Volunteers: The Meaning of Discipleship

High Fives in a group

This post was written by Emily Hall, a guest writer for INCM.

As a Kids Ministry leader, you’ve got a lot to do – and you know you can’t do it alone. Thank God for those people who show up week in and week out to help you! You know all of the things (or at least a lot of the things) about volunteer appreciation. Your Admin Game is tight and you’re on point with onboarding, communication, and your meeting and training schedule. Whew! Are you tired yet?! I know you are – because burnout is one of the greatest occupational hazards ministry leaders face.

What if there was a simple way to truly make your load lighter, share the burden of ministry, and create a culture that volunteers want to be a part of?  

Though it may seem like a pipe dream, you can increase volunteer loyalty and live into your call – without it burning you out or adding something to your already overflowing plate. And it’s one of the main things that Jesus says we are put on this earth to do! 

Volunteers are people 

In the same way that you are much more than the work that you do, your volunteers are people who need to be seen for who they are – not just the tasks they complete. An often overlooked piece of volunteer loyalty is recognizing that – a volunteer isn’t just a worker. Volunteers are just like you. They are spiritual beings who thrive when they’re given spiritual care. When they’re seen as an equal part of the body, they experience a deeper connection to their service and are proud to be part of your ministry. (They may even look forward to the annual Christmas party like a Jr. High boy at the church potluck.)

A Rent-to-Own Culture

One of my favorite ministry illustrations is rooted smack-dab in the middle of the housing market. In the magical (currently bananas) world of real-estate, there are home-renters and home-owners. 

This can translate to a volunteer’s perspective when they think of the role they play in your ministry. Just like in the housing market, renting is more than ok. Sometimes, you only need someone to run the check-in station for 20 minutes once a month. (There’s nothing wrong with this!) But, also like in the housing market, there is depth that can only be found in ownership

Sometimes volunteers come into your ministry as natural owners! (Praise JESUS when this happens, #amiright?) Sometimes renters stay renters, and sometimes renters turn into owners. Think of discipling your volunteers as a “rent-to-own” plan – but one that will benefit every volunteer. 

Don’t just take my word for it. Check out a few real life examples:

  • “Being discipled as a church volunteer means I am valued and cared for by the pastor, which leads me to “buy in” more to the program. (When I’m discipled,)
    I feel more passionate about the ministry.
  • “The other church volunteers are my people. They are who I want to spend my time with, whether it’s on Sunday, or throughout the week. This is my community and I can’t imagine life without them. I know these relationships exist because our leaders have intentionally prioritized discipleship.

What is the biblical meaning of discipleship?

The Bible makes it clear that Jesus’ followers are to make disciples, and that a pastoral leader’s responsibility is to be a spiritual shepherd. 

Check out:

  • Matthew 28:19-20
  • 1 Peter 5:2-4
  • Acts 20:28-29
  • John 21:15-17

The biblical definition of discipleship is to teach people how to follow Jesus – to teach them how to follow his commands. So often we apply this principle to kids in our ministry, or we automatically think of Global Missions. But do we also consider as sheep those who do the work with us? 

Here’s a simple exercise to try right now 

We’re going to do a little life review. Grab a piece of paper or a post-it note. Without thinking too much – take a moment to list a few of the most influential sermons or lessons you’ve ever heard. List the ones that really stuck with you and made a difference in your life. It’s ok – grab your paper and pen – I’ll wait.

Got your list? Great! Now, list the most influential people that have made a difference in your life. Think back to your childhood or teen years. Who were the people who meant the most to your growth?

Last, compare your lists. Which was easier to create? Which list came more naturally and didn’t make you think quite as hard? Most likely, the second list was the easiest to compile. This is because our brains are literally wired for human connection. 

People remember people. The same is true as you think about your church volunteer team. Your volunteers are thinking “What I need is someone to talk to who has walked down the path I’m (on or) just beginning.”1. The good news is: You are that person! Other volunteers in your ministry are those people! One of the fastest and simplest ways to build connection? Volunteer Discipleship.

A ministry leader is a spiritual leader. You have a God-given responsibility to shepherd the people in your care – the people you serve with each week, each month, and each year. 

  • Listen to them
  • Talk to them
  • Eat together
  • Pray together
  • Have fun together.

Lighten the load

Discipling your volunteers isn’t about recreating the wheel! In fact, if it feels stressful and like a chore, it’s time to lighten your load. Discipleship is just doing life with people – and it can help you feel valued as a person, not just a “boss.”

Disciple-making is just a lifestyle in which you offer people love, comfort, and encouragement where they live, work, and play. All you have to do is live intentionally, love God, and journey alongside others—life to life.”2.

So, how do you do it?

Here are a few practical ideas that won’t burn you out:

  • Change your meeting location (and time) to reflect the culture you want to see

This might be the easiest task to complete, and can make one of the biggest shifts in a volunteer’s perspective! This works because “by changing the environment, (you) inadvertently change (how people are expected to behave.)”3.
Think about it. Meeting in a board (or bored) room late on a weeknight when everyone is already tired sets a certain tone. There’s a reason we often meet in a sanctuary or worship center on Sunday morning. 

As the leader, you have the authority to change the location (and time) based on how you would like to see people to behave. Want to develop a culture of personal connection and friendship? Meet in a home on a Saturday morning – yours or anyone else on the team. Even better if you include a meal – something simple like a potluck brunch – about 45 minutes before your official “meeting.”

  • Check in with one volunteer a week – just to see how they’re doing
    (Text and Email count!)

The operative phrase here is “just to see how they’re doing.” When people know that you genuinely care about them – not just what they can give – they naturally want to be part of your team. Pray for your volunteers – even over email or text. If you prefer a phone call, that’s great too. The point is to connect – don’t let the medium get in the way. If you have a bit of extra time, offer to take one volunteer a month out to lunch  – with no agenda other than to talk about life. Chances are you’ll enjoy their company and grow in your friendship along the way.

So often, we make our plans and don’t give a second thought to God’s direction. We make decisions based on what we think will make people happy, or what will make someone want to attend. Or – quite simply – what we think might upset people, so we can do the opposite. Here’s the thing about trusting this common denominator – we completely sidestep God. Have you asked Him lately how He sees your volunteers? Download this Prayer Guide for your next volunteer meeting and pray together as you plan. 

Be encouraged! You can prioritize relationships and show your church volunteer team that you see them for who they are, not just what they do. And it doesn’t have to feel overwhelming. I promise.

1. Connecting by Stanley & Clinton (1992)

2. The Ways of the Alongsider by Bill Mowry (2016) 

3.Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne (2010)

Emily Hall

About Emily

Emily is an Ethical Copywriter for Christian Ministry. She runs TheWellAbandonedJarCopyCo where she writes blogs, emails, and websites (and figures out Google) for busy ministry leaders so they have more time to focus on what they love. She is a strong believer in Strengths Based Leadership and is in love with spiritual formation and family discipleship. She’s been in
kids & youth ministry for over 16 years, is a former Kids Pastor, and holds three Engage Certificates with Bethel Seminary & INCM. You can often find her writing in her favorite coffee shop, teaching in youth group, or playing board games with her husband and two kids. One of her most favorite things is talking all things Kids Ministry with other leaders! You can connect with Emily at thewellabandonedjar.com.

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