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How to Build a Volunteer Ministry Leadership Team

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

Do you lead a ministry? Maybe you're on staff? Or maybe you're a volunteer? Regardless, leading a ministry means leading volunteers. And it's one thing to build a leadership team of employees, but building a volunteer ministry leadership team is actually more challenging. Why? Because volunteers don't need to be there. That means, the threshold that must be passed for employees to leave is far lower for volunteers. At the same time, the threshold that must be passed for leaders to be effective when leading employees is far higher when leading volunteers.

So, we could spend all day complaining about the challenges of leading volunteers. Or we could focus on the potential. There's something special about an empowered, passionate team of volunteers doing ministry together. Why? For the same reason as above! They don't need to be there. And leading volunteers effectively means you're not just making a difference to the bottom line, you're making a difference to the lives of the people and community you're serving. Last of all, effective leadership means your volunteers can find your ministry an incredibly fulfilling place to serve and you can play a part in helping them to become everything they're meant to be.

Here are six steps to help you build a volunteer ministry leadership team.

1. Do you need a leadership team?

Good question! If you've never led or been part of a leadership team before and you don't have one at the moment, you might be wondering whether you even need one? In my opinion, unless you're the only person involved in your ministry, you need a leadership team. If you have less than ten volunteers in your ministry, then it's easiest to consider that group your leadership team. There's something awkward about having a leadership team of four when you only have eight volunteers to begin with. Instead, treat your whole team of volunteers like a leadership team and use specific roles and responsibilities to empower particular people in your team. The main reason for making your whole group your leadership team is it's the best use of your time to get the whole team together as regularly as possible. You can also invest in seven other people to some depth whereas investing in 20 people with depth just isn't possible.

That takes us to leaders of more than ten volunteers. If you have 15, 20, 50 or 100 volunteers in your ministry, whether you're on staff or a volunteer yourself, you definitely need to create a leadership team. Who are the people in your ministry requiring the most investment from you as the leader? Hint: it's not the people you serve (in the traditional sense). It's your volunteers. They need your investment as the leader of the ministry. As I've heard it said, leading ministry isn't just about doing ministry. It's about empowering others to do ministry. As a leader, the people you need to be investing in the most are your volunteers. As mentioned above, once you have more than ten volunteers, you simply don't have the time required to invest in everyone with depth. Instead, by spending most of your time personally investing in a smaller group of your volunteers and empowering them to personally invest in other volunteers, you can actually lead, care for and invest in all of your volunteers—the whole team. You just need to change your thinking. When your wider team reaches a certain size, it's less about you impacting volunteers directly and more about you impacting volunteers through your team. This should still involve some face-to-face investment in the wider group of volunteers, but you do it through less personal means such as communicating to the whole group.

2. Who should be on your leadership team?

Once you decide you need a leadership team, it's time to think about who should be on your leadership team. Experience? Over-rated. Entitled attitude and will pout if not on the leadership team? Not a good reason to put them on the leadership team. But a fantastic reason not to put them on the leadership team. One of the tough things about building a healthy volunteer ministry leadership team is the crucial conversations you're going to need to have. I know. Who thought it would be this tough, right? But, let me encourage you—as you build your leadership team ... listen to the Holy Spirit. If you don't feel right about someone or something feels off, pay attention. It is hard. But, the impact you can have on people's lives—those you lead and those your ministry serves—is worth it.

How many people should be on your leadership team? First, as you're deciding who to approach to be on your leadership team, consider the size of the team. Patrick Lencioni's guide in this area is helpful. He says a healthy size for a leadership team is between three and ten. Any more than ten and you have too many people in a room to truly act as a team. In my experience, every person you add to the team exponentially increases the amount of time and effort required to lead the team. As an example, leading a team of four compared to a team of seven is easier on so many levels. But, it's not about a small team, it's about the right team. So, have as many people as you think you need, but do so with your eyes open to the work that's going to be involved with every additional person you have on your team.

Second, select people for your leadership team who are passionate about the vision, purpose or why of your ministry. I'll talk about vision soon, but if your specific ministry doesn't have a vision, look at the vision of your church. Who shares that vision? Who doesn't? Third, select people for your leadership team who embody the values of your ministry. Once again, I'll talk more about values shortly, but if your ministry doesn't have values, look at the values of your church. Who embodies those values? Who doesn't?

Fourth, Patrick Lencioni's characteristics of an ideal team player are incredibly helpful in this area. He argues that people who are humble, hungry and people smart make wonderful team players, whereas people who struggle significantly in one or more of those areas are often challenging people to have on a team. Out of your volunteers, who is humble? Who is hungry—has a strong work ethic and is determined and perseveres to get things done? And who is people smart? When it comes to people smart, this is how I think of it. Have you ever been in a conversation where someone's said something and you've thought, "woah, that's offensive" and grimaced? Yet, you've noticed they haven't realised what they've said is offensive at all? That's the opposite of people smart. Be careful putting someone like that on your leadership team. A person who struggles with emotional intelligence can definitely grow in that area, but you're likely to have a bundle of accidental messes to clean up along the way.

3. Prepare your team for change

If you have more than ten volunteers and you don't yet have a leadership team, here's my advice. Building a leadership team will change things. So, don't sugarcoat it for your volunteers. Unrealistic expectations is a sure way to disappoint and disempower your volunteers. Rather than promising that nothing will change and things are only going to get better and easier, do something counter-intuitive. Get some wise counsel and decide on a line in the sand when you will kick off your new leadership team. Maybe it's the start of next term, in three months, in six months or some other period of time that is appropriate in your context.

Next, let your volunteers know what you're doing and why you're doing it. Talk honestly about the vision you have for the ministry, the burden of leadership and how building a leadership team will not only take the ministry to the next level but will also help you to spread the burden of leadership amongst the leadership team, led by you. Now is the point where you give people realistic expectations. Talk about things changing. Mention your process for building the leadership team is yet to take place and you're going to think and pray about the right team. Be bold and tell people they may be disappointed and frustrated by the changes ahead as you build a leadership team. We celebrate people signing up to volunteer in our ministries. But, guess what? It's also possible to celebrate people's seasons of volunteering when they come to an end. Yes. I completely believe it's possible—and preferable—to help people finish well when the time is right. One of the things you can do as the leader to facilitate this is to make it clear when significant changes are coming to help people who are feeling like getting off the bus, to feel permission to do exactly that.

Like I said, I know this is counter-intuitive! I would go so far as telling everyone they may be disappointed or disagree with who you choose to be on the leadership team. But that you're committed to the ministry and the people and community you serve so much that you will build the best team for the next season, even if that means making decisions differently to how others would make them. Give people permission to disagree, be disappointed and even to get off the bus if the season is right. Then, encourage people to chat with you if they have any questions about the process but let them know at the same time that it will be evolving so there may be some 'I don't know yet' answers in the coming weeks and months.

To put it bluntly, you have two options. Option one is to try to minimise disruption and change as much as possible in your ministry as you build the leadership team. Option two is to embrace the disruption and change in your ministry as you build the leadership team. In my opinion, both options actually result in the same amount of disruption and change. The only difference is that option one takes forever, people's expectations are completely different to the new reality and you end up with years of pain. Option two is also painful (don't get me wrong). But, the pain is short-term, people's expectations are realistic and they make difficult decisions that need to be made. It's like ripping off the bandaid and, although it's painful, that pain only lasts for weeks or months instead of years. It's up to you.

4. Vision, vision, vision

Now that you've decided who you want on your leadership team and prepared everyone for change and transition, it's time to build momentum. If the structure of your leadership team and ministry is the vehicle, then vision is the engine. No matter how beautifully structured the vehicle, if it's moving at two kilometres an hour then you, your team and your whole ministry will be frustrated. Vision speeds you up. Purpose lights those sparks deep within the vehicle to get the wheels rolling faster. Articulating and communicating your 'why' will leave you holding on for dear life. Not for fear of the thing falling apart and maybe even starting to roll backwards. But because there's so much traction and you need to work out how to manage it.

When it comes to vision, I'm pretty passionate. I've heard it said that any issue you experience with your leaders around punctuality, commitment, initiative, in fact, basically any issue you experience with your leaders ... is a vision issue. I agree. I know it sounds extreme but vision is like the trump card. Yes, there are other ways to solve those issues. There are probably other variables at play contributing to those issues. But there's something about vision when it catches on like a wildfire that just engulfs those sorts of issues and leaves them behind. Other steps and initiatives are important. But vision is the trump card.

'Why' is the easiest place to start in this area. Whether you know it or not, your ministry has a why. There is a reason it exists, a reason it was founded. Whether you know it or not, you have a why. There is a purpose that drives you. If you founded the church or the ministry, there is a good chance your why is very closely aligned to the why of your ministry. Long story short, find out your why/vision/purpose and talk about it incessantly. Seriously. Once you can articulate it, talk about it everywhere, all the time. Then, the fun starts when you think of creative ways to communicate your why/vision/purpose. Like celebrating it.

My favourite story of vision is from an Andy Stanley leadership podcast where he interviewed Frank Blake, former Chairman and CEO of Home Depot. Frank was leading approximately 350,000 employees ... let that sink in! And he worked with Home Depot to articulate the organisation's vision. Their vision was to be the world's greatest customer service retailer. So, for them, vision/why/purpose was about customer service. As part of his strategy to make the vision stick across the organisation, Frank thought about what activity was most central to customer service. It was the customer's experience with Home Depot employees in stores of course! So, he made it a KPI of each division to collect the best stories of customer service from each region. These stories would then be sent through to Frank. In order to communicate vision, he would then handwrite 100 letters every week to the employees responsible for amazing customer service. You read that correctly. 100. It would take him at least half a day.

The thing I love about this story is employees didn't believe it was actually handwritten by Frank Blake, the Chairman and CEO. One employee put their letter in water to prove it wasn't real ink and the ink separated. So, they emailed Frank apologising profusely and asking if he could re-write it for them. People would put their letter from Frank up in prominent places. It meant a lot to them. More importantly, for the organisation, it was an extremely powerful reminder to all staff about what mattered most. Why were they there? What was Home Depot's purpose? What was the vision of the organisation? Not the bottom line. Customer service. Frank Blake's letters became legendary which is unsurprising. And you know what else happened? In the years Frank Blake led the company, Home Depot had an incredible turnaround and recovery in the billions of dollars.

That's the power of vision.

5. Values, values, values

If vision is the engine, then values are the ... I've run out of analogies. They're just so important! Once you've articulated and communicated the vision/purpose/why of your ministry, it's time to articulate and communicate the values. What makes your ministry unique? I mentioned earlier humble, hungry, people smart as filters to hire people. The perfect compliment to those characteristics is your ministry or church's values.

Values should not be generic. There also shouldn't be ten of them. A value is something unique that your organisation is willing to be punished for, as Lencioni puts it. These things are so important even if it costs the ministry in other areas, you'll gladly pay the cost in order to stay true to that value. As an example, for Clarity one of our values is work/life balance. We don't have ten values and work/life balance is one of them, we have three. So, we went through a rigorous process to articulate our core values—the things that are truly unique to us. The things we want to go big on.

If work/life balance is one of our values, then it should affect everything we do. Just by articulating it I'm incredibly aware of anything that pushes against work/life balance. And, when it comes to Clarity, living out this value means being content losing work and money that comes with it if it violates work/life balance. Most importantly, values inform who. From attracting new volunteers and new members of your leadership team to holding existing volunteers and leadership team members accountable, values are powerful filters. Once again, work/life balance is so important to us that if we were hiring and it was clear work/life balance wasn't a person's value, that would rule them out. I have no problem with people working 100 hours a week. That's their choice completely. But, someone who works 100 hours a week is going to clash a lot with me if we're on a leadership team together and work/life balance is one of our core values. Why? Because for me, working 100 hours a week violates that value. So, I hope that helps to clarify what a value might look like and how you would use it in your ministry.

6. Meet regularly around a top priority

Last of all, now that you've got the right people on your leadership team and you've got vision and values sorted, you have to meet regularly. Meetings are where the rubber hits the road. All of the ideas mentioned above are only going to be as effective as the tools used to implement them. Meetings are your ultimate tool for building your leadership team and your ministry.

Even though you've articulate lots of the abstract, big picture ideas, your team is going to want to get practical. This is where the top priority becomes so important. If you do nothing else, sit down with your leadership team and decide on one top priority together. Then, base your future meetings around that top priority and change it if it needs to change. That's an extremely simple version of Patrick Lencioni's excellent framework for meetings, Death by Meeting, but it's a start.

Leading volunteers is incredibly tough. They don't need to be there. But, you're leading your ministry for a reason. I wish you all the best as you endeavour to lead your team and ministry well. I love hearing stories of successes and challenges along the way. So, go and give these ideas a crack and let me know how you go.

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