How To Build Community In Your Church Volunteer Teams

This post has been adapted from episode 11 of our podcast. You can listen to the full podcast here or keep reading.

Kevin Fontenot: Hey there, I’m Kevin Fontenot and I’m here with Scott Magdalein. We’re your hosts of the Thriving Ministry Team’s podcast where we talk about all things related to church leadership, discipleship, and training. On today’s episode, we’re talking about how to build community in your volunteer teams. You know Scott, one of my favorite conversations that I’ve had with one of our TrainedUp customers was Jason Humphry in Birmingham, Alabama. He is at a church called The Worship Center and they run what’s called a leadership academy where they’re doing stuff like training their deacons, their ushers, their ministers, to go deeper into ministry. And traditionally they had these leadership academy meetings every Saturday from like 8:00-12:00 for a few months out of the year, and it was a really intense process. When we were talking to him about what he has done since moving over to TrainedUp, one of the best things that came out of that conversation was understanding how he was able to shift to a more community-based mindset by outsourcing some of his training to be online. It’s been something that’s been really cool to think about since then, and that’s why I kinda wanted to dive in a little bit deeper to that topic today with building community on volunteer teams.

Scott Magdalein: Yeah, so what I love about what Jason is doing is, I mean, in the early days of TrainedUp, I talked about the value of TrainedUp being, you know, you move your training online so that your in-person meetings can focus on community. Because we tend to, as volunteer leaders, or leaders of volunteers, we tend to spend our time in these meetings, sometimes having a meal, having a good time or maybe playing some games or you know, some group games or whatever, and then we kinda shift over into training mode, and it sorta feels like a bait and switch, a little bit. You have like this twice a year, big powwow party, whatever, but there’s always this hour or two hours of training tacked onto it and it kinda steals the fun from it.

Scott Magdalein: So one of the things, one of the reasons why I, or one of my motivations behind TrainedUp, and even in the early days, was I wanted to be able to do training online so that when I spend time with my volunteers, whether it’s one-on-one or small groups or large group meetings, it can be about building community, because to me community is a massively important thing involving, or related to volunteer longevity, enjoyability, engagement, all that kind of stuff. So to see that churches, and Jason is a great example of it, but churches are really actually using TrainedUp to do that, to separate training from in-person community building, makes me really, really happy. It’s one of those things where you can see your vision from a long time ago, and the vision is kinda real in churches around the country. So, very happy about that.

Scott Magdalein: But, I’m gonna go back to and say the thing about community-building among volunteer teams is that the people stick. And this is my role. People will stick and stay in your volunteer team because of the community, not because of the job that they’re doing. Most people can find a way to do the job that they’re doing somewhere else; let’s say they’re working with kids, you know, they can play with grandkids or they have kids of their own, you know. They don’t come to church to play with kids and teach kids the bible necessarily. You can cast vision, maybe they’re bought into the value, the importance of what they’re doing, but if they don’t know anyone, if they don’t feel like they’re a part of a community or a family or a team that’s working together on something, then those kinda people are much more likely to burn out if things get hard or if volunteer numbers drop, or if you grow and there’s not enough volunteers to cover a big season of growth and things get difficult and schedules get tighter. Community is what helps those people stick and stay instead of burned out and leaving.

Scott Magdalein: So I’m a big believer in building community among your volunteer teams as much as I am a big believer in training them so that they’re ready to do the job.

Kevin Fontenot: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, you kinda mentioned TrainedUp there, but I want to sort of make the disclaimer that what we’re talking about today doesn’t have to do with TrainedUp. You don’t have to be a TrainedUp customer, you don’t have to use TrainedUp to get any sort of benefit from what we’re talking about today with building community. It definitely helps, using an online tool for training, because it frees up some time for you to be able to do some more of these things, but if you’re intentional with your time, with what we’re gonna be talking about today, you’re definitely still gonna be able to do all of that.

Kevin Fontenot: Speaking of TrainedUp, kinda makes me think of the whole reason that I want to talk about this today. I think that as ministry leaders we’re so busy with everything that’s going on in ministry. There’s day to day tasks, seems like everyone’s doing 47 different things that aren’t on their job description at any given time and it’s really hard for us to think through how to build this community and how to actually be intentional with that time with our volunteers. Especially if we’re having to do things like training meetings and scheduling them out, already, you know, those are the things that are on our mind. We’re thinking about how to make sure our volunteers are trained, how are they gonna be able to do their job, and we don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about their wellbeing, how to actually make sure that they feel a part of the process that we’re going through, and so Scott, I’d really love for you to kinda walk us through what it looks like to invest in your volunteer teams.

Scott Magdalein: Well, investing in my volunteer teams has always, it’s looked different in different times and different teams, but what I’ve found as a successful, kinda format or structure or whatever, I tend to be structured and systematic in the things that I do. What I find is really successful for me is … for me, is separating training from, being online, and you say it’s not necessary, I’m a big believer in putting training online and letting your community happen in person, but if your community’s gonna happen in person, it has to be worthwhile, right? It can’t just be like shaking hands and giving people hugs on Sunday mornings when you see them, it’s gotta be intentional. You have to do it on purpose. And so, to me, here’s my structure for it; my in-person community building times are separated between parties and powwows. And so I’ve got these two things.

Scott Magdalein: Parties, to me, are times when you actually schedule a party, invite everybody to it, have some stuff planned to do, games to play. We’re talking about what a party can look like but it’s a specific event on a calendar aside from like a Sunday morning or a Wednesday night normal meeting time. And a powwow is what I would tack onto, usually we’d do it before a scheduled service time starts. So like say, most of the time it’s on a Sunday morning before service starts, and it’s a 15-20 minute time where those folks who are scheduled to serve in that particular setting or that particular time, get together, we pray together, we talk about what God’s doing in our lives. We talk about ministry winds we’re experiencing, so people have the time to be able to talk about what they’re doing and how they’re doing and how they’re impacting the people in the ministry that they’re working in. We talk about some reminders about doing a good job, so it’s a short moment of reminding them to stay focused or to be aware of this, you know, certain caveats or special things that are happening. But those powwows are times before, or right around service times, before or after, where you can spend time and talk about each other and not just be only talking about the ministry and the facts of getting the work done.

Scott Magdalein: So there’s parties and powwows are the two pillars that I lean on to help me build community within the group.

Kevin Fontenot: That’s really good. I think those two areas are really important. Some of the best times that I can think back through are times where I’ve just had fun with people that I’ve served with. And that really helps to build that community experience where it’s not just talking about the leader and the volunteer, but it’s all the volunteers banding together as a band of brothers to go out and do the mission. But you’ve also gotta have fun in that mission as well.

Scott Magdalein: Absolutely. So I’m in Florida, I’ve only ever served in churches in Florida, and so for us here it’s really easy. We find somebody with a big pool, the biggest pool in the backyard, and a grill, and we do a pool party and some barbecue and it’s really easy to have a fun, inexpensive time doing a party where there’s no, very little talk about the work of ministry together. It’s just hanging out and spending time together. And the point of these parties is to get people into an environment where they can, we overblow it maybe sometimes, make it over-spiritualized, but make friends. Just build some friendships and get to know one another outside of the context of serving, getting work done on a Sunday morning. So in Florida it’s easy to do a pool and a barbecue. It ends up maybe being $100, a couple hundred dollars to feed a small team, and everybody has a good time. People can come and go as they please, it’s easy here.

Scott Magdalein: Of course, not everywhere has pools, not every time of year. I mean, Florida pretty much almost all year round, we can do a pool party pretty reasonably. Not everybody has a pool year round, so. Other things are, you know, able to do get-togethers at special restaurants or … one church I saw, they took their smaller volunteer team to one of those trampoline places where you can, there’s like 100 trampolines and they’re all lined up next to each other. I think one here in town is called Velocity. But it’s crazy, and everyone has a good time playing dodge ball on trampolines and stuff. But it’s some good team-building that happens in those times.

Scott Magdalein: Anyway, that’s some of the kinda stuff that I like to do at parties, is just to build friendships and outside the context of working together.

Kevin Fontenot: I think I would die if I had ever gone to one of those trampoline places.

Scott Magdalein: I was talking, so this is a little aside: I was talking to somebody who runs one and they were saying that they have a bone break, or some kind of significant injury at least once a week at the facility.

Kevin Fontenot: Yeah, I’m definitely out at that point.

Scott Magdalein: Yeah.

Kevin Fontenot: So I want to shift a little, because we’ve kinda talked about this group idea of getting people together for parties and powwows. I know in my ministry one of the biggest things that I’ve seen to really build community is focusing on the one-on-one relationship. So as leaders, it’s easy for us to kinda see these big group activities and get people gathered around the central cause, but we have to remember that when we are working with our volunteer teams, we’re responsible for their spiritual wellbeing as well. And it doesn’t take very much effort for us to make sure that we’re intentionally investing in those people in a one-on-one relationship. For me, I set reminders inside of my phone to text people that I’m working with, that I’m walking alongside with, to make sure that I touch base with them every so often, just to encourage them, send a word of encouragement, tell them I’m praying for them, ask them how they’re doing. Some of those things have built some of the best aspects of community in the teams that I’ve served on. Just a simple word of encouragement, a simple text, can do so much to help build that community on your teams.

Scott Magdalein: For sure. You know, what’s amazing, so some teams are really big, right? So I was serving in a church of about 3000 and I was working on, working with the executive pastor on ‘how do we build volunteer teams that are really cohesive where they’re not 100% led by only the paid staff? How do we involve volunteers in leading other volunteers?’ Because the church had a real scalability problem when it came to engaging people in service in the church. And so one of the things we identified was how do we connect more one-on-one with people when we have a single staff person and they’re responsible for 300 volunteers? So we kinda built, designed a system where those bigger teams are broken up into smaller teams, and each one of those smaller teams had a lieutenant over the team, and that lieutenant could then communicate and be the one-on-one point of contact with them. So they’re the person who follows up on prayer requests, the person who checks in, makes sure they’re doing okay, have what they need to serve. And of course, those lieutenants then report up to the staff, to the paid staff person that’s managing that big group, that ministry area.

Scott Magdalein: But also, in that context, we made it better or easier to connect one-on-one with people by having lieutenants, but let’s say, there have been times when I was serving in an area where I had a smaller team. Like let’s say, 15-20 people, where I could make contact with everybody, so I didn’t need like a scalability thing, I needed to delegate and have somebody that could, honestly, what it came down to is I’m a poor event planner. I tend to be like, “okay, we’re gonna have a pool, and we’re gonna have some barbecue. Everybody show up.” And then like we get there and I’m like, “okay, we have a pool and a barbecue.” And they’re like, “Well, do we have games to play? Is there anything to do?”

Scott Magdalein: So I would almost invariably always find and identify and delegate event party planning to someone who has a knack for that. Who really enjoys it, who does a really good job of it. Because I want the party to not just be like a “well, we showed up and there was a pool there and we just sat around and talked while the kids played in the pool.” I want it to be fun for everybody. So finding somebody who has a knack, for me, finding somebody who has a knack for event planning and really enjoys it, that for me was a big win to be able to plan parties that were actually worthwhile and worth driving across town to go to.

Kevin Fontenot: Yeah, that’s really good. So one of the things I want to touch on is the idea of ‘why does this even matter?’ And this is kinda a question that we come back to a lot when we’re talking about these topics on this podcast. But everyone’s busy inside the church world. All of our staff members, like I kinda alluded to earlier, that we’re doing so many different things, have 47 different things that we’re juggling at any given time. What’s the benefit for actually doing this, Scott?

Scott Magdalein: Oh, there’s a huge benefit. So earlier I mentioned that people who are part of a community tend to stick and stay through hard times, and we know, as ministry leaders, if you’ve been leading longer than maybe a couple of years, you know that there are seasons that are just hard, and everyone in the ministry feels those seasons. So at my current church, the setup team had to transition from setting up in kinda a smaller, rented facility, we’re a portable church still. A smaller rented facility to a much larger rented facility as we grew and we needed to expand and have more space. And the challenge was, though, not just like how do we make the transition from a … an equipment perspective, but from a team perspective. The people involved in it had to double. So, you know, setup teams, breakdown teams, if you’re part of a portable church you already know setup and breakdown teams tend to be skeleton teams to begin with. For some reason it’s just hard to get people to consistently, faithfully show up to move boxes around and setup, you know, pipe and drape.

Scott Magdalein: So we had this challenge for several months after we made the big move, we weren’t able to recruit quite enough people to fill out the seats on the team quickly enough. And so everyone was serving every week for several months. So it was kinda a hard time for that setup team. The thing that kept everybody involved was that we had really good Sunday morning powwows. We had a really fun time on Sunday mornings setting up together. So those powwows became sort of like a rallying point. Like I come for the powwow because we have a good time, and then I’ll also set up. So those people really enjoyed setting up, or enjoyed showing up earlier on Sundays at 5:00 or whatever, 5:30 in the morning because it was something that they could enjoy spending time with other Christians in an encouraging environment and having fun together.

Scott Magdalein: So this intentional community building, the time that you take to make it a personal, human experience when you’re serving together, make sure that people have friends that they’re serving with that they enjoy serving with those people, can really help get through hard times. Can help solidify people in that ministry. And of course, there’s other benefit. I think people who love what they do and who they work with do a better job, generally. I don’t have stats about that, I have, you know, it’s more like a feeling. Like people love their job, they do a better job. But it’s certainly, I’ve seen … like actual seasons where it’s hard and people stick and stay because they have friends in that area.

Kevin Fontenot: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s really important to have those friends inside of a ministry area. Otherwise it’s just a job. It’s just a task that we go to and we’re not gonna last long if it’s just a task. That’s why people burn out of jobs so quickly. I was reading statistics the other day about the average time that someone stays in a paid job, and it’s really surprising that it’s about a year, on average, that someone will stay in a paid job. So we’re talking about volunteer teams, if they’re not enjoying it, if they’re not liking it, they don’t have any sort of friends in that ministry area, they’re definitely not gonna stick around very long.

Scott Magdalein: Yeah, absolutely. So you make a good point, all of this stuff also applies to staff. So if you’re a senior leader and you want to reduce, you know, turnover on your staff team or if you want to help build engagement and enjoyability in your staff team, building community on your staff team is a big way to make it more feasible to keep people on your team longer. Even if you can’t afford higher salaries, or you can’t afford more time off for people, or maybe the work itself is stressful at times, community can help, being a part of a community can help carry people through those times.

Kevin Fontenot: So you mentioned earlier, barbecues and pool parties. You spoke my love language a little bit talking about grilled food. That’ll get me to any sort of gathering. But I wanted to talk a little bit more about some ways that we can make events fun, build community inside of them. You know, we had a community event for our small group leaders at my church about a month and a half ago. So we just ended our semester at the end of June, so we did our last week, our last week of small groups are taking a month off in July and then starting back up in August, but to kinda finish off the year we wanted to do something fun with our small group leaders. We typically have a monthly [inaudible 00:17:26] where we go into talk about stories, how things are going, just to kinda … de-group to see how we can help each other and kinda go over some different things to make sure that we’re doing a better job in making disciples in our church, but we wanted to make sure that we did something fun. Unfortunately we went and did karaoke.

Kevin Fontenot: Now this was not what I had chosen, it was definitely not my vote at the end of it, and the person that actually picked karaoke and suggested it to begin with, didn’t show up to karaoke. So I get to karaoke and I’m upset, my wife’s there with me, and she’s trying to get me to lighten up, and I’m there with my arms crossed, you know, not having any fun. Finally, you know, I did a rap to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song and everything kinda loosened up after that, but what are some ways that we can make events fun and build community that doesn’t involve rapping to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air?

Scott Magdalein: Doing stuff like that is so risky because some people love that kinda stuff and some people are like, “Why is this even, like why are we here?” But yeah, so I talked about parties, so one of the things we do that I’ve seen is really effective for powwows, which are those smaller things right around service times, is at our current church, we have a team, one of our volunteer teams is our volunteer care team, and about four people on that team are responsible, or four households on that team are responsible for making breakfast every Sunday morning for all of the volunteers that show up on Sunday mornings. And they usually make things like a big casserole or a couple of casseroles that are like a breakfast casserole or they run by a really good donut shop and bring donuts or something like that. So it’s really pretty simple and basic. Biscuits and gravy kinda stuff.

Scott Magdalein: Showing up, though, showing up to church, and you’re there at 7:00 and the church doesn’t start till 10:00 or something like that. You’re there pretty early, it’s not just like showing up a little bit early. Having breakfast there gives everybody something to stand around and do and enjoy together. And so enjoying something together, even if it’s just on a Sunday morning, we’re all groggy still, maybe all you got was a Starbucks on the way to church, that’s all they had time to grab on the way to church. But standing around and having a meal together is a really great way to build community. You have opportunity to stand and talk and it’s not like, you have enough time to be able to get a little bit past small talk, beyond just “what did you this week?” Kinda stuff. You get to be able to share prayer requests, be able to pray with one another, when you don’t have to, it’s not the big group prayer, you can actually stand there and pray with somebody, you have time to do that.

Scott Magdalein: So we build in that breakfast time, and of course it’s a group of four people so they rotate one per week throughout the month, so they essentially just make breakfast just once a month. It’s not too overwhelming, it’s not too expensive for them, and they’ve each gotten into kinda a pattern, so you know. One lady, she tends to kinda swap between two casseroles that she makes, so essentially every other month you get the same breakfast, but it’s pretty simple stuff.

Scott Magdalein: But having that meal on a Sunday morning makes it easy to be able to build community, have conversations that are real beyond small talk, and it’s something a little bit more than “Show up and we’ve got some coffee ready for you.” Or, rather, “Show up and you gotta make your coffee, because you’re the volunteer making coffee.”

Kevin Fontenot: Well you gotta set up the coffee machine first, and then you can make your coffee.

Scott Magdalein: So the person on the setup team that’s responsible for the coffee table has to get there, make sure that there’s coffee for the rest of the volunteers that show up.

Kevin Fontenot: That’s really good. I’m trying to think back on some of the best times of community events that we’ve had for our volunteer teams and leaders, and I think one of my favorite times that we had was just at our small group’s pastor’s house. Kinda kicking off what we were about to do and launch for our semester of groups and we just had a fun hangout time. During that time we played a lot of Nintendo Wii and a lot of Mario Party, a lot of Mario Kart and so that was a lot of fun. Just having those times where you can just kinda kick back and not have to be too serious with one another, not have to really worry about different things, not have a time of training, of thoughts, any sort of thing like that, but just being able to focus on one another and have fun without any sort of agenda I think can be a really great thing to do for volunteer teams.

Scott Magdalein: Yeah, that’s a good point. So if I go further back in my memory, back to when I was serving as a college student in youth group, and we would have parties with the youth leadership team which were like the students that were volunteers in the youth group. So we almost always did LAN parties. Do you remember LAN parties with, we did Xbox land parties with Halo.

Kevin Fontenot: Oh yeah, that’s exactly what we did.

Scott Magdalein: And it was so much fun to just shoot each other and of course not hurt each other, but be able to be in a different room, talk smack from one room to the next, and have fun, I mean, even, it was one of those things where we would play it on a level where even the people who were not so much into video games could play and enjoy it. We could join teams and mix match, and it was fun. Of course, I was in college and the students were students, so it’s not, that’s not the best thing for every type of volunteer team, but it works. And knowing your volunteer, knowing your volunteer team, knowing what they like to do, enjoy, it will go a long way to being able to choose the right type of activity for your team.

Kevin Fontenot: Absolutely. One of the things that you can do, just kinda jumping off of that, is ask your volunteer teams what they like to do for fun. When we’ve done surveys and we did an episode on surveys and talking about that we have some resources on the TrainedUp blog about surveys, one of the things that you can ask during those surveys that you send out to your volunteer teams is asking them what they enjoy doing for fun. Because that’s going to give you a lot of ideas of what you can do during those type of events.

Scott Magdalein: Yeah. Absolutely. I’m a big believer in surveys, you know me. You always find out valuable things from your team if you just ask them.

Kevin Fontenot: That’s gonna be it for today’s episode of The Thriving Ministry Team’s podcast. If you do have any questions or want to get in touch with us about this idea of building community in your volunteer teams, just head over to TrainedUp.church and engage with us via the chat there. Scott and myself are hanging out there all the time, so if you do have questions or want to get in touch with us, please just let us know there.

Kevin Fontenot: If you’re interested in trying out this idea of moving training online so that you can have more time to invest in community inside of your volunteer teams, that’s something that you can definitely do with TrainedUp. We’ve a library of over 600 videos that you can use right out of the box, nothing you have to do, nothing you have to configure, just a couple clicks and you’re done. And that saves you a lot of time and gives you a lot more ability to be able to pour into your volunteers outside of a formal training context. So if you want to give that a shot, you can use the coupon code THRIVING, that gets you 50% off your first month. Just head over to TrainedUp.church, enter the coupon code THRIVING, and that’s gonna be it for today’s episode. We’ll see you guys next week.

About Kevin Fontenot

Kevin is the VP of Growth at TrainedUp. He is passionate about helping churches make disciples with technology. In the past, He has served on staff at churches, overseeing small groups and creative ministry. He lives in Dallas, TX with his wife Brooke and their two dogs.