Toolbox: leading and managing volunteers and staff


Some problems in life are predictable. Part of my day job involves coaching teachers at the early stages of their career. If you are a great teacher, you will get promoted, that almost always means some sort of leadership role, running a team of fellow teachers, maybe as a department head. Now, the problem is that in and of itself, being a great classroom teacher does not equip you to lead.

They are different skills. Suddenly, it is not about you being a great solo teacher, you will now be judged by how well your whole team does. You can model being a great teacher in the classroom, but your task now is not just to be a great teacher but to make the rest of your team great teachers.

There is a parallel here with Christian youth work. We have a long tradition in the Church of recognising specific giftings (say an ability to relate to and communicate with young people), so we (correctly) release folk into that area of ministry. Here’s the rub, if we succeed, we are very quickly going to be like the good teacher, needing to run a team, not just performing well ourselves. 

I loved Ali’s article last month, a rich and deep reflection to get us thinking about what sort of team we might run, how and how we might lead. If you have not read it yet, check it out now.

So, a quick recap:

  • We need teams, we cannot work alone.
  • Team leadership in a Christian context has the unique flavour of ‘servant leadership’, we are there to build and support our team, not lord it over them in an exercise of power.
  • Vision is key, nobody wants to just ‘fill a hole’. We want our lives to be meaningful so without a vision, your people may not perish, but they will not volunteer.
  • Great teams are made up of diverse people.

So, on a practical note, how do we start to recruit and keep volunteers? I am going to divide this up into three big sections.


1. Getting volunteers is a whole church task

Many of us will know that feeling of scouting around, trying to get folks to help with ‘our’ work. In the worst case, different ministries within a church actually start to compete. Let’s be honest, the sort of ‘dream team’ members we want (bright, intelligent, available, on fire for God) could probably be used in a whole range of roles within the church. I say this despite the fact that I do believe the call to work with young people is quite specific and unique.

I have been in situations where I have met a new person in church and found myself asking them to check out the youth work simply because I knew that if I didn’t, they would be nabbed by some other predatory ministry before I could get to them. This is madness, so let’s step back a little.

You may even want to go back to the very first article in this series, and I’ll remind you of the key question: ‘Is your church called to youth and children’s work?’ If so, this simply needs to be a (I will admit it’s ‘a’ not ‘the only’) priority and we need to intentionally guide folk into this area.

This isn’t just about practical management, it is also about vision and how that inspires and motivates. I once worked for a big Anglican parish with a long history of youth and student work. After a few lacklustre years, as a church we ‘discovered’ Alpha courses.

Six people became Christians on the first course and we never looked back. This was brilliant but our vicar became an unashamed advocate for Alpha. It was frequently mentioned from the front, new courses were announced and we were called to pray. This was wonderful, but I then noticed that often, as I approached new people with a view to getting them involved with youth work, they would reply: “Oh, sorry, No! I’m helping with the next Alpha.” Alpha had this aura, it was seen as the cutting edge, where the action was and definitely the ‘hot’ thing to be involved with. By contrast, youth work hardly got a mention!

Here is an old saying: “If you get someone to blow your trumpet for you, the sound carries farther.” If you stand at the front and appeal for volunteers, there will be a feeling of ‘oh, they would say that, they’re the youth worker’. If the vicar or pastor says: “Our youth work is a major calling for our church, this is where we want our best people…” folks are much more likely to want to get involved.

“Great teams are made up of diverse people”


2. Take people and their time and gifts seriously

When people give us their time, they give us a part of their lives. This is a big responsibility. Take them seriously enough to have a formal agreement. Many of you will be doing (or have experience of) paid work and will know that you are therefore required to have a contract with your employer. Contracts can seem scary, yours will almost certainly require you to be in certain places and times, carry out certain tasks and hold significant responsibility.

Wait a minute though, consider the other side of this ‘deal’. Your contract also gives you a whole range of rights and protection. You can only be dismissed in some very specific circumstances, your employer actually has to pay you and you have a whole raft of protections around safety at work, first aid, working conditions etc.

So, I want to suggest that it is vital that we have a contract with our volunteers. If you don’t like the word ‘contract’, use ‘agreement’ instead. What is vital is that both sides are clear about what is expected. Agreements can be informal, but I really prefer them to be written down. In many respects, you may want to use a conventional job contract as a template, but I suspect there will be differences. So, here is what it might include:

  • Basic expectations – what is to be done, when and how?
  • Level of commitment – how often, how long?
  • Professional expectations (including safeguarding)
  • Character and behaviour expectations

Let’s unpick some of those. It is a basic principle that there is no reason why individual contracts cannot be agreed depending on the situations people are in. Put bluntly, younger volunteers may well have more time to spare to help; older ones may have families or other commitments.

I once ran a youth work which had its main fellowship meeting on a Sunday evening. Part of the expectation was that the leaders would meet 30 minutes early and pray. I had one gifted leader who was at the ‘small child’ stage of raising a family. He was exonerated from the need to attend this. Everyone knew and we would rather have had him there (occasionally a bit late) than put an undue burden on him to attend the prayer meeting.

Frequency is also key. How often? Maybe two weeks out of three? People have to be able to take time off for other commitments. This contract also needs to have a specific expectation about how long we will serve (a year, two years?) with a formal review built in.

One of the worst aspects of volunteering is feeling trapped and unable to get out. Paradoxically, I believe people are much more likely to agree to another year if they know there are exit points built into the future. Folks must be able to gracefully retire having put in many hours of work, not be shamed into staying because we can’t get anyone else.

Contracts can also deal with very practical stuff, for example a clear commitment that agreed expenses (say for those Sunday school materials) will be fully reimbursed.

Incidentally, at the other end of the process, we need to think about how people actually join. People need to be able to come and just see what we do – many will have quite erroneous ideas of what youth or children’s work is about. They need to be able to take a look without us trying to negotiate a contract. However, there is also a point at which their organic involvement needs to be formalised – neither too early nor too late.

The Church has a long and wonderful tradition of taking volunteers seriously. In some areas this is even bult into the structures. You may (in an Anglican context) have come across ‘non-stipendiary ministers’. Put simply, they do everything a vicar does, but don’t get paid!

Nevertheless, there is an expectation that the way they work will perfectly mirror that of paid workers. You can honour your volunteers’ efforts by having high expectations – that might mean for example, expecting a high standard of work and effective communication if they are unable to fulfil a commitment. Volunteer does not mean ‘shoddy’, second-best or amateur! In return, the contract should say that the church will sponsor training for the team, perhaps subsidising attendance at a training conference or event.

Character and behaviour expectations are important but really hard to get right. We are all sinners. I have however come across a situation where a youth worker regularly got drunk on a Saturday night (witnessed by some of his young people), but still turned up to help on a Sunday and couldn’t see what the problem was. You need to draw the line somewhere.

This issue also encompasses theology. Personally, I think this is best handled in conversation rather than trying to get folks to assent to a theological ‘statement of faith’. You are free to disagree! I have also however always asked potential volunteers about their views around sex, sexuality and drugs, not because these are the most important issues but because they are big issues for young people and we need to have at least a semblance of unity as a team if we are to speak on these issues.


3. Motive and values

This leads us neatly onto the final point. The best teams tend to be diverse: different people bringing different gifts and perspectives to the table. If you want to formally investigate this further, search online for Belbin’s theory on teams. Now, here is the problem, HR experts have realised that as humans, what we actually tend to do is recruit in our own image. Teams of middle-aged white men tend to…recruit more middle-aged white men! 

There is nothing sinister here, it is human nature to find an affinity with people like ourselves. The challenge, however, is to be aware of this and combat it. It is always harder to lead a team with a wide range of characters, giftings and personalities but it is also nearly always more productive, creative and satisfying. You probably wouldn’t want your whole team to be old-age pensioners but why not have one or two? They can bring time, chat and a lifetime’s wisdom.

People really will have the most diverse range of motives for volunteering. For some it may have to do with their own history, what was done or not done. For others, it may be connected with their own children, hopes and dreams. Ali mentioned in the last article the danger of finding people to ‘do a task’. Here is a more creative approach, ask yourself: “What tasks do my team members really want to do?”

Can we build the work around what really fires them up rather than our own expectations? For example, most paid youth workers are required to both do outreach to non-Christians but also nurture those who grow up within the church. Frankly, few of us are great at both. Find out who on your team is good at something, and release them to do that work.

I mentioned earlier that we are all sinners, and that has an impact here. The reality is that most of us will have mixed motives for serving. Yes, we want to serve Jesus but perhaps we also like hanging out with the team, love being with young people, get to fill what might have been a lonely weekend with good company or exercise some authority. Let’s be realistic, if people are giving up hours (maybe many hours) of their time, they need to have a reason for doing so. That reason may be very noble and virtuous but may also have aspects that are around meeting their own needs.

Does this matter? The key thing here is to accept that most of us have mixed motives and I profoundly believe God can still use us despite this, but the primary motive of serving God and young people has to stay primary. I once inherited a team of youth workers who were all in their 20s. It became clear to me that while they were lovely people, the youth group meeting had actually become their own main place of fellowship and to be frank, the young people rather got in the way of them having a good time and chatting to each other.

I made it clear that their fellowship was going to happen elsewhere and the meeting had to be primarily about and for the young people. With six months, all four had left, I had thwarted their primary motive, their reason for coming, and they voted with their feet.

So, I want to finish on a final and profound thought. I truly believe that managing volunteers is (for all the reasons we have explored) actually more difficult than manging paid employees. That is not a negative thing, it is wonderful to work with a team who choose to be there but, it means we also have to be aware of the much more subtle and nuanced aspects of people giving their time. Get it right and it is deeply satisfying, really one of life’s true accomplishments. Enjoy!