A few weeks ago, I saw a former volunteer from church and yelled, “Uncle Dale,” across a Chick-fil-AⓇ dining room. He’s not really my uncle, but his nephew served with us and called him Uncle Dale once; so everybody – including the kids – started calling him Uncle Dale. He might not admit it, but I’m confident he loved it.
We talked about his family, wife, kids and grandkids, and he got to meet my son too. The conversation wasn’t super long, but it was good to catch up before my toddler got hangry for mac & cheese. Ultimately, the situation made me wonder. …
If you ran into a volunteer five years from now, would you know enough about them to have a conversation?
Could you ask them specific questions like, “Your son graduated, right?” “Are you still a Packers fan without Rodgers?” “How is your wife’s health?” Or perhaps the conversation would be limited to church topics and the “nice” weather? Honestly, you might be tempted to avoid eye contact and pretend like you didn’t see them.
What would you do if you saw your “Uncle Dale” at the Chick-fil-A? Because the way you view volunteers now will determine your relationship with them later.
Volunteers are people to be loved, not spots to be filled.
I know, I know. … The spots need to be filled. But if we focus on filling the gap, we miss the opportunity to care for the person. A volunteer needs more than someone to manage them. They need someone to care for them. According to Jesus, people need a shepherd. What does a shepherd do? Jesus, who was the Good Shepherd, says about His sheep, “I know my own and My own know Me.”
A good shepherd knows their sheep, and Peter encourages leaders to shepherd the flock that is among you. Or, in modern language, a good leader knows their volunteers. Good Shepherd was not simply a nickname, but rather a highlight of his ability to shepherd well. Therefore, if you want to be a good leader, follow in His footsteps and get to know your flock (or volunteers).
Two thousand years ago, Jesus’ disciples were coming back from a ministry tour and told Him all that they had done and taught. It makes me think about a kid telling their parents about hitting a home run during their baseball game. “You should have seen us, Jesus! We were on fire out there!” Now, if you view Jesus in your context for a moment, it would make sense for Him to be excited about everything the disciples accomplished. You would expect Him to write down their stories and send them to leadership, and maybe even record a video to share with the congregation. But what does He do?
He said, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile.” Interestingly, we don’t read about Jesus asking them any questions about their achievements. He simply invited them to come and spend quality time with him. It seems like Jesus was more concerned about spending time with His disciples than getting a ministry report from them.
The disciples were expecting to talk about ministry, but Jesus wanted to talk about life.
Again, I’m not trying to add anything to the text, but rather notice what the author didn’t include in the story. Jesus viewed His disciples as people to be loved, not spots to be filled. We don’t know what they talked about in the quiet place, but we do know they rested. Jesus’ response to his disciples’ “ministry tour” was offering a place to rest with him. Jesus knew they would be tired from ministry; and he didn’t complain about their humanity, but rather met them in it.
But that’s Jesus. … How can we be good shepherds? How can we know our sheep? Here are a few practical things to keep in mind:
1. Your response to your volunteers missing a weekend matters.
If they let you know beforehand, respond with, “Are you doing something fun?” Focus on them. Ask questions about their plans and get to know them better. Your initial thought might be about finding someone to cover their role, but you can fix the schedule later. You only have a few moments to care for them.
If they text you last-minute, respond with, “No worries! Is everything okay?” Again, you’re taking the attention away from the ministry and toward the volunteer. You want to show them your main concern is who they are as people, not what they can do for the church.
2. Your conversations on the weekend matter.
You have a very short window to get to know your volunteers on the weekend, and they have a very short window to get to know you. So be intentional about your conversations. It’s easy to focus on the logistics of the lesson, activity, game, etc. But remember, this might be their only time with you.
Uncle Dale used to welcome kids at the door every week, so I started high-fiving kids at the same door. It might have seemed like I was doing it for the kids, but really it was to spend time with Uncle Dale.
Your volunteers are people to be loved. So how will you love them?
Caleb Brown is a husband, father, teacher, and writer. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Spiritual Formation from Liberty University, a Master of Arts in Ministry from Lincoln Christian University, and a Bachelor of Science in Ministry Leadership from Lee University.