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Motivating Volunteers without Despotism


To give someone responsibility without authority is despotism. To give authority without support is negligence. I have been a negligent despot in my dealings with volunteers. And then I wondered why my volunteers looked bored or were hard to recruit.

Because people work for free they work for a cause. “This also creates a tremendous responsibility for the institution to keep the flame alive, not to allow work to become just a “job.”” Peter Drucker is right. Our volunteers do not need another job, especially one without pay. So how do we motivate volunteers and use them in significant ways. If we discover the answer to this question we will never be short on volunteers.

Michael Csikszentmihalyi (yes, he is Russian) discovered the concept of flow, in which skill and challenge are both high, and a person becomes fully engaged in a significant endeavor. Flow is when the activity brings immense satisfaction and “carries” the person through the experience.

Volunteers Need Challenge

Flow teaches us that volunteers need significant challenge in order to feel strong motivation and pursue a task or relationship. I know what you are thinking: “Youth ministry is inherently hard, no lack of challenge here. Why can’t I find more volunteers?” Certainly, middle school boys Sunday school is often one of the most challenging tasks in the perception of people.

Why would a parent, professional, business owner and board member (all in one person) want to come to a ministry to stand against the wall and make sure teens don’t misbehave? It is not meaningful, not challenging and not using or developing their skills.

He is s a list of a few important ways to provide challenge:


          Hand off the football and follow up

          Give regular feedback. Most all ministries have no formal or non-formal mode for feedback. See this great article for a quick evaluation tool.

Volunteers Need Skill

Challenge is essential yet a true challenge can kill motivation if the volunteer cannot meet the challenge. The requisite skill set must be available in order to inspire and drive the person through challenge toward making a significant contribution. When people have skills and challenges to apply those challenges toward, they perceive their work to be meaningful and will work free. A task without competence only leads to anxiety and fear.  The apostle Paul clearly outlines the requirements of those who are pastor/teachers in Eph 4:11-13. It is common to think that the teacher simply teaches, yet it is clear that our true role in the church is to equip the saints for the work. One of the most dangerous pitfalls we face then is to use people to develop programs. Ministry is the equipping and developing of people to do the works of service. How do you develop a skill in an adult?

            Break it into pieces. The sub-component parts are learned then put together into a whole.

            Modeling is vital. They must be able to see a picture of the desired end.

            Provide specific training for various skills (in house and outside conferences). Train people on how to visit a sick teen, lead a small group, organize a message, etc.


Volunteers Need Support

Ever done a trust fall? For some they are terrifying. Imagine taking the leap without assurance that someone will catch you. To ask a student or an adult to form creative outreaches for hurting teens requires the ability to fail and the permission to do so. Yet people will only act, if failure is possible, when they know that there is a reasonable safety net to catch them. A final area (not addressed by flow theory) is support. We cannot challenge without offering support. Support is offered in order to challenge. Telling people to lead small groups without training or discussion questions signals no support. They will be unwilling to risk and thus the group and the leader will not grow.

Challenge skill and support work wonderfully together. They not only motivate but they reinforce growth and in turn increase motivation—which I believe makes disciples.  

Videos on Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi :

 A three minute 2010 interview on flow theory

 TED talk (18 minutes)

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