3 Big PROTIPS for Leading Growing Volunteer Church Teams from Mary Ann Sibley

I was blessed to meet and learn from Mary Ann Sibley and Rebecca Carlisle last year. We partnered on some new training for the TrainedUp Library in the area of Guest Services and Greeters. They did a killer job on that project.

While filming the new training, almost 50 videos in total, I learned a ton. They taught me about creating a warm and welcoming environment on Sunday morning, connecting with new people, coaching volunteers to be mentally present and hospitable to everyone, and so much more.

Honestly, I thought I knew how to design a great Guest Services team before I watched them share their wisdom and experience during filming.

After our training sessions were over, I emailed Mary Ann to ask her to go deeper on a couple concepts that she mentioned briefly in the videos. Each concept felt like an ingredient in her secret sauce or a secret play in her championship-winning playbook. These are a few tricks she used to manage and grow her volunteer team faster than I could imagine a team could grow and still be healthy and effective.

In typically-thorough Mary Ann style, she responded with a small dissertation. Here’s my summary of her response.

1. Organize Your Big Team into SUBTEAMS

This first concept is the foundation. Almost every other aspect of her team’s ability to scale and stay effective is dependent on this one thing.

Your team, at virtually every size, absolutely must be broken into smaller subteams. Not sure if your team is big enough to be organized into subteams? If your team members don’t serve every week, then you need subteams.

The simplest subteams are groups that serve together on a set schedule. For example, if you have people who serve every other week, form those people into two subteams. Let’s call them Team A and Team B. Team A will serve on week 1 and Team B will serve on week 2.

We’re not talking about the first week of each month. We’re talking about the first and second week of a rotation, starting from the first week of the year, or whenever your new team schedule starts.

Mary Ann had four teams, so each team serves every fourth week. Here’s what her team schedule looks like.

There are several benefits to organizing your team into subteams.

First, you can schedule every person for the entire year at one time. That’s a huge time saver for you. Before I switched to a subteam format, I was spending at least an hour a week on scheduling for my people. If you include spending time finding substitutes and stressing about who wouldn’t show up on Sunday, the impact is even greater.

Second, when new people join your ministry area as volunteers, you can immediately get them scheduled for the rest of the year by adding them to an existing subteam. That means you’ll spend even less time scheduling. Plus, you can give new volunteers very clear expectations of serving rotation and routine…even before they sign up!

Third, having subteams greatly simplifies the issue of finding substitutes when someone can’t show up for a certain weekend. In fact, Mary Ann’s next secret play is a modern take on the old-school volunteer substitute…and it’s made possible by the subteam format.

Fourth, each subteam will need its own team leader, giving you a great way to create opportunities to develop future leaders for your team and church. Those subteam leaders should all be volunteers themselves, of course. She calls the subteam leaders “Directors.”

2. Introduce the SWERVE

When Mary Ann was explaining how they manage such a large team, she used the term “swerve” when someone couldn’t show up on a Sunday. When I asked her what she meant, she said,

Ahhhh..swerve. I am not a fan of people signing up to be a substitute. “We don’t do subs, we eat them.” It took trial and error but we came up with this idea that would:

1. Provide the grace and flexibility of people’s lives.

2. Kept volunteers on a serving rotation since they served once every 4 weeks.

3. Make it easy for volunteers to take ownership of their serving commitment.

4. Took me and my staff out of the crazy scheduling loop.

So, instead of having to “find a substitute,” volunteers who can’t make it on a Sunday will “swerve” to another team for a week. I love it!

Here’s the how that process works from the volunteer’s perspective:

1. Oh no! My niece’s wedding is on my Blue Team’s serve date next month! I’ll tell my Team Leader.

2. I tell my Team Leader, which date I CAN serve. Team Leader says, “Great! That’s the Purple Team, you will love Mac. I’ll tell him to expect you on his team! Thank you!”

3. I get an email or text or phone call from Mac, welcoming to his team for their next serving date. He also includes me in any team communication for that date.

4. I get to meet Purple Team peeps! My community is growing! I’m still serving! I have no guilt when I cannot serve!

The swerve concept has some pretty significant benefits.

First, it keeps you as the ministry leader out of the cycle of finding and scheduling substitutes. That was one of my least favorite things about leading a Sunday morning volunteer-heavy ministry.

Second, it creates a real point of accountability and opportunity for every volunteer on the team to continue serving without “going dark” for long periods of time and becoming disconnected.

Third, swerving to a new team expands their community at church. They meet new people and connect with more believers.

Fourth, it’s clean and simple and low-tech. It doesn’t require people knowing how to use a complicated scheduling tool online. It’s just a phone call!

Here’s one more insight from Mary Ann into making the swerve work.

The basis for making this work is:

Leadership strength leading to TEAM strength. No one panics if a “hole” is open on a team. Everyone is prepared to make it happen and not be whiny. In fact, they embrace it because they know it requires a dependence on God.

Reality is that there will be people “missing” on other teams and, when someone swerves, they fill in those holes. We can only arrange and plan and move all the moving pieces so much…and it’s okay! No system or approach is perfect – especially regarding volunteers. The main thing is that if the system isn’t perfect, it allows space for growth, discipleship, and a real peace and letting go of control.

What the swerve does is keep people from becoming MIA for too long. Other systems I’ve tried are too easy for people to just “not serve”, especially when serving on a rotation. If we just let people “not serve” their date for whatever reason on a 4-week rotation, then we don’t see them for 2 months! They get disconnected. Seriously, it’s just too easy, tempting, and fertile ground for complacency.

3. DEBRIEF with Your Subteam Leaders Every Sunday

One thing I thought was especially interesting about Mary Ann’s approach to leading her subteams is her interactions with her team leaders. She was intensely engaged with her team leaders every Sunday.

The best example of that engagement is how she described her weekly team leader debriefs.

I LOVE debriefs. The best teams debrief. Even football coaches get interviewed after a game for “what happened?” – good and bad.

This became part of our culture! Again, I like to use the terms “bookends” when serving. We serve before and after each service! We also gather as a team before and after serving. Most people are familiar with before: huddles.

So I look at it like this. Before serving, we gather our leaders and teams and tell them lots of stuff. Information out. Then at the end of the day, it’s their turn to tell us lots of stuff. Information In.

My Directors debrief with Team Leaders. They sit around a table and for ONLY 15 minutes, the Director goes around the table and asks: 1. What is a WIN today. 2. What did you learn in church? This holds leaders accountable to attending church. 3. How can we do better? Or what needs attention? Some teams do this during the last 15 minutes of the last service, some wait until after everyone leaves. I leave it up to each team.

We learn so much!

It really helps with team building. Some leaders come feeling “beat up” because they felt they let their team down…and then other leaders speak life into them and share their own faults. BEST STUFF EVER!

There are obvious benefits to this approach.

  1. Your teams provide valuable information for other teams. For example, how one team handled an emergency well can be good for other teams to know.
  2. Team leaders aren’t alone and can learn from one another.
  3. The ministry leader has better visibility into what’s going on with their teams without having to be everywhere at once on Sundays.
  4. Issues that come up can be addressed before the next Sunday.
  5. Keeping a record of the feedback creates an archive of great insights for everyone on the team.

Let Mary Ann and Rebecca Train Your Team

I’m so excited to have Mary Ann and Rebecca contributing to the TrainedUp Library this month with their video courses. They’re super sharp, incredibly wise, deeply experienced, incorrigibly positive, and always fun. Look for their courses in the Library.

Learn more about Mary Ann’s ministry called MatterSpark and Rebecca’s ministry called To Be Received.

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