I’ve been volunteering as a youth leader with Young Life for six years. Once or twice a year, one of our regular leader gatherings includes a time where volunteers are recognized for their years of service, and the community of people who support us generously provide a small gift of some kind.
It’s something simple to physically accompany the words, “Thank you.” Gift cards to the coffee shops we call home after countless hours spent in conversation with kids. A Young Life shirt, a hat, a blanket, or a mug stuffed full of candy. Vouchers for a free meal at a local restaurant or a service provided by a local business that supports the ministry of Young Life.
A couple of years ago, a friend who was volunteering with me was bothered by the gift. It was too extravagant. It wasn’t fair to ask people to thank us with their money. And the gift was too impersonal to really feel like sincere gratitude. To him, the whole thing felt inauthentic, forced, and inconsiderate of the people who have already done so much to support us.
I understood how he felt, but I also believed that for these people who only knew some of the volunteers personally, the gesture was sincere effort to show every volunteer that they genuinely support the work they do, whether they know each volunteer personally or not.
But my friend didn’t feel valued as a volunteer, and he hated feeling like people had a financial burden to say thank you to him.
He’s not an ungrateful person. But the thought and effort that went into the gift and the gesture of physically providing something to say thank you was lost on him. It didn’t communicate what it was intended to communicate. And unfortunately, when we use cookie-cutter formulas to show appreciation, some people are going to feel unvalued every time.
People receive love in different ways. The things that make you personally feel valued, respected, and cared for might not mean much to someone else. That doesn’t mean they’re ungrateful—it might just mean that they’re different than you. (It’s still totally possible that they are ungrateful, but that’s a whole other conversation.)
Like me, my friend feels more valued through words of affirmation—a note or personal conversation would’ve meant more to him than that gift ever could. My local Young Life area doesn’t by any means limit the way they thank volunteers to these gifts (they send cards and seize every opportunity to thank volunteers throughout the year in one-on-one and group meetings) but to my friend, the build-up made the gift seem like it was supposed to be the pinnacle of thankfulness, and it fell short.
Making large groups of people feel appreciated is too complicated to try just one thing.
The bigger your church or ministry is and the more volunteers you have, the harder it is to get to know them all on a personal level—and the more important it is that each volunteer feels personally valued.
This is the only formula to make someone feel valued: get to know them.
Learn what makes them feel personally cared for, and then do that. Do lots of completely different things to appreciate them and see what sticks.
Note: one of the best indicators of how someone prefers to be appreciated is how they choose to show appreciation to others.
As you get to know your volunteers and genuinely seek to appreciate them, here are seven ideas for you to try. Full disclosure: most of these come straight from Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages series. While Chapman’s focus is on marriages, the principles apply to any personal or professional relationship that involves communicating you care about another person (so it’s pretty applicable to volunteer appreciation).
1. Acts of service
For some of your volunteers, words, gifts, and even time spent together isn’t what actually communicates that you appreciate them.
You can spend time with someone you don’t like.
You can give things to people out of obligation.
You can say things without really meaning them.
Some of your volunteers might feel most loved when people do nice things for them: give them a ride to some appointment they’re dreading, or make a meal for them when they’re stressed or busy. Help them study for that class, offer to babysit, or take care of something else that they keep putting off because they’re too busy. (My go-to is usually babysitting).
Acts of service shows people that they are worth making sacrifices for, that you’re thinking of them, and that you care about them enough to help make their lives a little easier.
If you don’t know enough about your volunteers to know what’s going on in their lives and what you can do for them, it may be time to refer to method #2.
2. Quality time
Some of your volunteers may feel most loved when someone makes a point of spending quality time with them.
Go to a movie or the park, or invite them over for dinner. Bring your families together. Find something to do where you can just hang out with the people you want to appreciate—something that says, “You’re worth spending time with.” It’s not an appointment. It’s not a meeting. And it has nothing to do with the ministry they’re involved with or the role they serve for you. It’s two people investing in a personal friendship.
When you like being around the people you serve with, the time you spend serving becomes that much more enjoyable, too.
3. Words of affirmation
This is me. I’m the guy that constantly wants to know what you think of me. My greatest fear is being misunderstood. And the single greatest thing someone can do to show me that they appreciate what I’m doing is to tell me.
When someone tells me I did a good job, it motivates me to do a good job again. When someone calls out a specific thing that they notice about me—something I did or said, how I approached a situation, or how something about me makes me well-suited to my role—it gives me the fuel I need to keep doing and saying those things to the best of my ability.
People who respond well to words of affirmation aren’t constantly looking for a pat on the head or waiting to be singled out for every little good thing they do. But when you notice someone doing an exceptional job, or faithfully and consistently serving your church or ministry in a particular way, tell them. Tell them how glad you are to have their help. If you notice specific things about them and the way they serve that role, all the better.
If your words of affirmation aren’t specific, they don’t mean as much. People can tell when you just said the same thing to four other people. Or when you don’t really know what it is they do for you.
People who respond well to words of affirmation feel cared about when you give them personal feedback. When you can identify particular ways they are succeeding or specific things they are uniquely gifted for.
I’m a writer. And my wife is always looking for new ways to encourage me to keep writing.
The best way she can encourage me is to read things I write and say something about them. It’s specific and personal from someone who knows me and understands why I write. That personal affirmation is all I need to feel like what I’m doing matters.
The best way to encourage your volunteers who respond to words of affirmation is to get to know them, look at the things they are doing well, and to say something about them.
For some people, a thoughtful gift says “I appreciate you” in a meaningful way. It shows that you were thinking of them when you weren’t with them, and that you care about them enough to spend time and/or money on them. Whether it’s a treat you baked or a gift card you chose, it communicates that you notice them and the work they do. Like words of affirmation (and really, all of these ideas), the more personal or thoughtful your gift is, the more valued it makes someone feel.
A personal gift that cost you nothing can sometimes do more to communicate your appreciation than one that cost you (or your donors) a fortune.
5. Cast the vision
Nobody likes to feel like what they’re doing doesn’t really make a difference. If your role is small and you don’t feel like it matters, it’s a lot easier to leave it behind.
Show your volunteers why what they’re doing matters.
This can go hand-in-hand with words of affirmation, but it’s worth covering in volunteer training, too. Everyone who volunteers for your church should know how their role contributes to your church’s mission, makes your services the best they can be, and ultimately points people to Jesus.
6. Honor their time
Every time they show up to a meeting, training, practice, or event, your volunteers are sacrificing things to be with you. They’re giving up time with friends and family. Time doing the things that help them recover from a long day at work and the wear and tear of life. Some of your volunteers would rather be meeting with you than at home doing something else. But some of them would rather be home, or would like to get home as soon as possible. They’re here because they care about your ministry, they recognize their part in what you’re doing, and because they know that boring or time-consuming meetings are often a necessary part of doing things we enjoy.
Show your volunteers that you appreciate what they do by honoring their time.
A couple of years ago, I was with a group of team leaders discussing how long our volunteer meetings would be for the upcoming year. Some of our volunteers wanted to spend more time together so that they could get to know each other better. Others felt like we already spent so much time together, and asking them to take off another hour for an informal social time was going to be a struggle. The compromise? We established an optional hour for dinner and hanging out before the “official” meeting started (which always lasted at least two hours anyways).
We absolutely wanted to encourage people to get to know each other better and to spend more time together, but we didn’t want that to come at the cost of losing (or discouraging) volunteers who already felt stretched too far for time.
How much you emphasize honoring people’s time will completely depend on the makeup of your team, but it’s important to recognize what people are giving up to be with you. Show them that you appreciate what they are already doing enough that you aren’t going to take up more of their time than you have to.
You don’t have to cancel all your meetings and shush all small talk. Honoring your volunteers’ time can be as simple as starting and ending on time, being where you’ve asked them to meet you before they arrive, and not letting your meetings have long gaps where nothing is happening.
Clearly communicate any changes to the schedule in more than one way. Don’t just send an email—if people aren’t used to getting last minute schedule changes from you, they may not even check their email. Make sure someone has established contact with each person on your team so that nobody shows up when they don’t have to. As you get to know your volunteers, you’ll get to know the best ways to reach them last minute (which hopefully doesn’t happen very often).
7. Help them grow
As your volunteers give more of their time to your ministry, they should experience personal growth—or know what they need to do to experience it. This could be closely tied to #5: as they understand more about why their role matters to the ministry, they can grow in their understanding of how God uses them in the lives of others. Help them connect the dots between what they’re doing and what God is doing.
When you meet together, challenge your volunteers to try specific things that could help them grow personally and in their role.
Give your greeters better tools for starting conversations, or something to reflect on while they meet new people.
Give your tech volunteers freedom to experiment or try new things (I’d start with a controlled setting), or a more experienced person they can work alongside and learn from.
Give your worship team members the opportunity to share something they’ve been learning or reflecting on lately—with the team or the congregation.
The specific growth opportunities available to your volunteers completely depends on your church. But for most roles, some of the biggest things that will help volunteers experience personal growth are mentors and community. If you don’t have the capacity to personally walk alongside your volunteers, find someone (or a group of someones) who has the time and energy to invest in the people that serve with you. Help them recognize their potential and show them they are worth investing time in and developing a personal relationship with.
With respect to #6, giving your team opportunities to get to know each other can go a long ways towards personal growth and ultimately feeling valued.
Know your volunteers
Even the most thorough vetting process doesn’t do much to help you get to know someone personally. And the bottom line is, if you want your volunteers to feel valued, you have to know them on an individual level. Being on a first name basis isn’t good enough (but it’s definitely a start).
And if you’re looking at this list thinking “I don’t have time to do any of these things,” maybe it’s time to bring someone on board who can. Who knows, maybe someone will volunteer?