3 tips for working with volunteers

1-2-3Most volunteer leaders (myself included) can tell stories about crafts, activities or events they planned when a volunteer helper did something totally unexpected and derailed the project.  I learned some tips from a workshop to lessen the frequency of that happening.

I worked with kids’ choirs for years as the lone Pied Piper, with one helper (usually a pianist).  It was easy as long as there were only 6 or 8 kids.  When I moved to a church where I had more than 20 first- through third-graders in a room, though, I clearly needed help.  The choir coordinator recruited the helpers, so I could have walked into a room that year with about 24 kids and 3 adult strangers.  I had detailed lesson plans, all the materials we needed, and a bag full of tricks.  Thanks to lessons from the workshop, though, I had already turned 3 “strangers” into a team.

Tip #1:  Build your team first.

Meet with your team before you try to work together.  Find out what drew them into the ministry.  Let them share what they see as their strengths, their concerns, and their prior experience.  Often, even people who have worked together for years in a ministry don’t really know each other at that level.  You need to know — and they need to know — what qualities they bring to the team.

Tip #2:  Paint the big picture.

 What is the essence of this ministry — and what difference will volunteers make?

When I direct kids’ choirs, I always want to engage the kids at the heart level.  I want them to become comfortable with the fundamentals of music and to learn to praise God with their voices.  I never want to force kids to sing or make them feel like they were in school.  My goal is joyful noise.

As a result, my classroom is always a bit chaotic (always!) because I use everything from peanut butter and clown noses to slides of Paris and funny accents to keep their attention.  Helpers in my class learn to help focus the kids’ attention on the leader (whether me or one of the helpers) in large group activities.  I ask them to guide the children in our small group time — not do the activity for the kids.

Tip #3:  Spell out your expectations.

Everyone expects something. For example, it’s easy to be on the same page when things go well, but people have different ways of dealing with challenges.

Over the years, I’ve had helpers do everything from starting a game on the other side of the room (essentially, competing for attention) to yanking kids out to scold them in the hall. One helper sat with one anxious little one on her lap every week, ignoring all the other kids.  At that point, it’s too late to “train” your volunteers.

I learned to let volunteers know up front what I expected, while I had time to get their input and feedback.  I asked them to come alongside the rambunctious child, gently put a hand on his or her shoulder, and direct the child’s attention back to the leader with a nod or a small gesture.  Helpers modeled whatever the children were supposed to be doing — singing, listening, watching, etc.  Sure, we could have figured things out later, as we went along, but I left “later” for tweaking our teamwork and dealing with the unexpected.

Great results

After 20-plus years working with kids choirs, I have kids who have grown up to do some wonderful things in music and ministry, and adults who have grown from total strangers to dear friends.  The best years were the ones where I built the team, shared a vision of the big picture, and let everyone know up front what I expected from them.