John Truscott continues his series on working with volunteers – but with a special twist. Each article will focus on one area of church life where volunteers serve rather than looking at volunteering in general. The series is designed for all church leaders.
So far the series has covered worship services, church finance and church governance. In this fourth article John considers those asked to help organise specific events or projects.
The word ‘volunteer’ brings two different ideas to mind. One is someone who offers to fulfil a role rather than being forced into it. The second is someone who receives no money to carry out a task as opposed to a person who is paid for the work. Churches of course depend on such people, in both meanings of the term.
Much is written on how to motivate and support volunteers and I train in this area myself. But in this series I want to experiment with a slightly different approach: starting with specific tasks within church life that require volunteers and seeing how that might affect our thinking. This time I examine the organisation of specific events or projects.
What kind of projects?
Some of the following examples might be run by an established group, but on this occasion I shall assume these are seen as one-off events put together by a group formed for the purpose.
- A major church event: a weekend away, a missions week, a big social occasion, a concert, a conference, a seniors’ holiday-at-home.
- A one-off financial project: a stewardship programme or a major Gift Day.
- A building project: new-build, extension or major renovation.
- A global initiative: church members visiting mission partners, a building project in a Third World country, running a children’s mission abroad.
- A planning project: devising a Mission Action Plan, overseeing a Minister vacancy, planning the restructure of small groups, setting up a new IT system.
- A church plant: adding a new congregation at base, a transplant to another church, a plant to a school or hall, a Fresh Expressions project.
The key differences of voluntary service for such as these over most other tasks we are considering in this series are that:
- it is assumed to be one-off and so of limited duration rather than ongoing;
- it is complex in that it will usually involve the co-ordination of several church ministries;
- it is often deadline driven – it needs to complete on time.
Note that when I dealt with people involved in running a Sunday service (article 1 in this series) I used the concept of project management to help them see they needed to work together towards one end. That was a specialised form?of what I have in mind here.
Applying four principles of volunteering
As in earlier articles I now take four principles?of volunteering that are particularly relevant in this case.
1: The attraction of time limited service
I am assuming that the project in hand is seen as a one-off event with an ad hoc group set up to run it. This applies even if an event takes place every one or two years, but may have a new team running each one.
In the article on church finance I listed the value of limited posts both in scope and in time. For project management roles the limited duration factor makes this an attractive task for many volunteers, provided it is made clear that the group will disband immediately their work is done. Church groups have a habit of avoiding any self-destruct date. Discipline in disbanding the group is essential.
What most millennials (in particular) in churches fear is that taking on a continuing role (such as helping to run young people’s activities) will put them in a difficult position if their circumstances change: a new job, starting a family, coping with the pressures of life today. But being part of an ad hoc group that exists for just six months, say, has less risk attached to it.
This raises the issue of whether all voluntary service in churches should be time-limited. Someone taking on the leadership of a young people’s group agrees to do it for two years with no assumption they will continue after that. This adds extra work in recruitment and organising teams, but presents a more attractive option for service for many people. The fear of service for life (visibly demonstrated when the leader of the teens group eventually resigns aged 75) may be one of the biggest barriers to volunteering.
2: Clear expectations
But there is another side to the limited length of planning a project. The pressure to complete by a deadline may mean that the work becomes frenetic. You sign up for a monthly planning meeting for four months to organise one event, not realising that you will also be expected to:
- play a major role at the event itself involving time and personal finance;
- be involved in a research phase involving visits to other churches;
- serve on an extra sub-group for one area of the project;
- attend training days you had not been warned about.
The idea of a job description (more accurately, a ‘role definition’) for any voluntary service in church sounds bureaucratic, but if handled wisely and in a simple form, it can be really valuable. Safeguarding issues are pushing churches in this direction anyway.
A good role definition will be no more than one side of a sheet of paper and define:
- the purpose for this service, giving the bigger picture or vision;
- those you will work alongside and be responsible to, including team implications;
- the duties or the responsibilities (the first is a basic form of the second) that you will be expected to carry out.
Something of this kind is important for most church tasks, but vital for one in project management. This is because a one-off task has more uncertainty surrounding it than an ongoing role which is already well known and because it often involves several different church ministries.
I raised this issue in the article on finance volunteers but here I want to develop it in a slightly different way and consider expectations. The role definition needs to tell the volunteer what the church expects of them. This is sometimes developed into what is often called a ‘volunteer contract’, although a volunteer cannot have a ‘contract’ in the proper meaning of the term because there is no remuneration.
But what such ‘volunteer contracts’ also include is an idea of what the volunteer can expect from the church. If the church expects the volunteer to play their part with due commitment and diligence, what does the managing body offer in return?
This is a factor that churches need to take more care over. And whatever is stated here then must, repeat must, be carried out. Here are some examples of what a volunteer offering to help organise a building project might expect to receive in return:
- all travel and other out-of-pocket expenses agreed by your team leader repaid promptly to you;
- release from other on-going church responsibilities for the duration of the project;
- clear explanations of what we expect from you and the role we want you to play;
- the offer of church members to baby-sit for you should you require this;
- support from the church staff and the Finance Team as necessary.
3: Accountability and freedom to fail
Many project planning tasks are high profile and complex and so have a degree of risk attached to them. The Gift Day has a target: what if it is not reached? The Minister vacancy will be a key time for the whole church: what if people drift away never to return? The new IT system involves significant cost: what if it fails to deliver what you have promised?
This point raises the matters of accountability and failure.
The onus here has to be on the authorising body, normally the church Trustees/Council. They have to assess the risk of delegating this task to a group who work on their behalf.
There are of course means the Trustees can use to lessen the risks involved. They can:
- ensure at least one Trustee is on the group;
- set out limits of cost and scope above which authorisation is required;
- ask for regular reports on decisions taken;
- ensure that accountability is explained clearly when setting up the group;
- put any necessary insurances and policies in place.
But accountability must be clearly stated – and in my experience this is often not the case.
Freedom to fail
But if the Trustees take too careful an approach, insisting that they have to double-check each decision taken, the volunteers in the group will be frustrated, and the time-scale for the project will be increased.
Failure may come about either through illegal activity (fraud, safeguarding issues, etc.) but more normally through outcomes that fail to live up to expectations.
Part of the excitement of being involved in planning a major project lies in the knowledge that, in its complexity, it could go wrong. Churches that prioritise safety and seek to cut risks to as close to zero as possible are unlikely to achieve much. The whole Christian life is a considerable risk.
Risk needs to be managed but cannot, and should not, be eliminated. A church that allows people to fail, provided they learn from the mistake and move on, is a church that can grow.
4: Review, feedback and handover
Some of the projects under investigation can make a pleasant change from normal, weekly church life. A project to take a team to a Third World country for a building project will attract a type of church member who might revel in the risks involved, not to mention the opportunity for foreign travel.
Many projects can be easily assessed afterwards for success or failure. You know whether the weekend went well (especially if you use response sheets for everyone), the stewardship campaign achieved its target or the church grew during the vacancy. Much week by week ministry is harder to assess – or can only be reviewed over a longer timescale.
The concept of review is something that many churches shy away from. Yet it is essential if volunteers are to grow and develop – and feel satisfied at the task they have carried out. Review of a building project, a church event or the setting up of a new system can be carried out in various ways. Here are some ideas:
- formal response forms, perhaps with a scoring system, given out to all who took part which the organising group then analyses and records what they learn;
- more detailed response forms given to a carefully selected group who are approached beforehand;
- the group themselves (perhaps with the Minister or other staff) assess the outcomes against specific targets: such metrics might include finance raised, numbers involved, timescales, responses made, perceived quality of teamwork.
The principle of handover is not given enough attention in most churches. It is important for every voluntary role, particularly for a project. This is because a similar event or system may be carried out again.
A handover file means that the next team running a similar event start with the wisdom of their predecessors in front of them. Its basic document needs to be written up immediately after the project is complete – and so this needs to be included in the lists of responsibilities for the team members (see above!). Points to include in such a file:
- basic documentation of all forms, standard letters, brochures, posters;
- notes of meetings held, those on the group, a time line, telling the story of how the project was managed;
- a list of what proved successful and might be repeated in some form;
- a list of what did not go well as lessons to be learned;
- resources used: websites, people, institutions, etc.
So consider your next project and those who volunteer to plan it. Apply these four principles of volunteering to them: defining the end of the period you are asking them to work within, listing expectations you have of them but also what they can expect from the church, clarifying accountability and failure, and ensuring there is proper review and recording.
JOHN Truscott is an independent church consultant and trainer who champions the ministry of creative organisation. Visit his website and check out the Resources section for a growing range of over 150 items which you can print out and/or download. Note in particular the Management section page which includes working with volunteers. You can follow John on Twitter @johnnvtruscott. Church Administrators should join the UK Church Administrator Network (UCAN) at www.churchadministrators.net