3 Easy Steps to a Good Volunteer Experience

Jesus Walks on Water

Jesus Walks on Water







by Carol

Sometimes they call me the Puppet Lady.  I’ve been doing puppets since I was in first grade. 

Over the years, I’ve made and performed with many kinds of puppets around the U.S. and in foreign countries.  I’m far from a pro, but I have a lot of experience.

I few weeks ago, I moved my church membership, and now I am up over my eyebrows in puppets again. 

When the pastor saw “puppets” on a list of things I’ve done, he immediately introduced me to a closet full of Muppet-style puppets.  (More on church storage closets in the near future….)  They adopted me at first sight.

I’m just a volunteer.  How did we move from “puppets stuffed in a closet” to full-blown “puppet world” in less than 6 weeks?

1.  Pastor’s vision – The pastor has known me for several years, but he didn’t realize that I had worked with puppets. 

Suddenly, a closet full of little stuffed characters jumped to life in his mind as a ministry with important potential.

Investigating at the cross

Investigating at the cross







2.  Ideal opportunity – The pastor linked me with the VBS director, who immediately latched onto the idea of the puppets telling the daily Bible story.

3.  Connectors – The youth ministry had used the puppets a few times, so the youth pastor’s wife volunteered to help for VBS.  She knows everyone in the church.  We talked about what / who I needed, and she knew people with those interests and abilities.  A few other folks helped connect me, too.  I could not have found the voice actors, puppeteers, and other resources on my own in a church that was so new to me.

In a few short weeks, I have gotten to know a lot of people, they have gotten to know me at my best (and stressed — another story for later), and we have had a great experience together in a ministry I love doing.

Shouldn’t all volunteers have that kind of inaugural experience in a new church or ministry?

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.

Coming soon – focusing on specifics by ministry area

Topics in this category:  Volunteer leaders of adults, adult volunteer leaders of youth, volunteer leaders of children, volunteer leaders in women’s ministry, volunteer leaders in men’s ministry, volunteers in music ministry, volunteer leaders of other specialized ministries (prayer, support, etc.), youth volunteers as leaders, staff leading volunteers and LOTS MORE!