What are the symptoms of volunteers receiving ineffective communication?

  • showing up unprepared
  • surprises
  • a lazy approach to resourcing and equipping volunteers for success
  • arriving late
  • increased turnover (your team is a revolving door) because your team doesn’t know that you care
  • poor planning
  • an “inch deep and a mile wide” feeling
  • lack of clarity. People are unable to articulate your vision (they can’t tell you “why”).
  • a perceived lack of influence
  • tension created by a lack of details
  • discovering issues indirectly (volunteers aren’t coming to you)
  • a lack of energy, unity, and momentum

If you experience these, you might be missing out on the appropriate way to communicate with your volunteers.

I remember when I had just started working with students and young adults. We had a growing student ministry and our arts team was no exception. The problem was, our team wasn’t coming prepared, on time, or sometimes even at all! This became a real problem; a problem that we had to diagnose and correct quickly. I discovered that the main culprit was email, followed closely by a lack of clarity around our vision, and lastly by how I was resourcing them (I was using burned CD’s).

You see students (for the most part) don’t read email, but I was relying on email for my main form of communication. I did it because it was easy. But easy doesn’t equal effective. Once I clarified the vision to everyone on the team, I then asked them how I could best serve them when it comes to communication (brilliant idea, right?). We never completely removed email from our strategy—it was, at some levels, necessary. But, once we started leveraging social media, text messaging, and strategic phone calls, our engagement went through the roof. My team got the message—literally—and then we got healthy. I see problems like this often among ministry teams in the local church, and if I’m honest, my church isn’t immune to them either.

If we aren’t careful, we can settle for what’s convenient and easy and miss out on God’s best for our ministry.

If we aren’t careful, we can settle for what’s convenient and easy and miss out on God’s best for our ministry.

So how do we communicate effectively to our teams to make sure they’re getting the message? Here are some ingredients that are essential to effectively communicating with volunteers:

Always keep the vision in front of them.

If vision is a future picture of what we hope will be, leaders must never stop painting that picture. Sometimes I fear that I might be sounding like a broken record. But that’s okay. I’d rather have someone say that and be able to quote me when it comes to our vision and mission rather than having no idea why we do what we do or their part in it.

If vision is a future picture of what we hope will be, leaders must never stop painting that picture.

Be on time.

And by that I mean be as far out as possible with information. No one likes to find out about an important change the day of or night before.

Live what you say.

Let your team know that you’re thinking about them, praying for them, concerned about them, and love them… And then actually do those things!

Create and foster a healthy feedback loop.

One of the best ways to cultivate an effective communication strategy is to allow those you’re serving and leading to have access to you. My team (volunteers) have my cell number and can call or text me any time they need me. If you really want to know how your team can grow, who better to ask than your team? Doing this will let you get ahead of potential issues because you can squash them ASAP.

Communicate on their mediums.

I mentioned in my story earlier that it wasn’t until I learned how to communicate effectively to my team that things started trending upward. Email will likely never completely die, but it is far from your best way to reach people and continually keep them informed and included. Need to reach someone ASAP? Text them. Figure out a way to get the information to them where they’ll actually be able to use it.

Ask, “What’s in it for them?”

Your volunteers need to know what’s in it for them. We believe that before we want something from them we want something for them. What I want for them is to grow deeper in their relationship with Jesus and realize the plan he has for their life. On a more practical level I want them to be part of something bigger than themselves and be part of God’s redemptive story playing out right in front of them.

Make details easy.

Do your team a favor and stop writing five scroll emails. Turn down the noise and instead use bullet points, headers, and lists. Keep things sticky (memorable).

Do your team a favor and stop writing five scroll emails.

Wear their shoes.

Remember that your volunteers probably aren’t sitting around the table when you plan your service or event. That means that it’s your job to bring them into the fold. Ask questions of your team to make sure they understand the plan.

Follow up.

How you debrief and celebrate with your team afterwards is just as important as how you connected with them beforehand. Celebrate the wins, identify opportunities for growth, and always remind them that we’re all in this together.

I’ve seen some lazy leaders who truly believe that a Planning Center request to serve, a run sheet with limited or missing details, and then a follow-up email afterwards with a generic “good job, thanks for serving” counts as effective leadership and communication. Don’t be that leader. Be the leader that your team needs you to be.