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Volunteer Structures: The Tension Between Quantity And Quality

It was summer and volunteer recruitment for fall was in full swing. Our elementary director was looking for some five-star recruits like it was National Signing Day. She was talking with a mom who we thought would make a great small group leader. In the conversation, she made it clear that small group leaders serve every week. It’s non-negotiable. Sure, people will miss here and there for various reasons and we change things up in the summer, but it’s a weekly role during the school year.

The mom decided she was too busy to commit to that and walked away after their conversation ended. We understood. The small group leader role in our elementary ministry is part of an overall structure of different teams and roles, and that role meant a weekly commitment.

Volunteer Structures

Every ministry has some sort of volunteer structure. It might be an intentional structure designed with specific things in mind, or it might have randomly come into existence without any previous thought. The frequency a volunteer serves is a big part of any volunteer structure, including yours.

How often do you require volunteers to serve?

The Tension Between Quantity And Quality

Tension can mean many things, but here’s the type of tension we’re talking about:

A balanced relation between strongly opposing elements.

Andy Stanley has taught about the importance of knowing whether something is a problem to be solved or a tension to be managed. For example, having five of the highest quality volunteers in the world doesn’t work with 200 kids. But, it would solve the problem of not having volunteers who are high quality.

Having 400 volunteers who should never serve with kids doesn’t work either, despite solving the problem of not having enough quantity. The answer lies somewhere between the two, in the tension.

Where does your volunteer structure fit in that tension?

Volunteer structures that lean toward QUANTITY might include:

  • People serving once every four or six weeks.
  • The most committed people serving every other week or month on / month off.
  • A lower bar in terms of who is allowed to serve in specific roles.

More people are willing to commit to roles that require a lower time commitment. That is why a volunteer structure based primarily on the commitments listed above can typically recruit more people. The downside, however, is leaders don’t have the best relationships with kids because they don’t spend enough time with them for that to happen. Relationships require consistency.

Volunteer structures that lean toward QUALITY might include:

  • People serving weekly.
  • People serving once a month, but in all services.
  • Being more picky about who serves, especially in small group leader roles.

Less people overall might jump on board a ministry that leans toward quality in its volunteer structure. However, the benefits are more than worth it. Strong relationships form between kids and leaders, as well as with parents. That’s the most important thing, but there’s something else I’ve observed in quality structures.

The more a ministry leans toward quality, the more invested and dependable volunteers are. A higher percentage of them show up to volunteer trainings. More of them become coaches (volunteer leaders of leaders). They miss far less often and rarely let us know last minute.

It makes sense because high expectations attract high capacity leaders.

So how do you shift the tension to a high quality structure?

4 Steps to Shift Toward Quality

1. Draw up the volunteer structure you would like to have, based on quality.

Based on the uniqueness of your church (size, services, strategy, etc.), draw up the volunteer structure you would prefer to have and where every role fits into that structure. Different commitment levels for different roles is a good idea, and can even provide a built-in path for people to become more committed.

Cast vision for the new structure.

Talk about the Why. Why kids need consistent leaders in their life. Why it’s so important for us to pour into them at this stage of their life. Why this is an incredible opportunity to give yourself to something that makes a difference. Tell stories. Start with your best leaders. They already believe in this and will be glad you’re moving in this direction. Ask them to champion it to others. Meet with as many people one-on-one as you can, and challenge them to join you.

3. Make the move.

At some point, you just have to make the shift. You give people the option to choose if they’ll continue serving and the capacity they’ll serve in. Here’s something to think about as you make the shift. If people primarily serve every other week in your structure now, only half of them have to commit to serving weekly in order for you to have the same number of people each week (you’ll figure out the math later). The total number of volunteers goes down, but quality and consistency goes up.

4. Stick to the plan.

People will make great cases as to why they can’t commit to what you’re asking. Stick to the plan. Let them serve in another role, another ministry, or not at all. Do you know what the great thing is about communicating this to new volunteer prospects? They don’t know any better. This is all they know and they have to choose whether to be part of it or not.

But what about . . . ?

Are there exceptions when it comes to where your structure must lean? Absolutely. Churches with one service can hardly ask people to serve weekly. Churches with multiple, distinct environments for children throughout the week have to prioritize those environments. The important thing is to define the ultimate goal in terms of a volunteer structure and develop a plan to get there. Ensure you’re moving in the right direction and not sitting still. For instance, a church with one service may start a scaled-down volunteer service that happens before the regular service. It’s a smaller step toward two services where small group leaders can serve weekly.

Change of Heart

The mom who decided she was too busy to serve weekly thought about something when she walked away from that conversation with our elementary director. She thought about her two boys, both elementary-age, who had benefited from the weekly presence of a small group leader in their life. In light of that, she changed her mind and decided she would do it. She would show up weekly and pour into her own small group. Win.

Do you know what? If she hadn’t shown up, we would have figured it out like we do every year. We didn’t let the fear of losing a new volunteer force us to settle for a quality of volunteering we don’t want. Pursue quality, even at the expense of quantity. The great thing is, you can eventually have both, but only if you lean toward quality first.

What volunteer structure do you use? What are the pros/cons?

If you’d like to learn more about recruiting the type of quality volunteers Nick has talked about, he’s written a companion article to this one you might want to check out.

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