You get what you expect. If you have low expectations about people turning up, people will meet your expectations—they won’t turn up.
The most common mistake people make in working with volunteers is thinking that a low bar is the best way to get people onto a ministry team. “You only have to…” “It’s just once every…” “There’s not much preparation…”
The second mistake is thinking that a low bar is the best way of keeping people on your ministry team.
In the past my bar was low. One of the ways this was evident was in the titles I gave roles. My Toddler Teams (responsible for discipling children aged one and two) were a classic example. Each team was lead by a Toddler Leader, who was supported by Toddler Helpers.
I remember a training session where the Toddler Teams were asked to brainstorm various play situations that would reinforce the big truth being taught that term. One of the Helpers said, “But I don’t teach the kids. I’m just a Helper. I pick up kids when they cry, put the lids on the glue sticks, and make sure morning tea is ready.” And she was right to think like that. The title of her role—the title I’d come up with—had taught her that.
It was fascinating to see the change in the team the following year when we changed the titles to Toddler Team Leader and Toddler Leader. Team Leaders began to hand over responsibilities to Leaders. Leaders gifted in music and dance began to run that section of the program. Leaders gifted in visual arts set out a wider variety of collage material for the children to use in their crafts. Best of all, Leaders came with a clear understanding of the big truth they were communicating as a team to the little ones that day.
I know of a church where a person serving in the church Welcome Team asked, “Is it okay if I join the New Family Welcome Team? I don’t think I’m really needed on my old team.” When asked why she thought that was the case, she explained that her old team only required her to serve once every three months, whereas the New Family Welcome Team required people to serve every second month. In her mind the role that required the higher commitment meant the greater the need. Of course, the team leader of her previous team was sad to see her go—but she longed to use her gifts to make people feel welcome. So she joined the team where her gifts could be used more often and has served in that New Family Welcome Team ever since.
Raising the bar involves expecting people to commit more time, not less.
In the early days of our church we had this crazy roster of people in and out of our Kids Church rooms. It was clear that this was not the best environment to disciple kids. The language of the Leaders at that time was, “Is it my turn this week…?” “I thought I wasn’t on till next week…” “Boy, my turn comes round quick…”
This language reflected the expectation I’d set up. You’re in, you’re out, you’re in, you’re out. Leaders had little time to get to know their kids, and kids had little time to get to know their leaders. Kids were reluctant to pray. And while our Leaders loved the kids when it was their turn and faithfully taught them, they rarely connected with them when they weren’t rostered on.
I approached two women and asked them to consider discipling children aged three and four for an entire term: ten straight weeks. At the end of the ten weeks I asked them to reflect on the experience. They were blown away by the fact that every child had learned the memory verse. They loved seeing how much the children had learned, hearing them pray and seeing them run in each week, excited to see them.
At the beginning of the following term, both women came to me independently. One asked, “Who’s teaching my kids this term?” The other said, “I miss my kids.” It was the first time I’d heard this language from my leaders. You increase the ownership of discipling of children by increasing what is required of each leader.
The year I raised the bar and required teams to commit to a full term was also the year I lost two-thirds of my team. I spent sleepless nights wondering if I’d made the right decision. At the end of Term 2, both women who’d taught in Term 1 asked if they could teach the three and four years again in Term 3. They missed the kids, they missed serving with each other, and they wanted back in.
Out of the two-thirds who’d said no to teaching a full term, a third of those became our holiday teams—a more flexible commitment that still gave people who loved our kids the opportunity to serve. One size does not fit all; raising the bar requires balance. We need to create roles that suit people’s gifts and heart, as well as their capacity. But if we never raise the bar, the fruit of that ministry will suffer.
Most people are tentative—they fear if they expect too much of their volunteers, they’ll lose them. My experience is the opposite: the more I expect, the more stable my teams have become. I wonder if it’s time you raised the bar for your volunteers. They may surprise you.