Occasionally, I have the opportunity to work alongside the staff and students of our inclusive weekday preschool at my church. One of the most frequent and enduring concepts we teach our students is how to be a bucket filler. We can fill others’ buckets by performing acts of kindness, offering help, expressing appreciation, being an attentive listener and sharing our resources with each other. Conversely, we become bucket dippers when we communicate harshly and focus only on our own needs. While the analogy of bucket filling and dipping is a fantastic way for preschoolers and young learners to navigate the complexities of relationships and acknowledge perspectives outside of their own, as ministry leaders, we also have much we can glean when it comes to filling buckets. So many of us disability ministry leaders lead alongside volunteers–amazing, extraordinary, creative, and more than capable volunteers–week after week who fill out buckets by their presence and action. It is no secret our ministries could not function without their time and talents. Volunteers willfully and often joyfully give up the time they could be watching Netflix, sleeping in, or working out at the gym to faithfully partner with us as we love and support those in our ministries. We can honor and celebrate their commitment to serving by investing in intentional partnership and sincere affirmation.
The quality, longevity, and impact of a ministry does not hinge on the capabilities of one individual. The most successful ministries are made when multiple individuals are committed to a common mission and vision. Ask yourself questions like “Why does this ministry exist?”, “What need does the ministry address?” and “Who participates in this ministry?”. These questions can serve as guides for identifying and articulating the purpose and goals of the ministry, give permission to make adjustments where necessary and to catalyze growth. This ongoing work of discernment is best done in community. Invite volunteers from your ministry to become equal partners with you in this process. Ask volunteers to help cast vision and to name specific ways God is moving throughout the ministry. Pose the question “Where have we seen God at work and what does that mean for where we got next?”. Do not be afraid of recruiting a diverse group to come alongside you on this vision-casting and mission-defining journey. Differences of opinion do not mean that the ministry is doomed, but rather it means you have an opportunity to discover potential new, more effective pathways by which to do the important work of ministry.
You have likely recruited each member of your ministry volunteer team for a specific reason and purpose. Perhaps they have a particular skill set that is a great match for ministry or have a particular passion for connecting with those who are a part of the populations you serve. As a ministry leader, it is our job to ensure that our volunteers have every opportunity to discover, utilize and grow the very same gifts, talents, and passions that made them excellent volunteer candidates at the outset. Communicate trust by inviting them to participate in ministry happenings in meaningful ways. Solicit feedback, pose questions, and listen well. Give your volunteers supported opportunities to make decisions, offer suggestions, discover solutions to challenges and pursue new ministry directions. Remember, volunteers are not working for you, they are partnering with you as you come together to do the work which God has called you to engage.
Serving can, and should be, a pathway for volunteer leadership development and discipleship. We are better able to encourage volunteer growth and development when we provide meaningful, individualized feedback on a regular basis. Do you have a volunteer who is doing an amazing job connecting with a new family? Send them a text and tell them you noticed and appreciated their effort. Did a volunteer find a new way to support a struggling student? Before the service ends and everyone goes home, tell the volunteer how you saw the student succeed as a result of their support. Volunteers routinely working hard to make ministry happen in challenging times? Pick up a box of donuts on your way into church one Sunday morning to share with your team. Receive an encouraging email from a family about their experience at church? Share the highlights of that email with the volunteers who support that particular family. There are infinite ways to communicate appreciation and set a culture of volunteer celebration! Express gratitude freely and often. Do not expect or wait for perfection, but rather practice affirming and celebrating the ways volunteers are using their gifts and skills and allow their character to shine amidst the imperfection of circumstances and the limitations of human nature.