Building, maintaining, and growing a volunteer team is hard work. And there’s a lot to say about it. That’s why this isn’t just a blog post. It’s a huge blog post. We also made you a video, in case you don’t like to read. And we included a podcast episode, in case you don’t like watching videos either. The video, the podcast, and this blog post all unique, so choose your favorite, or choose them all. Either way, we’re going to talk about something that we all need a little help with: growing our volunteer teams.

At our last church, there was a point in time when ministry seemed to be going pretty well. Our programs were fun, memorable and well received by our students. More kids were coming than ever before, and our numbers continued to grow. As far as we knew, things were going great!

But then we had a wake-up call.

It seemed like a typical Sunday morning. We played games.
 We sang songs.
 We taught a message. We broke into small groups.
We began to take attendance. And then we spotted the problem.

The good news: 80-something middle school boys had shown up that morning!
 The bad news: only two volunteers had.

I’m not exactly sure of the point at which a group of middle schoolers transforms into a violent mob, but I’m pretty sure we crossed the line that morning. While we managed (miraculously) to survive the following 30 minutes with zero injury reports, one thing was clear: we had a volunteer problem.

Although we weren’t exactly pleased to find ourselves in this situation, looking back, we’re pretty grateful it happened when it did. While it may have been uncomfortable at the time, it opened our eyes to a problem we had previously ignored.

At first, we diagnosed the problem like this: “We don’t have enough volunteers!” and “The volunteers we do have are terrible!”

But after a little reflection (and some deep breathing) we actually discovered that our volunteers weren’t the problem at all. The problem, we eventually realized . . . was us.

If we wanted to grow our volunteer team, we didn’t need to recruit new volunteers. We just needed to take better care of the volunteers we already had.

So, yeah. We haven’t always been great at leading volunteers. But it does make me feel a little bit better to know I’m not the only one. Recently, Kenny and I asked a whole bunch of youth workers this question: “What’s your biggest struggle in youth ministry?” We got hundreds of responses back, but do you know what one of the most common answers was?

You’ve probably guessed it by now.

Yep. VOLUNTEERS.

As we read through those responses, we saw some variation of the same questions over and over again, like . . .

How do I recruit more volunteers?
How do I train the volunteers I already have?
And how do I get them to stick around for more than a few months?

I get it. We’ve been there.

RECRUITING VOLUNTEERS IS HARD.

No matter what you do, asking people to serve sometimes feels like pulling teeth. 

TRAINING VOLUNTEERS IS EVEN HARDER.

I mean, once you’ve got volunteers on board, what exactly do you do with them? What do you teach them? How do you help them grow?

RETAINING VOLUNTEERS IS THE HARDEST.

Imagine if every volunteer you had ever recruited was still serving with you today – you’d probably have way more than enough volunteers for your ministry. But instead, people cycle in and out of our ministries so fast that it seems like we’re constantly recruiting new volunteers. It can be kind of exhausting.

I don’t know what your biggest volunteer problem is. Maybe it’s recruiting. Or maybe it’s training. Or maybe it’s retaining. Whatever it is, I think we can all agree – we all want to grow our volunteer teams.

When our ministry was almost overrun by eighty insane middle school boys, our first reaction was to think, “Man, we need more help. How do we GROW our volunteer team and get more people?”

But here’s what we’ve learned since then: if we want to grow our volunteer teams (in numbers and effectiveness) simply recruiting more volunteers won’t solve our problems. In our case (and I’m guessing in yours, too) a lack of volunteers wasn’t really our problem. Our lack of volunteers was actually a symptom of a much bigger problem. So if we want to grow our volunteer teams, we need to start by identifying, and solving, that bigger problem.

After that disastrous Sunday, we made it our mission to . . .

diagnose our volunteer problem.
find a solution to our volunteer problem.
put in the time and effort it would require to solve our volunteer problem.

And we did! After a few weeks of intense brainstorming, we scheduled a one-on-one meeting with every single volunteer on our team. Then we started rolling out some big changes. After only a few months, we could already see a huge shift in our volunteer culture.

Our volunteers actually started showing up, for starters.
They were more engaged than ever.
They seemed excited about doing ministry again.
They even started inviting their friends to serve alongside them.

After a year or two, our volunteer team had grown so much that we actually had to start a waiting list. It was crazy! We didn’t always get things right, but after a few years of refining, and tweaking, and adjusting our methods, we finally landed on something that worked. And through that process, we learned a valuable lesson about growing a volunteer team.

The secret to growing a volunteer team isn’t a quick fix, a great marketing campaign, or a series of guilt trips . . .

The best way to grow your volunteer team is to create a culture where volunteers love to serve.

We may not know every secret to growing a team of volunteers, but we spent years developing and refining a volunteer strategy that made a significant difference in our ministry. And the best part?

It didn’t actually take that much work.

I mean, sure, it definitely took hard work up front and some time to get it right. But our time each week was limited, just like yours is. So when it came to growing our volunteer team, it was our goal to do the least amount of work for the biggest impact.

So in this post, we want to give you a peek at how, exactly, we grew our volunteer team, both in numbers and in effectiveness.

And then we want you to steal it.

So here we go. Here’s how we grew our volunteer team. 

HOW WE GREW OUR VOLUNTEER TEAM

For us, growing our volunteer team all came down to training because our training strategy was the key to creating a culture where our volunteers loved to serve. First, we started by asking ourselves three questions:

HOW would we train our volunteers?
WHEN would we train them?
And WHAT would we train them on?

Let’s break those down.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR VOLUNTEERS

We’ve found that the most successful volunteer training strategies don’t rely just on once-a-year in-person meetings. The most effective training strategies actually combine a variety of methods to reach a variety of volunteers. In our experience, there are seven kinds of volunteer training methods we should consider. Here they are!

1. EVENTS

An event is a major vision-casting opportunity − an environment you’d want every volunteer to attend. Your volunteers need to be trained on, and inspired by, the big picture vision of your ministry. That’s where an annual kick-off event comes in. At this event, you’ll have the opportunity to help your volunteers get off to a great start. It’s an opportunity for you to share your vision, cover important procedures and expectations, provide tools to make your volunteers’ jobs easier, and help your team get to know each other.

2. MEETINGS

A meeting is an opportunity to teach your volunteers about a very specific topic. When planning your volunteer meetings, remember that, while communicating your big picture vision and procedures is probably pretty important to you as a ministry leader, your volunteers need some help navigating the issues they’re facing with kids and teenagers right now. That’s where these meetings come in. They’re an opportunity for you to address the specific issues your volunteers are dealing with, when they’re dealing with them.

3. DISCUSSION GROUPS

A discussion group is a gathering with a small group of volunteers who all serve in a similar role. The purpose of these groups is to engage in collaborative conversation, coaching, and problem-solving. Because your volunteers need more than just vision and principles to help them do their jobs well. They need some practical ideas! That’s where these discussion groups come in. These discussion groups are pretty different from other methods of volunteer training you may be used to. You see, most of the time, we train our volunteers as though we’re the experts. Of course, we’ve got a lot of great information to share… but so do our volunteers! So think of these discussion groups as an opportunity to get your volunteers talking so they can actually train each other for a change. These discussion groups are an opportunity for your volunteers to share their own specific stories, ideas, and best practices so that other volunteers can learn from them and steal their ideas.

4. TOOLS

A tool is any resource you provide to help your volunteers make their jobs happen. Maybe it’s a volunteer handbook, or a set of goals for the semester, or a small group leader business card they can hand out to the families of their small group.

5. CONVERSATIONS

A conversation is a one-on-one meeting with a volunteer for the purpose of building relationships and giving feedback. We’re big believers that meeting regularly with your volunteers one-on-one is pretty important for your volunteers, for your ministry, and for you. It’s important for your volunteers because they need to know you care about them – and spending time building relationships with them is a great way to communicate how much you value them. It’s important for your ministry because it will give you an opportunity to evaluate how well your volunteers are doing in their roles. And it’s important for you because it will give you an opportunity to hear how you and your ministry can better help and equip your volunteers to do their jobs better.

6. COMMUNICATION

Communication is anything you do to let your volunteers know about the important stuff they need to know. It may be by email, text messages, social media posts, or phone calls, but it should be on your calendar every single week. Sometimes when we think about training our volunteers, we think about in-person meetings or big events. But if we want to keep our vision in front of our volunteers all year long, we have to think about training in a bigger way. That’s where communication comes in. Whether you prefer to communicate with your volunteers through email, text messages, social media posts, or phone calls, the point is that you stay in touch with them every week.

7. CELEBRATION

We’re big believers that the things you celebrate in your ministry will be the things that get repeated. That’s why celebrating your volunteers and their wins is so important to your training strategy. We don’t always think about celebrating or appreciating our volunteers as a form of training, but maybe we should! Because here’s the thing: what we celebrate gets repeated. So when we celebrate our volunteers for being awesome and following through on the vision and expectations we’ve set for them, we’re reminding our whole team about what matters most. Oh, and a little celebration can make our volunteers feel pretty awesome too.

WHEN TO TRAIN YOUR VOLUNTEERS

Training your volunteers shouldn’t be just a one-time event. Training your volunteers should be an ongoing strategy that lasts all year long! If that sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. It doesn’t need to be. To make it more manageable, we recommend thinking about your volunteer training strategy in pieces. When we planned each year of training for our volunteers, we considered four time frames in which we’d train our volunteers.

1. TRAIN THEM EVERY YEAR

You’ll be most effective in training your volunteers when you establish a predictable annual rhythm − something strategic instead of random. Of course, you’ll want to leave room each year to improvise, but having an annual plan that you repeat each year (with at least a few recurring annual milestones) will keep your ministry on track and help your volunteers stay engaged all year.

2. TRAIN THEM EVERY SEMESTER

A year is a long time, so we like to break each year into more manageable chunks. In our ministry context, we found that splitting the year into three semesters was most helpful, because our volunteers were already naturally following that rhythm. Our Fall semester began just before school started and lasted through the holiday season. Our Spring semester began at the end of the holidays and ended on the last day of school. And our Summer semester began when school ended and lasted through summer vacation. So we didn’t just have annual rhythms for training our volunteers. We had seasonal ones, too.

3. TRAIN THEM EVERY MONTH. Some ministries have monthly get-togethers or pre-service huddles with their volunteers. Maybe that works in your context, and maybe it doesn’t. Regardless, we recommend training your volunteers in some way every single month. In our ministry, we elected to plan some kind of volunteer get-together every month, but used different types of gatherings and targeted different groups of volunteers each month so our volunteers wouldn’t feel overwhelmed.

4. TRAIN THEM EVERY WEEK Maybe the idea of training your volunteers every week seems overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be! You don’t need to plan a big meeting every time you want to train your volunteers. It could be as simple as an email or a conversation.

WHAT TO TRAIN YOUR VOLUNTEERS ON

Here’s the thing. You can develop the greatest volunteer training calendar in the world, but if you don’t have helpful content to fill that calendar, your training strategy isn’t quite complete. So when you’re planning your year of volunteer training, here are four kinds of training content you probably want to include…

1. VISION

Your volunteers need to be trained on, and inspired by, the big picture vision of your ministry not just once, but over and over again in new ways. So be sure to train your volunteers on your vision at your Kick-Off Event and in your Volunteer Handbook so your volunteers get off to a great start. But then continue casting vision through stories, discussions, and reminders all year long. In fact, everything you do to train and inspire your volunteers can (and should) point back to your ministry’s vision in some way.

2. PROCEDURES

Friends, let’s be honest. Training volunteers on our policies and procedures is necessary, but it isn’t fun for anyone. Make your procedural training as painless as possible by covering all policies and procedures in your Volunteer Handbook and reviewing as needed throughout the year, rather than spending lots of time on it during your in-person meetings.

3. TOPICS

Communicating your big picture vision and procedures is probably pretty important to you as a ministry leader, but don’t forget what it’s like to be a volunteer. They need some help navigating the issues they’re facing with kids and teenagers right now. That’s why it’s so important to think ahead, to anticipate the issues our volunteers will be dealing with (and when they’ll be dealing with them) and then provide training around those issues. One way to do this is to establish monthly training topics. You can use that topic to guide the content of any kind of training you do throughout that month, whether it’s a meeting, an email, or a conversation.

4. IDEAS

Lastly, remember that your volunteers need more than just vision and principles to help them do their jobs well. They need some practical ideas! As you craft your training strategy, consider ways you can highlight specific stories, ideas, and best practices that your volunteers can learn from and steal.

So what does this look like? How do you put all these pieces together? Here’s an example of how this might look for you. . .

AUGUST

EVENT: Volunteer Kick-Off.
TOOLS: Volunteer Handbook, Fall Small Group Leader Goals.
CONVERSATIONS: Meet with new volunteers.
CELEBRATION: Birthday cards, thank you notes.
COMMUNICATION: Weekly Volunteer Emails.

SEPTEMBER

DISCUSSION GROUP: Meet with 5th & 6th grade leaders.
CONVERSATIONS: 1 conversation per week.
CELEBRATION: Birthday cards, thank you notes.
COMMUNICATION: Weekly Volunteer Emails.

OCTOBER

MEETING: Training on leading a small group.
CONVERSATIONS: 1 conversation per week.
CELEBRATION: Birthday cards, thank you notes.
COMMUNICATION: Weekly Volunteer Emails.

NOVEMBER

DISCUSSION GROUP: Meet with 7th & 8th grade leaders.
CONVERSATIONS: 1 conversation per week.
CELEBRATION: Birthday cards, thank you notes.
COMMUNICATION: Weekly Volunteer Emails.

DECEMBER

CELEBRATION: Birthday cards, thank you notes, Volunteer Christmas Party.
COMMUNICATION: Weekly Volunteer Emails.

JANUARY

TOOLS: Spring Small Group Leader Goals.
DISCUSSION GROUP: 
Meet with Greeter Team.
CONVERSATIONS: 1 conversation per week.
CELEBRATION: Birthday cards, thank you notes.
COMMUNICATION: Weekly Volunteer Emails.

FEBRUARY

MEETING: Training on understanding the middle school brain.
CONVERSATIONS: 1 conversation per week.
CELEBRATION: Birthday cards, thank you notes.
COMMUNICATION: Weekly Volunteer Emails.

MARCH

DISCUSSION GROUP: Meet with 9th & 10th grade leaders.
CONVERSATIONS: 1 conversation per week.
CELEBRATION: Birthday cards, thank you notes.
COMMUNICATION: Weekly Volunteer Emails.

APRIL

MEETING: Training on partnering with parents.
CONVERSATIONS: 1 conversation per week.
CELEBRATION: Birthday cards, thank you notes.
COMMUNICATION: Weekly Volunteer Emails.

MAY

DISCUSSION GROUP: Meet with 11th & 12th grade leaders.
CONVERSATIONS: 1 conversation per week.
CELEBRATION: Birthday cards, thank you notes.
COMMUNICATION: Weekly Volunteer Emails.

JUNE

TOOLS: Summer Small Group Leader Goals.
CONVERSATIONS: 1 conversation per week.
CELEBRATION: Birthday cards, thank you notes, End of the Year Party.
COMMUNICATION: Weekly Volunteer Emails.

JULY

CONVERSATIONS: Meet with new volunteers.
CELEBRATION: Birthday cards, thank you notes.
COMMUNICATION: Weekly Volunteer Emails.

So there you have it. That was our approach to growing our volunteer team.

We didn’t grow our volunteer team through quick fixes, guilt trips, or recruitment campaigns. We grew it through the tedious work of building systems and the hard work of building relationships.

Sure, it’s a little slower and more difficult than launching a Sign-Up-To-Serve-And-Get-An-Xbox giveaway. But when you choose to grow your volunteer team the healthy way, your long-term growth will actually be sustainable.

Because, remember, the best way to grow your volunteer team probably isn’t the quickest way. The best way to grow your volunteer team is to create a culture where volunteers love to serve.