How to Turn Volunteers into Leaders

A few months ago, I worked with a local church to help them overcome a specific problem.  This particular church had a leadership issue.  Specifically, they had a lot of people to do things but was having trouble turning volunteers into leaders.  They could get a lot of people to show up to a work day, but knew they needed people to LEAD ministry in order to grow.  Before they could give away ministry, they needed to raise up some people to take the leadership roles.
I spent time with the senior leaders, observed a church service in action, and talked to a large group of leaders in the church at an organized meeting. We spent some time talking about specific opportunities, and in the end, some action steps emerged.
I have a hunch that a lot of churches are struggling with the issue of turning volunteers into leaders.   Volunteers will move stuff around, but leaders will move stuff forward.  If you want your church or your ministries to grow, equipping other leaders to lead might just be the spark you’re looking for.
Here are four things you can do to turn volunteers into leaders.

Pull back the curtain.

Most people in the church don’t know the inner workings of the church.  They certainly don’t understand the struggles.
Except for the church service they attend, the church is theoretical or spiritual to them.  They don’t see the day-to-day operations. They have no idea how the church is funded, how things get done, or what pastors do during the week.  So start by pulling back the curtain and talking about how the church really works.
Help people understand they have leadership abilities they use in their home and at work and how those abilities can be used in the church. Help people see that while leadership is spiritual, it’s not over-spiritual.  Find ways to make leadership needs tangible, and show people the real need for leaders in the church.
I know a church who has a vision to start dozens of campuses in a major city.  In order to do that, they recognized they would need to raise up tons of musicians to play in all these bands.  So they routinely have two bass players on the stage – one playing in the house and one playing just in his own headphones.  They let the congregation know the 2nd bass player is learning the ropes and will be a player at one of the new campuses.
That’s pulling back the curtain on what it really takes to run a church.  And you can use this same principle for leadership development.

Create a clear path.

The biggest obstacle in turning volunteers into leaders is creating a clear path.  If you want volunteers to become leaders, you have to show them how to do it.  Part of pulling back the leadership curtain is laying out a clear path a person can take to move into leadership.  When you define and describe this path, you’ll be amazed at how many people want to move through it.
This is exactly what Rick Warren and the team at Saddleback did when they created the 101, 201, 301 and 401 class system and tied it all together with the baseball diamond.  And this is what Church of the Highlands is currently doing with Highlands University.  They are creating clear road maps and putting people through a process.
Your process might start with dinner with the pastor.  It might be a two-hour learning experience.  It might be “sign up to shadow.” And it might just be three steps. But no matter how you contextualize it based on your style and intent, create a clear path.
On a side note, I think a lot of this process can be digital.  Through automated sequences, you could create a series of videos, worksheets, and emails that help people identify their gifts and learn about leadership.  If someone is interested in becoming a leader, why not take them through  simple, online course?

Personally invite people into the process.

Volunteers will sign up at a table, but leaders need to be personally invited.  If you want to turn volunteers into leaders, personally invite them into the process.  Let them know you see leadership abilities in them and offer to walk them through your process and meet with them personally.
One reason churches struggle to find leaders is they try to sign them up in bulk or rely on sermons aimed at the entire congregation to move people to action.  While some people will respond to general appeals, most leaders need to be personally invited.
Senior pastors and other church leaders should develop a “hit list” of people – not to ask to serve, but to develop into leaders.  Be patient and take your time, but be intentional with people.

Create a culture where leadership can grow.

I have a little desire to live on a farm and grow vegetables.
But right now, I live in a house on a wooded lot.  There’s lots of shade in my back yard, and that’s not good for growing vegetables.
However, I can grow azaleas, ferns and camellias.  My shady backyard is well-suited to grow those kind of plants, so that’s what I grow. Corn doesn’t grow in a desert and cacti don’t grow in a rain forest, because the environment isn’t right.
If you want to develop leaders in your church, the most important thing you must do is create a culture where leadership can flourish. That means talking about leadership, recognizing people who serve, giving away leadership and not taking it back, refusing to micro manage, giving people decision making authority,
Let me give you a practical example.
A lot of churches need to get into video, but they are scared away by the perceived quality necessary.  They watch megachurch services online and see awesome videos shared by their peers.  So instead of doing something that’s good enough and contextualized, they stay away.  Instead of empowering a leader to shoot announcement videos on a DSLR and edit with iMovie, they use quality as excuse not to do anything.
But what if you empowered someone to get started and lifted up progress as a win?  What if you showed a simple video then celebrated a volunteer leader named Jimmy who shot, edited and produced the whole thing?