When it comes to church volunteer training, you might say, as Dickens once wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . ”
Having helped lead volunteer teams for hospitality, care groups, women’s ministry, events, finance, and administration, I’ve seen the highs and lows of working with volunteers. But for every faithful, responsible volunteer, you likely have a few who are poorly trained or flake out.
I won’t lie to you—sometimes I wanted to send my volunteers home and do the work myself. But that’s not what ministry is about. As Romans 12:3–8 teaches, the body of Christ needs each person using their God-given gifts to serve the church. Really, it’s worth the effort to create places for people to serve your church.
Equipping God’s people to serve the Church requires more than just a willingness to share responsibility—it takes training. So, how can busy leaders do effective church volunteer training without losing their minds?
Let’s think about four ways to train passionate, mission-focused volunteers.
1. Nourish the passion
Why do people serve in your ministry? Is it from a sense of passion or obligation?
If it’s from obligation, that won’t last long. Eventually, no one serves just because it’s on the calendar—and you don’t want those kinds of volunteers, anyway. If your church volunteers are just warm bodies filling an empty role, they won’t be serving from the heart—and you won’t be helping them grow as disciples of Jesus.
So how do you nourish the passion that led them to volunteer in the first place?
By continually reminding them of the mission in engaging ways. Your regular volunteers can easily fall into a routine where they show up, get to work, and go home—all without remembering why they’re serving.
Post your ministry’s mission statement somewhere that helps your volunteers remember why they make serving a priority. If you have a volunteer space, your mission statement makes for great wall art. Well-designed, beautiful things are more fun to look at, so please don’t just print black text on white paper, O.K.? The same goes for your regular communications, like your online communications hub and scheduling emails.
Create a communication group for your volunteers where you can share relevant articles or ministry tips. Read a great article on what the Bible says about hospitality? Watch a helpful training video for your presentation software? When you find something helpful, share it with your team.
Schedule regular training events to refresh your team on the mission. (I recommend at least one per year for each ministry.) One of the benefits of training events is that you get to share behind-the-scenes info that makes your volunteers feel invested and passionate about your ministry. Use these focused times to share stories of how their service makes a difference, and let them know about any big changes in store for the church.
And keep it fun. For example, I attended a kids’ ministry volunteer training that covered all these bases—and it ended with a scavenger hunt that recapped what the volunteers just heard. The scavenger hunt introduced new games, reinforced safety procedures, and helped teachers bond.
2. Train the trainers
As your ministry grows, you may be blessed with more volunteers than you can personally train in one annual event.
This is where a concept from The Trellis and the Vine (one of my favorite ministry books) comes in: train the trainers. Instead of sending 100 people through a long training event and turning them loose, invest time in training a few of your most trusted volunteers, then ask them to train 15 people each.
These smaller groups accomplish a couple of key things:
• They create ministry opportunities for high-capacity leaders.
• They build community among people who serve together.
• They report to you about any ministerial needs your volunteers have, so you can step in when needed.
It’s impossible to train everyone for every possible scenario, but by delegating church volunteer training to your most faithful volunteers, you make sure new people know who to ask for help.
Plus, small group training helps you match volunteers to their ministry sweet spot. You don’t want your unfriendliest member serving on your hospitality team, but maybe they’re shockingly good on drums. The better you and your leaders know each volunteer, the more you can empower them to serve from their God-given strengths.
3. Pair new volunteers with your best volunteers
The best way to help people learn is the most personal. It’s easier to learn from a person than a long, written guide or a large training event. That’s true for your church volunteers too.
Assign every new volunteer to shadow one of your strongest volunteers for at least 2–3 weeks before being released to serve on their own. Many ministries, such as your children’s ministry or care groups, require longer training before you can give volunteers full responsibility.
At its best, shadowing is a three-step process that happens over time. I’ve heard it described this way:
1. You watch, I do
2. You do, I watch
3. You do
This process gives new volunteers realistic expectations and gives you a chance to show the characteristics and attitudes people need to serve in your ministry.
Do you need more volunteers with smiling faces? More adults to teach four-year-olds the motions to “My God Is So Big”? More A/V volunteers who can skip to the next slide faster than your worship leader can sing the wrong line? Partner new volunteers with experienced volunteers who model the kind of excellence your ministry needs.
4. Give volunteers ongoing training and support
Church volunteer training isn’t a one-and-done endeavor. Rather, it requires a long-term commitment from church leaders and staff—but that commitment doesn’t have to be time-consuming.
If you treat volunteering like an afterthought, your volunteers will too, and you’ll wind up with people who don’t know the guidelines, are unprepared, or don’t show up at all. Now, most volunteer opportunities in churches aren’t rocket science, but you want the people who serve in kids’ ministry to know the rules that keep kids safe. You want greeters to know how a guest can join a small group (and how not to scare guests away).
A couple simple things go a long way:
• Connect people with learning opportunities. Whether you’re creating new content or curating resources from other places, every little bit counts—and helps your volunteers feel confident and empowered. The simplest way to do this is by creating how-to and FAQ docs and videos that all volunteers have easy access to.
• Follow up with each volunteer regularly. Depending on the size of your volunteer base, you could be reaching out to people on a quarterly or semiannual basis. I suggest having intentional, in person conversations with each volunteer at least twice a year. They aren’t just serving you and your ministry—you’re serving them too.
• Plan to give volunteers breaks. If someone asks for a break from volunteering, it’s already too late—they’re probably burned out. As much as possible, build in breaks for people who serve regularly, especially your weekly volunteers.