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Go, Team, Go!

Christine Yount Jones

  • "The most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I'd made my teammates play." -- Bill Russell
  • "Of all the things I've done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them toward a certain goal." -- Walt Disney
  • "After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go." -- Luke 10:1

The foundation of Jesus' approach to working with volunteers is the team -- even if that team is no more than two people. Jesus always sent his disciples out in ministry teams. In fact, one of the only accounts in Scripture that we have of the disciples being alone was when they were scattered after Jesus' arrest (Matthew 26:56; Mark 14:50).

"United we stand, divided we fall," the old saying goes. In today's fast-paced world, perhaps more than ever before, volunteers are looking to form meaningful, lasting relationships.

"Relationships have become extremely important in almost every aspect of late twentieth century life," says Leith Anderson, pastor of Wooddale Community Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

Anderson asserts that "many people volunteer not because of the task but because of the opportunity to make friends." That's why team-building is critical to having long-term volunteers. And that's exactly why Andrea Shintaku, a first-grade teacher and one of ten thousand members at Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona, volunteered. She says, "I guess what really motivates me is when you're part of a big church like Community Church of Joy, to make it small you have to participate in things."

Lacking a team network of support, George Kunzle, a volunteer at Whittier Hills Baptist Church in LaHabra, California quit. "Our church has a two-hour setup where you go to church service in one hour and then you teach in the other hour. So after a few years, you begin to feel isolated from your adult friends, and it's nice to get back in adult relationships."

But the children's ministry staff at Whittier Hills is shifting to a team approach. LuAnn Robinson, a volunteer fifth-grade coordinator at this church, says, "Being on a team is really important to me. I don't think we had as much of a team thing before, but they're trying to do more now. For a long time, you kind of felt like the Lone Ranger out there, and it was hard to keep going. It's nice to have your peers reminding you that you're doing a good job, you're making a difference. I think it just gets real hard to keep doing it without any team."

You don't want any of your volunteers to find their jobs"real hard". You've worked hard to recruit them; you want to keep them. A team approach will make their jobs easier.

Team Benefits

Organizing volunteers into teams provides the following benefits for your overall ministry:

Balance and cross-training
No single volunteer has everything he or she needs, no matter how experienced. For example, you may have some volunteer teachers who possess a wealth of Bible knowledge, but lack people skills. With a team approach, volunteers build on each other's strengths.

Improved planning and follow-through
Business executives and other leaders nearly always surround themselves with strong teams. The leader can then present an idea in a meeting with his or her team and let the team attack it, probe it, and offer suggestions. When the meeting is concluded, the whole team is ready to follow through on the revised -- and often improved -- plan.

Increased energy
Team effort multiplies the individual thrust, provides the impact of sheer numerical strength, and supplies power in attacking a single target. When attacked by a team, a problem that seemed insurmountable to an individual volunteer can be solved quickly, allowing the individual and other team members to move on with their duties.

"Teams increase people's ability to accomplish tasks" says Selma Johnson, the minister to children/family life at Northway Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. "My greatest challenge is keeping the vision going and realizing that volunteers are only going to give so much time to the task and meetings. So we've developed teams throughout the preschool/children's division. This gives teachers ownership in what's going on. We have teams for everything from resources to decorating, recruiting, hospitality, and more."

Leadership training
Team participation provides opportunities for potential leaders to try out their skills at leading, planning, and coordinating. Since leadership is largely a matter of helping others accomplish their objectives more effectively than they could by themselves, people who are expected to be leaders will benefit from the team experience. And as leaders develop, your ministry will continue to grow.

Robbie Joshua, children's minister at Faith Community Church in West Covina, California has reaped the benefits of using teams in her ministry. She says, "It's important for people (especially in a behind-the-scenes ministry like children's ministries) to know that they're not alone. Team members can encourage one another, support one another, and create with one another. I believe that a productive team is always greater than the sum of its parts."

From Me To We

So how do you build a productive team? Typically, God lays a vision for a ministry on one person's heart. Then he calls a team of people to fulfill that vision. In Acts 16:9-10, Luke writes, "During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us.' After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them." Only Paul saw the vision, but "we" -- Paul's volunteer team -- "got ready at once." Paul needed his partners in ministry to help him fulfill the vision.

Just as Paul relied on his ministry partners, we need to rely on our volunteer teams -- and encourage them to rely on each other. A team talks about "we" instead of "me." It's "our" instead of "mine." Team members sink or swim together.

"A productive team with a clear vision, working toward a common goal creates momentum," says Robbie. "Momentum is an important ingredient in achieving success. I believe that momentum creates excitement that'll facilitate a vision and help a ministry break through complacent and stagnant barriers that tend to cause burnout."

Let's take a closer look at seven critical elements of productive teams.

1. Accepted leaders
Debbie Neufeld, children's minister at Grant Memorial Baptist Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, tells how she develops team leaders from her 150 volunteers.

"I depend very heavily on my team leaders to keep our children's ministry going," Debbie says. "They're the ones who work closely with me in finding the right people to serve in their departments; they look after the needs of their staff and the kids and parents they minister to; they keep me aware of things that I need to know…I try to give the ministry away to them and tell them that the department is theirs to look after.

"I try to meet monthly with my team leaders so we can connect and plan on a regular basis. I have found this to be a hard commitment even for my dedicated workers, as they lead such busy lives today and have jobs and families as well…I feel it's very important to keep in touch with my team leaders, even if it has to be on the phone, at least once every week or two."

It takes time to cultivate leaders among your volunteer teams. And it may not be easy to get into the habit of regular meetings with team leaders. But by spending time with your leaders, you encourage them to develop the same kind of relationship with their team members -- volunteers who deserve the same level of time and attention, but may not be able to get it from you. (There are only so many hours in a week!)

2. Common goals
With your children's ministry vision statement in mind (preferably even in view!), each volunteer team should establish its goals. Team goals should include detailed, reachable objectives that advance your children's ministry's vision statement.

3. Division of labor
Delineating clear roles provides greater ownership and enables people to excel in their areas of responsibility. Before assigning roles, team members should spend time getting to know each other. Understanding team members' strengths, weaknesses, and personalities will help teams better determine who should fill which role.

4. Loyalty and commitment
One of your volunteers' primary needs is to be needed. Tell them often, "I need you to reach children. I cannot do it without you!" People want to feel that they're making a valuable contribution to the team. "I've noticed over the past three years that we've retained volunteers longer because they feel valued and know that there's a 'place' for their unique gifts and talents," says Robbie Joshua.

In addition to hearing positive feedback from you, it's also important for teammates to communicate to one another how important they are. You can do this in team meetings where team members regularly share "words of appreciation" about what they value in their teammates. Or encourage "holy gossip" where teammates report to the others the great ways they've seen each other contribute.

5. Playing together
The team that plays together, stays together. When was the last time your team relaxed together? You can build community within your team by planning regular times where they can kick back and simply enjoy being together. You may decide to play a wild game of Laser Tag. Or your team may enjoy meeting at a trendy coffee shop on a Saturday morning. Encourage team leaders to find out from their teams what they would most enjoy and to plan regular times that are just for fun. As people see how much fun your teams are having in and around children's ministry, they'll want to get on board.

6. Praying together
Prayer is an important part of East Tulsa Christian Church's children's ministry team. "We recently had a day of fasting and prayer," says their director, Cheryl Hall. "We have two or three days throughout the year to keep us focused and to keep us listening to what is true."

Prayer will not only bind your team together, it'll help your team members give their hearts to the children they pray for. Teams can pray together as a group, develop a prayer chain, or have prayer partners within their teams. Prayer helps a team recognize its utter dependence on the power of God and reaffirms the team's trust in God's miraculous working in and through its ministry.

7. Serving each other
Nurture an environment where team members make sacrifices for one another, serve one another, and meet each other's needs. By God's grace, your goal is to create teams that become the most life-giving source in a teammate's life. "This past year, one of our team members died suddenly," Robbie says. "She was a beautiful Nigerian lady who lit up the room when she walked in. She was in this country finishing her education and planning to return to Nigeria to her husband and children. When her team members became aware of a lack of finances surrounding her death, they immediately collected money to help send the body back to her country to be buried."

I can't help but imagine that God carried the grieving family through this time because of the loving commitment of a children's ministry team that knows what it means to weep with those who weep. That's the kind of team every volunteer longs for. Volunteers who experience a genuine sense of "team" won't want to let the team down by failing to show up or failing to complete an assignment. And they're also more likely to stick around.

A HEART FOR TEAMWORK

Darlene Pinson, children's director at Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida, oversees 200 volunteers. I asked her to talk about her approach to building teams.

Q: Why have you placed such a high priority on team-building?
A: That's the model Jesus gave. It builds fellowship and trust. It's a must for support during good times, as well as "trying" times.

Q: How do you make time for all the relational things you do with people with all the big-picture demands you have?
A: Much of the time, I don't feel like I do nearly enough in this area. However, this is always time well spent. It's money in the bank! For every attempt at being involved in the lives of volunteers and their families, there are countless rewards. The little things really do make a difference -- just so they know they're special people who are cared about far more than just what they do as volunteers in children's ministry.

Q: What would you say to a children's minister who says, "I don't have time to build relationships with people; there are too many programs to get organized!"
A: A minister with that attitude probably won't stay in the work very long. We are PEOPLE, not programs. Programs are only a means to an end. Healthy relationships with volunteers will energize them to run the programs. A good leader will nurture and equip the people so they "partner" with you to do the work.


Excerpted from Awesome Volunteers (Group Publishing, Inc.).

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