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Caring for Volunteers

October 11, 2023

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, churches often struggled to find volunteers to fill all their ministry roles,” said Becky Jones, a consultant with Thrive. “Many churches had a small handful of people who would volunteer in multiple ways, while other members didn’t volunteer at all. After the pandemic, this became even more pronounced.”

Thrive is a new CRCNA ministry aimed at listening to the needs of CRC congregations and coming alongside them in finding solutions. As Jones spoke with churches throughout the region she serves in Eastern Canada, she recognized that many of them were expressing similar needs when it came to finding and retaining volunteers.

In response, she created a volunteer training that is now available to congregations.

“It focuses on volunteer retention but also analyzes what a church is looking for when it comes to volunteers, and how to be more supportive of those who serve,” Jones said. “We cover a number of areas of volunteering, and ahead of time we send out a survey to the church to see what their particular needs are.”

For Community CRC in Dixons Corners, Ont., for example, one of the biggest needs was among volunteer Sunday school teachers and leaders.

“Following our 2022-2023 season, we received feedback from our volunteers in our children and youth ministries,” said Sara Veltkamp, a member of the discipleship committee and a Sunday school teacher at Community CRC. “Some volunteers felt burned out and could not do another season. Others were frustrated with the challenges of classroom management. As a discipleship committee, we thought it was important to learn more. Pastor Aaron [Thompson] connected us with Becky Jones, and we decided to send out a survey.”

Through the survey, Jones and Veltkamp were able to identify the specific needs of the volunteers at Community CRC, and they designed the workshop around it.

The survey showed that “one of the largest challenges we had was retaining volunteers. Many felt burned out, whether they took on too much the year before, or the joy they experienced previously from interacting and volunteering had been clouded by the frustrations of behavioral issues,” said Veltkamp. “In some areas they needed more volunteers in their program to support the number of children and youth attending.”

With these things in mind, Jones invited her colleague Laura Keeley to join the workshop via Zoom and lead a session specifically around classroom management. Keeley is a codirector of children’s ministry at Fourteenth Street CRC in Holland, Mich., and is also a regional connector with Thrive in Michigan.

Keeley focused on the need to lead with love as volunteers engage and interact with children. She specifically emphasized the importance of making sure children feel uniquely recognized and welcomed. Each one needs to feel that they belong, she said.

“One part that really stuck with me,” said Veltkamp, “was that if a child or young person is being disruptive, we should focus not on the 5-10 minutes when that was occurring, but on the 40 minutes when they were behaving. Can you find what triggered the change in behavior? Knowing that can help going forward. I also loved that [Keeley] admitted that teaching is hard and that most children can't sit still for long. She gave some tips on breaking up the class time with other activities or giving a task of importance to a child who seems to need to focus.”

In addition to this video workshop session with Keeley, Jones led the Community CRC volunteers through several discussions in person.

“I liked learning [from Jones] about the volunteer cycle, and the concepts of call versus duty,” said Veltkamp. “It is important as leaders and volunteers to check in with others and yourself to ask, ‘Are you still finding joy in doing this? If not, can your skills be used elsewhere? Is God calling you to another area you haven't thought of before?’”

Jones also emphasized the importance of communication and of connecting with the church’s volunteers throughout the year so that lines of communication remain open.

“Overall, it was a great workshop. It was invaluable having Becky there in person,” said Veltkamp. “She was incredible at leading and talking to the team. Her presence demonstrated to our volunteers the commitment of both our church and the denomination in supporting them. Our churches and programs cannot run without volunteers, and I know Becky made them feel that way through being there and through her words, guidance, and encouragement.”

Jones added that she appreciated the opportunity to pilot this new workshop within the context of a real congregation’s struggles.

“Community CRC reached out to me regarding their challenges around volunteering, and it just worked out that I was mid-process in creating the workshop. I hope that more churches pick up this workshop, and then we can target a specific need they have by inviting an expert to Zoom in,” said Jones. “I think the big takeaway from this workshop was that the church was surprised how easy it was to reach out to members of Thrive to get support and resources.”

Veltkamp agreed: “We had no idea of the resources available to us through Thrive and the CRCNA. There is a team of people committed to helping and supporting leaders and volunteers – you just have to ask. Becky provided us with a list of resources and, most importantly, contacts. We feel part of a larger team now, and, as leaders, that feels good. I hope our volunteers feel the same way.”

Churches interested in volunteer training can contact Becky at [email protected].