by the Rev. Susan M. Smith
Perhaps you are in one of those congregations in which the old “Nominating Committee” has become the new “Leadership Development Committee,” and no one quite knows how to get that started. It’s a question I’ve gotten a few times lately. It’s very like those new “Committees on Ministry” that still operate like the old “Ministerial Relations Committees.” You want to get the benefit of a new and better way of guiding your congregation rather than just put a new label on the same-old-same-old. I think you must start with the leaders you already have to build the leadership you need.
Build a culture of sincere gratitude. Make sure that everyone is being thanked for everything they do every chance you get. If you lead worship, thank the pianist, the choir, the person who arrived early to create a beautiful space. As you arrive, thank the ushers for volunteering today and the Membership Committee folks for greeting. Stick your head in the kitchen and thank whoever is there setting up coffee hour or staying after to wash up. Show appreciation to staff as well. Make sure that every volunteer receives holiday greetings and thanks for their work in the year just past. Give gifts when you can. When the occasion warrants it, give engraved plaques. Expressing gratitude contributes to our mental health, and potential leaders will see that their work will be appreciated.
Encourage your current leaders to always ask someone to help them with their work. This will create low stakes opportunities for those who are not in leadership to test the waters. Ask every current volunteer to think of at least one thing that they do – usher, set up coffee hour, oversee the kids in the playground – with which they can ask someone to help. These are usually best when they are spur of the moment things. Also, encourage current leaders to have special events and projects for which potential leaders can participate for a very limited time rather than an open-ended committee position.
Help your current leaders get to know themselves and one another better. There are many different free and reasonably priced online and remote resources for allowing people to learn more about one another. Whether it’s Myers-Briggs, enneagram, conflict style inventory or intercultural competency, develop a variety of ways that members of boards, teams and committees can share more of who they are. Work a case study. Do a free UUA curriculum for leaders like “Harvest the Power.” Have them consider how the story of the Stone Soup or the Parable of the Sower relates to your congregation at the present time. In short, develop a real appreciation for both difference and commonality. You will be moving away from thinking that any warm body can fill an opening and toward asking people to serve in a position because they are uniquely suited to it.
Help people to move from begrudging work into passionate work. In his landmark book on organizations, Good to Great, Jim Collins writes that the first step toward true greatness is to make sure that the right people are on the bus and that they are in the right seats. I like to literally put painters tape on the floor to make a few squares and label them as ministries of the congregation (Stewardship, Worship, Justice, etc.) and ask everyone to stand in the square where their current work places them. Then I ask them to move to the square for which they have passion. Unfortunately, I’ve seen groups of committee heads and board members where no one was where they truly wanted to be. Discerning a good fit between a volunteer and a position is key to developing happy and productive new leaders.
Finally, members of the Leadership Development Committee should do just what Committees on Ministry should do, get acquainted with the work of every volunteer in the congregation. That doesn’t usually mean sitting in a committee meeting. It means pruning the hedges to watching the newsletter put together to singing in the choir. You will be asking what would make these positions more effective, more fun and easier to do. You may come back with a list of better supplies or more modern equipment that is needed. You may see a cultural change that needs to be made or a need for a position to have more autonomy. At the very least, you will know enough about what volunteers are doing to speak intelligently about it to potential leaders.
If you start with these things, you will be well on your way to creating a volunteer environment in which people want to be a part. And those volunteers will live deeper and more fulfilling lives because of the opportunities you provide to them.