What Are They Thinking?

By Susan Lawrence

Volunteers are at the heart of ministry. We may serve as a volunteer, work alongside volunteers, or oversee volunteers. We may even do all three at the same time!

Working with volunteers isn’t the same as working with paid employees. Use the following as a cheat sheet to help you understand what might be going on behind the faces of your volunteers.

For example, here are two possibilities for what the volunteer who serves every week, without complaint, and without ever needing to be reminded, might be thinking . . . 

1. I love serving. This is one of my favorite times of the week. Sometimes serving zaps my energy, but it also rejuvenates me for the rest of the week.

09_Lawrence1_JN2. I didn’t mind filling in for someone over a year ago, but why hasn’t anyone asked me whether I want to continue? I enjoy what I’m doing, but I need a break every now and then. I need someone to ask me how I’m doing.

A volunteer teacher might have definite thoughts about the prescribed curriculum or guidelines . . .

1. I like the curriculum we use. I’m glad I had a voice in choosing it. I’m frustrated when everything isn’t ready for me when I arrive, but I can adjust. I want to do the best I can, so I’ll do what I have to do even when it means being more flexible than is comfortable.

 2. Who decided we had to do it this way anyway? I can do it better myself. They’re not going to bother me if I change it the way I want, because they’re too desperate for volunteers.

Here’s what the volunteer who is overinvolved and participating in just about everything at the church might be thinking . . . 

1. If I don’t do it, who will? I want others to jump in, but people repeatedly look to me. I don’t know how to get others to serve. If people would just do what they are supposed to do, I wouldn’t have to!

 2. Just because it seems that I’m involved in a lot doesn’t mean I’m overinvested or overextended. One of the gifts God has given me is equipping others. I love supporting others, and I’ll continue to do so as God leads.

The person who takes the lead even when there’s another leader involved might be thinking . . . 

1. I’m always thinking about how to streamline or improve things, including ministry. I don’t mean to be annoying by constantly suggesting possible changes, and my intention isn’t to be bossy. I just want to help.

2. The person who is supposed to be leading isn’t doing it. People are unclear about what the expectations are. I hear their concerns, and I don’t want the ministry to suffer. I don’t want the leader’s job, but I’m going to help keep the boat afloat the best I can.

Here are possible thoughts of the person who refuses to commit to helping, despite repeated requests from various ministry leaders . . .

1. I’ve seen what has happened to other people who have been asked to serve. They’re often left to do everything without support. I’m not going to be a prisoner to serving, and if that means not committing to serve at all, I can live with that.

2. I’d really like to serve, but I don’t know what I’m doing. If one of my friends would serve with me, I might be a bit more comfortable. It might sound odd, but I need some support and encouragement along the way.

The person who seems clueless, unaware of expectations, guidelines, changes, and so on might be thinking . . . 

1. It’s all I can do to show up. I can’t attend all those extra meetings, read the endless e-mails, and fill out the required paperwork. At least I’m there. If you expect anything beyond that, just ask someone else.

2. Someone encouraged me to volunteer, but once I did, I was supposed to automatically know everything that was expected of me. I don’t, yet I’m OK with someone telling me! Please pause long enough to let me ask you some questions.

The person who complains about just about anything and everything might think . . . 

1. I know I complain too much, but there’s a lot going on in my life. While I try to work through things, can you show me you care? Ask me how my life is going? Invest in me a bit. I’m not a robot.

2. I prefer to complain about how I’ve been hurt, how church leaders didn’t handle something the best way, or how we should change something. People have told me I need to focus on Jesus, but to be honest, I get satisfaction out of the blame game.

You can brainstorm and identify many more scenarios behind the attitudes and behaviors among the volunteers you lead. Recognizing what might be going on in their lives and in their minds is the first step in working to grow your volunteers.

Consider the implications of what you see among volunteers. If the patterns continue, where is the ministry headed?

Reflect on the role you play. What can you change in order to help others?

Commit to investing in individuals as well as teams. Meet them where they are. Ask questions. Listen patiently.

Be honest with how volunteers think and what you think. Then commit it to God. Let him guide. After all, he knows us better than we know ourselves, and he can simultaneously work on us as individuals as well as members of the body.

Susan Lawrence facilitates ministry team retreats and workshops focusing on healthy individual and team growth. She’s a national speaker and author of Pure Purpose, Pure Emotion, Pure Growth, and Pure Faith Bible studies. She blogs at purepurpose.org. She has coordinated women’s ministries, small groups ministry, and Christian education at Taylorville (Illinois) Christian Church.

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