the northeast later that afternoon.)

What? You just said to me 1) We’re late, but that’s OK. Your time is flexible to us. 2) We’ll call you on whatever damn phone we please. 3) In the face of impending disaster, our primary concern is whether you’ve got a minute. And 4) We talked to you for half an hour and have all of your contact info, but we still have no idea where you are. Or we believe that the entire Eastern time zone is on the coast of New England.

Believe me, I don’t care. I was a “no” from my first hello; I set up the second call because I’m always interested in seeing how other companies manage presentation/pricing of their subscription sites. I poke holes in my own; it’s a relief to see the holes in someone else’s. When you realize you’ve entered someone’s “system,” you have a couple of choices: bail out or play along. If you’re not interested, it’s time to go. If  you might be, you continue with the realization that you’re going to have to probably jump through some hoops they’ve set up. It’s OK; the hoops make it easier for them to manage things. It’s just part of the deal. What annoyed me most was that after at length establishing the ground rules for how our relationship (however brief) was going to move forward, they violated their own terms with their very next point of contact.

Just like I do all the time with my volunteers.

Administration is a noted weakness for me, but the average volunteer doesn’t know that coming in. They presume, because of my title & job description, that I have a system for inducting and involving volunteers. That if I ask them for their time that I have a solid idea of exactly how I’ll use them and what I’ll expect of them. So, if only for my own benefit, here are 6 ways to stop being a complete jackhole to your volunteers:

1) Start with “thank you.”

We have a tendency to intend to thank people after they’ve helped with an event or program. Then we forget and we don’t. From now on thank them first. It will remind you that you need to involve them in whatever they said they’d help with, and that way even if you do forget at the end, at least you did it once at the beginning. Say thanks.

2) Know what you want from them before you ask them.

It sounds obvious, but we often don’t do this. We figure that no one will help us and even while asking for help we’re planning to do it all by ourselves. Stop that. Dream big. Plan yourself out of an event and know all of the holes and roles you need filled so well that when that new mom walks up and says “What do you need for the ______?” you can tell her, instead of mumbling something about just showing up and finding something to do. Nothing puts off a potential volunteer like saying they’ll help and immediately feeling “extra” or unnecessary.

3) Follow up.

Your volunteers are busy people. If you are in a paid youth ministry position you’re even more likely for some reason to forget that you’re asking people to volunteer in their free time. Whatever you’re asking them to do, it’s an extra on their calendar and a likely candidate to get mentally bumped by a sick kid or a flat tire or just a bad day. Shut up with your “why can’t these people remember anything I tell them” and remember that they’re doing you a big favor just by being willing. It’s not really their job. It’s a gift. It’s a gift that may require a little extra grace from you. Don’t be bashful about following up to remind them a few days before something they’ve committed to. They’ll probably thank you for it.

4) Equip them.

If you need a day to prepare a lesson, they need 3. Do NOT send a leader a session guide the day they’re supposed to lead it. Most of them are terrified and already haunted by self-doubt about the legitimacy of their own voice into the spiritual lives of kids or their ability to lead a group at all. If they’re leading something, give them everything in advance. Give them time to reflect and respond. Ask them if they have any questions. I don’t mean attach the lesson to an email that says, “Let me know if you have any questions!” Ask them later. Give them room to breathe, but don’t hang them out to dry on how to lead.

5) Respect their boundaries.

For crying out loud, keep a notebook or something. If Toni doesn’t want you to call on Tuesday nights, know that. If Bob can’t be reached by his mobile while at work but is happy to take your call at lunch on his office phone, have that information written down somewhere. You fit into the cracks in their schedule; it’s rare that anyone will ever be able to make you an actual priority. Know when they’re available to you. Not so you can hammer on them in those times; just so that you’re not stomping on part of their day they need you to leave alone.

6) End with “thank you.”

You ask too much of your volunteers. You have to;  you can’t do it by yourself. And it really is the work of the church to do youth ministry. They should be helping. But if they’re not drowning in your appreciation, you’re not pouring it on fast enough. Most of them are taking time that they don’t have to overcome their own insecurities with young people because they so strongly believe in the work that you’re doing together. Do you believe in it that strongly? Then tell them. And if you don’t, consider how willingly you give up your precious few moments of free time. That’s what you’re asking them to do every time they give up a half day of their weekend to help with a Sunday night program. Or a day or two of vacation to help with a retreat. They’re giving up things most people wouldn’t to do things that most people won’t. Thank them for it. Go cut their grass or something. Make it sincere.

If you’re having trouble finding volunteers already, double down on these suggestions. The few you have are that much more valuable. And never, ever take a volunteer for granted.



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