People power

“Our best assets go up and down in the lift,” explained one of the most successful businessmen in the city of London as we sat talking about his company. You may well be an exceptional visionary with a perceptive grasp of the needs of your community, a clear view of the solutions and a strategic plan for how to achieve them. But if you can’t build a committed, inspired and empowered team, whether they are volunteers or employees, then you still don’t have a catalyst for change. Without a team of co-workers, any leader’s ability to achieve anything of lasting value will be very limited, and at the same time the vast pool of potential in local churches will remain untapped.

Start as you mean to go on

It’s no statement of faith to acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth remains the most influential leader ever to walk our planet. In truth, it is impossible to understand the development of art, music, theatre, literature, architecture, law or world culture in general over the last two millennia without reference back to him. But read the opening few chapters of Matthew or Mark’s Gospel and you find a leader who believed in team.
Jesus understood that the success of his mission was in valuing, investing in and empowering others who would continue the work long after he had departed. Four soon became 12, and 12 became 72, who Jesus sent out – demonstrating his trust in their abilities – something that did more for their self-esteem and owning of the mission than any sermon ever could. The ultimate aim of a leader is not to impress people with their own abilities, but to train and inspire others to work together and go further themselves. A great leader leaves you inspired by your own ability and potential rather than daunted by theirs.

As the old Chinese proverb says, ‘A leader without followers is just someone out taking a stroll.’ The hallmark of a truly great leader, therefore, is not so much what happens when they’re around, but what happens when they’re gone. ‘Truly great leadership,’ said Martin Luther King, ‘is about what you achieve after you are dead.’

Why build a team?

A strong team:

  • Provides the only effective means to achieve lasting goals and establish projects that will stand the test of time
  • Generates a high level of creativity and innovative ideas through the interaction of its members.
  • Builds a diverse pool of talent and skills which can be deployed to the best overall advantage.
  • Increases its members’ sense of involvement, belonging and commitment.
  • Creates the environment to identify, train and enable future leaders.
  • Develops the skills and potential of every member.

People before projects

No team should exist purely to fulfil a set of tasks. The reality is, however, that some leaders become so absorbed in achieving their goals that they end up oblivious to the effects of their relentless pursuit on those who work with them. The human cost, in terms of quality of life and relationships, appears not to matter as long as the task is achieved. This attitude, often prevalent in business and industry, as well as in the Church, always leaves people drained of enthusiasm, feeling neglected, ignored, used and eventually looking for a new job!

Management guru, John Adair, breaks down the work of a team leader into three main areas:

Achieving the task. Building and maintaining the team. Developing the individual.

The members of your team are not just a means to an end; the bottom line is not simply about getting the job done, but also about enabling each individual to develop their full potential. Such concern will improve not only your relationships with them, but also their performance. ‘Trust men and they will be true to you,’ said Emerson, ‘treat them greatly and they will show themselves to be great.’

Choosing a team

The art of choosing the right members for a team is central to its success. “Human resources are the most critical part of any organisation’s success. Good people help to ensure profitability, growth and long-term survival. You simply cannot survive without qualified people,” claims R.Maddux. So management experts suggest three key factors every leader should look for:

Technical or professional competence. Ability to work as a team member . Desirable personal attributes and social skills.

However, as my friend Phil Dobson, local church leader in Liverpool puts it, “You can be 98% right and still 100% wrong, at the same time.” Or to put it another way, in 1 Cor.1:26-27 Paul reminds his readers to, “Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

Though the modern professional mind might find Paul’s perspective absurd, the truth is that, despite all its troubles, the Church is without doubt the most successful organisation ever in terms of its growth and,of course, long-term survival. And it all began with a bunch of unqualified fishermen and a slightly dodgy tax collector! Jesus knew what it took to make a team work, but clearly did not believe that this meant he had to restrict himself to those with proven ability. Instead, he had the ability to spot the potential in people and was willing to take calculated risks in order to develop them.

When Jesus looked at people he saw what they could be; their undiscovered skills and abilities, not just their existing areas of competence (or incompetence!). Note Jesus’ words to Simon in Matthew 16:18, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, as we know, is translated as ‘Peter’ or ‘Rock’). But all those who knew Simon knew that he could be impetuous and unreliable and must have at least questioned Jesus’ wisdom. Simon was more jelly than rock-like! Yet discipled and empowered by Jesus, Simon did eventually become Peter, the strong, dependable and wise founder member and leader of the Church.

Modern business theory is geared towards playing safe. The majority of contemporary organisations and companies are run by conservatives. By placing high value on a proven track record, they lack the flexibility or courage to take risks and invest in latent potential. That’s what makes Jesus’ approach so different.. Choosing team members on the basis of their latent potential will certainly involve taking risks, and not everyone will prove a diamond in the making, but in truth, sometimes the most dubious raw material can yield surprising results if we are prepared to work hard and be patient.

Working with volunteers

Bill Hybels makes the point that working with volunteers is the purest form of leadership that exists. The reason is simple – employees will often endure bad leadership and put up with a lack of stimulation or cope with a sense of dissatisfaction for the money. A good pay packet covers over a multitude of sins. But for volunteers no such monetary incentive exists. If their work is not fulfilling they will vote with their feet. Volunteers need to be linked into your project in ways that will ensure that they are valued, productive and given an opportunity to grow. And all this does not just happen. It needs careful planning.

Where to start

Think hard about establishing clear policies for working with volunteers. The shape of these will be based on the scale of your project, your available resources and the number of volunteers you have involved. However, quite aside from creating a safeguard for your project and helping to provide the best service to your users, being able to show you have thought things through demonstrates in itself the value that you place on your volunteers.

Why do we want to involve volunteers?

Any project or organisation needs to be clear from the outset about why it wants to involve volunteers in its work. Though lack of funds to employ staff is often one of these, it is equally true that volunteers add a number of other, very positive benefits which may include:

  • Providing better, more flexible services to users.
  • Involving and drawing on the skills and expertise of the local community.
  • Getting closer to the needs of users.
  • Breaking down barriers between helper and helped.
  • Who will be responsible for co-ordinat-ing the work of the volunteers?

Somebody within the organisation should be responsible for co-ordinating or managing the work of the volunteers. Who this is will depend upon the scale of volunteer involvement. It may be another volunteer or a member of staff, but it is essential that there is one individual who everyone knows the buck stops with on this.

How much of the overall budget needs to be set aside for volunteers?

It’s a mistake to think that volunteers come free. They do not. They give their time but there are financial costs involved in any volunteer programme.

Money should be set aside for:

  • Allowable expenses To avoid tax implications, or inadvertently creating an employment relationship, only out-of-pocket expenses should be re-reimbursed. This will usually cover travel, necessary purchases and may include meals. If a volunteer chooses not to charge their expenses to you, suggest that they donate them back into the project. That way you get a clear idea of the real costs of your operation, whether or not individual volunteers choose to claim them. This will greatly improve future budgeting and help funding applications.
  • Relevant Training.
  • Administrative costs – phone, fax, PC, photocopying, stamps, desk space, administrative backup etc.
  • Management costs. The cost of your time and input.

What are the volunteers going to do?

Volunteers need to have meaningful tasks with enough to do to sustain interest and provide fulfilment. It is also important that there is clarity between the volunteer and the project as to their role and responsibility, so that paid staff (if you have them) do not feel threatened and volunteers do not feel exploited. It is good practice to have written job/task descriptions and an agreement to not go beyond these boundaries without prior discussion.


In line with the written job description, outline any skills, qualities or experience that volunteers will need to fill the role. It is too easy to jump at the first opportunity to take on anybody who shows interest in helping and then regret it. Climbing out of a hole is a lot harder than landing yourself in it in the first place. Take care to ensure you get the right person for the right task.

How will we recruit?

You will need to have a consistent recruitment procedure that is used for all volunteers, whether or not they are previously known to the project. This should generally involve making an application and attending an informal interview. To protect your project and the people who use it, best practice means it is always necessary to take up references for all volunteers. This also goes a long way towards safeguarding potential volunteers from being placed in situations that they may be unable to handle. Where volunteers will be working closely with vulnerable people - children, the elderly, people with mental health problems or a learning disability -– police checks may also be necessary. If it is necessary to turn down an application for any reason you should always try to give constructive feedback to the person concerned.

Ongoing Support

Consistent support, good communication and regular encouragement are the keys to good, productive, ongoing relationships with volunteers.

Ways to achieve these include -

  • Making sure volunteers are regularly updated and therefore aware of any changes taking place within the project that may affect them.
  • Giving opportunities to feedback any views to the organisation.
  • Creating regular opportunities to participate in decision making.
  • Providing access to relevant training.
  • Not making unreasonable demands on volunteers’ time..
  • Ensuring good working practices regarding time off and working hours.
  • Ensuring clear supervision/line management.

For more on working with volunteers, employing staff, and other vital information you will need to set up and run a successful local church social action project, order your copy of Faithworks: The Manual – Equipping Churches for Community Involvement, published by Kingsway in April for £6.99. For more information contact