The Ultimate Guide To Volunteer Onboarding
Engage new volunteers, train them up, and get them going quickly.
The church is built around the idea that God has chosen people to partner with Him to spread His glory. As church leaders, we’ve been entrusted with the job of equipping the saints for this ministry. We do this through building relationships, discipling others, and by offering ministry specific training.
It’s often this last area that is the hardest. In fact, without a great volunteer onboarding process, it can seem like a never ending battle. It doesn’t have to be this way though. From my decades in local ministry, I’ve learned a lot about volunteering onboarding. I’ve learned what works as well as what doesn’t work. This guide is a collection of what I’ve learned.
I’ve also included built in action steps with interactive tools to help you implement this process in your church. Also, if you have any questions about this guide or need any help, our team is more than happy to help!
Table Of Contents
Lesson 1: Why Volunteer Onboarding Matters
I want you to think about the first time you volunteered in a church ministry.
For me, it was when I was in high school and I volunteered to open the church doors for guests on Sunday mornings.
I remember checking a box on a card in the worship service and putting it in the offering plate as it passed. I also remember not knowing what to expect next.
Sometime later in the week I got a phone call confirming that I would arrive at church early the next Sunday.
Looking back, I’d score that experience as a 2 out of 10. I did get a phone call, but that was it.
I didn’t know what to wear, where to go, what to do, or who to find. There’s nothing like uncertainty to quench the fire of enthusiasm.
I got the hang of things after a couple weeks, but I still didn’t know everything I needed to know. Guests would ask questions that I couldn’t answer and I had no reliable way to contact my ministry leader.
I lasted about 2 months before my attendance waned and I found another place to serve.
The irony is that the church regularly put out “service calls” asking for people to arrive early to greet guests. If they’d had a better onboarding experience for new volunteers, they wouldn’t have had such high turnover in that ministry area.
So you can see why I care so much about this topic. It’s personal. Plus, I see how it can change a person’s church experience, for better or worse.
The First Five Times
When I talk about volunteer onboarding, I’m talking about a very specific thing.
When someone joins your team, they’re still “new” well past the first time they serve. There’s still lots of things to learn, people to meet, and skills to hone.
I define new volunteers as anyone who has served fewer than 5 times. From the moment they sign up to serve until they’ve served 5 times, they’re new. Even if it takes them 3 months to serve 5 times, they’re still a new volunteer.
That means they’re somewhere in my volunteer onboarding workflow. They’re still receiving training or getting specialized emails or scheduled for follow-up calls.
It’s important to base your definition of a new volunteer on the number of times they’ve served and not on the number of weeks they’ve been on your team. This accomplishes a few things for you:
First, it gives you an idea of their experience level. You know that they have experienced actually serving on your team.
Second, it tells you their engagement level. If they make it to 5 services, they’ve stuck around through the initial gauntlet.
Finally, it makes your job easier and more predictable. You can ensure that everyone in your onboarding workflow is experiencing the same thing around the same time. Vacation schedules and missed weekends don’t threaten your onboarding flow.
Lesson 2: The Goal of Volunteer Onboarding
You have one goal: get new volunteers 100% engaged and ready to serve in as little time, and with as little effort, as possible.
In the short term, we want to build a system that capitalizes on someone’s interest level while it’s still high and reduces your workload for bringing on new volunteers. In the long term, we want that system to support higher volunteer engagement and lower volunteer turnover/churn.
In reaching for that goal, most ministry leaders will try to keep things simple. After all, simple is easy to explain and easy to execute. But in an attempt to be simple, the result is often an overly simplistic experience that ends up contributing to stress, confusion, and volunteers quitting.
Shadowing Isn’t Enough
Most volunteer onboarding approaches that I’ve seen involve inviting a new volunteer to “show up early” one weekend to shadow another volunteer.
This onboarding experience really isn’t onboarding at all. It’s apprenticing, and unless your mentors are well trained at the specific skill of leading apprentices, this will not be a good experience.
What’s more, you’ll find horrible inconsistency in training thoroughness, quality, and even coverage (what actually gets taught). Scale this to multiple ministries or multiple campuses and you’ll have a disaster on your hands.
I guarantee you’ll have high turnover in your volunteer teams with this approach to volunteer onboarding.
4 Things to Accomplish in Your Onboarding Process
First, the new volunteer should connect with a ministry leader within 24 hours of signing up. A quick followup from a Sunday morning contact card or mid-week form submission tells the new volunteer that you are excited about their interest, that you consider them valuable, and that you have a place for them to serve.
Second, the new volunteer should be prepared for their role before they start. This should go without saying, but recruiting and assigning isn’t enough. You should be equipping your new volunteers to do their job. Being prepared means having specific knowledge of the team, the role, the technical skills, and the expectations their leaders have of them.
Third, the new volunteer should feel confident in the competency of their leaders. A poor onboarding experience is a leadership failure and can harm trust (leadership equity) as fast as any other failure.
Fourth, each team leader should be able to onboard dozens of new volunteers each month. When your church is growing, you don’t want volunteer onboarding to be a growth barrier. Your onboarding process should be scalable.
Lesson 3: What To Do First...and Second
Every new volunteer is asking one question: “What happens next?”
They’ve signed up…now what?
Today, we’re going to build a workflow that answers that question.
To recap from yesterday’s lesson, you have one goal: to get new volunteers 100% engaged and ready to serve in as little time, and with as little effort, as possible.
Step By Step, Day By Day
Besides being the theme song lyrics of a great 90’s sitcom (oh, the memories), it’s also how we’re approaching this workflow.
When we’re done with this workflow, it’ll have four phases: Prepare, Activate, Nurture, and Evaluate. Each phase has a goal and specific steps.
In the first phase of the volunteer onboarding workflow, your goal is to prepare each new volunteer to serve. It should at least have these 3 steps:
- Contact each new volunteer within 36 hours from when they sign up. This should be a phone call if at all possible, but if you can fire off an automated or pre-written email or text message within 8 hours of signup, that’s great, too.
- Provide some basic training. The new volunteer’s first action step should be to go through an online orientation before anything else happens. Online works best because they can get up to speed quickly without waiting for a future training meeting. You can use it to provide more information about the ministry and some basic “what you need to know now” information about the job.
- Schedule them for their First Serve Sunday. Some leaders prefer to use their volunteer scheduling tool for this step. Just make sure you’ve already included training on how to use it in the basic training above. It can be tricky for new folks. Also, make it very clear where they should go when they arrive.
The timeframe for the Prepare phase is usually a week, maybe two weeks depending on the length of your basic training or their availability for their First Serve Sunday.
The second phase is all about getting each new volunteer into action. I have always referred to it as their First Serve Sunday, but you can call it anything you want.
It’s crucial that this phase is done very well. It has a few steps:
- Greet the new volunteer personally when they arrive. This is vital! It tells them that they were on your mind and that they are valued.
- Give them something useful. I’ve seen some leaders give whole welcome bags with goodies to new volunteers. That’s great! But if you can’t do that, at least provide them with a name tag and a card with your name and contact number. (Don’t assume they know you already.)
- Give them a brief tour. Show them the whole area where they’ll be serving, where the bathroom is, and where to find you in case of an emergency. Then personally walk them to the spot where they’re going to serve and introduce them to whoever they’re serving with.
The Activate phase happens all in one day and is probably the most important step to get absolutely right.
It would be a mistake to think that a volunteer’s onboarding experience is finished once they’ve served their first time. They’re not onboarded, they’re only introduced. There’s still more work to be done.
In the Nurture phase of volunteer onboarding, your goal is to help them succeed and flourish as a volunteer. This phase usually lasts several weeks or even a couple months.
Nurturing usually looks something like this:
- Call them after their First Serve Sunday experience. The point of the follow-up call isn’t about feedback. The follow-up call tells them you care about their experience and that there’s more coming.
- Introduce them to best-practices training. The basic training in the first phase, Prepare, was only focused on getting them ready for their first Sunday. But training isn’t done at that point. There’s still lots that they need to learn to be able to do their job well.
- Optional: Offer to have them experience multiple roles in your ministry. If your ministry has many different jobs to be filled, it’s a good idea to let new volunteers experience some of them so they can judge for themselves where they might fit best. This is often far better than any survey or gifts assessment they could complete.
At the end of this phase, your volunteer should be fully up-to-speed on everything in the ministry area.
The Evaluate phase is not about assessing their performance. It’s about assessing their engagement and happiness.
This phase is very brief and involves two steps:
- Send the new volunteer an engagement survey. You’ll use this engagement survey to gauge their, well, engagement. You want to know how well they’ve integrated into the team, whether they’re happy in their role, and if there’s an opportunity to serve them better.
- If their engagement survey shows any red flags, take the chance to follow-up with a phone call. You can address any questions or concerns by phone much better than by text.
What’s great about the survey is that you can reuse it with everyone on your team a couple times per year to keep your finger on the engagement pulse of your team. It’s a great way to let your team provide structured feedback to you about their experience.
Also, these surveys are helpful to tell you what is and isn’t working, what needs to change, and even give you some ideas to help your team members engage and win while serving in ministry.
Today’s lesson is a big one. There’s a lot to process here. In this action step, instead of building your own workflow from scratch, I’m giving you a prebuilt Trello board with the entire workflow as detailed above.
Your homework is to modify it to fit your needs and then use it!
Lesson 4: How to Train New Volunteers Before They Start
This is a bit of an embarrassing story, but the humiliation is worth the lesson learned.
My wife, Erica, was in a rush to leave the house one day, but she hadn’t finished the laundry. As she shuffled the kids into the car, I volunteered to switch the washed load to the dryer.
No big deal, right?
Well, it turned out that I had no idea how the dryer worked (that’s the embarrassing part). I hadn’t done laundry in quite a while and she didn’t have time to show me in that moment.
15 minutes later, I was still standing in front of the dryer trying to decipher the symbols encircling the single operating knob. I gave up, very frustrated, and called her for directions.
A little training would have made for a much happier volunteer.
It's vital to train new volunteers before their first serving experience.
Getting each new volunteer into a training experience before they start serving is critically important, both for the volunteer and for you as the leader.
First, when you offer training up front, you’re capitalizing on the volunteers highest point of motivation and engagement. They will likely never be as excited about being on your team as they are right after they sign up to serve.
Second, early training gives the new volunteer some context for what to expect when they arrive to serve for the first time. The more you can reduce uncertainty in that new experience, the more engaged and happy your new volunteer will be.
Third, you’ll have a higher percentage of people completing the training and a more well-trained volunteer team. Because interest and motivation to make a good impression on you is still high, you’ll see more training being completed. That also reduces the amount of training you have to do during their first serve experience.
How to Create Always-on Training
Unless you want to schedule weekly training meetings for all new volunteers (bad idea), you’ll need to create always-on training. Your new volunteer training will need to have two required elements.
- Video – If you want your volunteers to engage with your training content, it has to be in video format. Period. Text isn’t going to cut. Very few will read long blocks of training text.
- Questions – You’ll want to (1) verify that they’ve watched AND understood the training information and (2) get a little more info from your new volunteer. For example, you might want to get their mailing address, shirt size, allergies, and typical week-to-week availability.
Next, take advantage of TrainedUp with our pre-built video courses and simple course builder. You’ll be able to record videos with your webcam (no gear or editing required) and you can track everyone’s progress. You’ll also get an email notification when someone completes a course and all answers are saved to each person’s profile.
How to Plan your Training for New Volunteers
When you start providing always-on training for new volunteers, you’ll find that there’s a lot you want to say. With online video training, you have the opportunity to teach and communicate more, and more creatively, than ever before.
Planning your onboarding training is SUPER simple. You’re just going to make an outline of the topics you want to cover. If any topic requires some more context, just add bullet points under it.
Here are a few guides:
- How To Create A Children’s Ministry Training Program
- How To Create A Church Greeter Training Program
- How To Create A Small Group Leader Training Program
- Here’s an example for a new Greeter training course.
If you’re like most people, creating always-on training is probably a new experience for you. So, instead of filling out a worksheet, I want you to take another step toward learning about building online training for your volunteers.
We’d love to show you how to build an online training experience in just a few minutes using only TrainedUp and no others tools.
Lesson 5: Get the First Serve Experience Very Right
Remember, this whole process is about one thing. Get new volunteers 100% engaged and ready to serve in as little time, and with as little effort, as possible.
An engaging volunteer onboarding experience will include an exceptional “First Serve Sunday” experience. Most churches treat a volunteer’s first time serving as special, but few go beyond a handshake and showing them to their designated serve spot.
To make this first serving experience memorable, think of your new volunteer as a VIP guest that you know is coming on a certain day and time.
I highly encourage you to find or assign a dedicated First Serve leader, if possible. If not right now, make a goal to develop a leader into that role and assign the following tasks.
- Arrive before the new volunteers to prepare. Give yourself enough time to get yourself ready so that when the new volunteer arrives you can be 100% focused on serving them.
- Catch them at the parking lot and escort them inside like a guest. After all, in this context, they are a first time guest.
- Give them a First Serve kit and include the following items:
- A printout with the vision of the church explained
- A thank you card from the pastor
- A t-shirt (Nothing says “I’m part of a team” like a new t-shirt.)
- Contact information for the team leaders and one level above their direct team leader
- A small bag to hold all the goodies
- Give them a dedicated name tag that they’ll leave at the Serve Teams desk/kiosk so it’s always there when they arrive to serve. (I believe in name tags for all volunteers.)
- Introduce them to their team. Explain each person’s role on the team and where they fit in the team structure.
- Give them a tour of the area they’ll be serving in. Don’t forget to show them where the nearest restroom is as well as any safety related things like exits, fire extinguishers, or directional signage.
- Give them your cell number for questions or emergencies.
Their First Serve Sunday isn’t over until they’ve received a follow-up phone call or email from you or their team leader. The follow-up should include a survey asking about their experience. Most people don’t love to be quizzed over the phone and an online survey usually garners more honest responses.
We've created a template of a New Volunteer Follow-Up Survey for you. Make a copy of it for yourself, make any changes you want, then share it with new volunteers at the right step in the workflow.
Lesson 6: Longterm Evaluation of the New Volunteer Experience
By this point your new volunteer should have:
- Talked with their team leader
- Received some basic training
- Served in their new team at least once
- Filled out the new volunteer follow-up survey
Now that your new volunteer is past their first serving experience, it’s time to move them to the last phase in the onboarding experience: EVALUATE.
You’re going to be sending the new volunteer an engagement survey, but you’ll want to wait until they’ve served 5-6 times before you do so.
Waiting until they have some further experience under their belt is important. First, it’ll give you something to ask them about. Second, it’ll give them time to settle in and experience what “normal” serving will look like over time.
With this phase, I like to set a reminder on my calendar or use a Process Queue (or equivalent feature) in my church’s people management tool (like Church Community Builder or Planning Center People). Depending on the frequency that people serve in your ministry, you might want to set a reminder for 3-4 months down the road.
This phase is very brief and involves two steps:
- Send the volunteer an engagement survey.
- If their engagement survey shows any red flags, take the chance to follow-up with a phone call. You can address any questions or concerns by phone much better than by text.
What if the survey reveals that they don’t fit?
If the engagement survey reveals to you that the volunteer is unhappy or unfit for the role they’re in, that means you’ve discovered something incredibly valuable! And it means the survey has served its purpose well.
You have a couple options. First, you can work with the volunteer to find another role within your ministry that might fit better. Second, you can work with another ministry leader in your church to find a space for them in a completely different ministry.
The win here is that you’re helping a volunteer find the right place for them to fully engage in ministry at your church. Remember, your ultimate goal isn’t to just fill your own volunteer ranks, but to equip every Christian to serve in ministry…even if that ministry isn’t your own.
I want you to take a step toward gaining better insight into your volunteers’ engagement right away. You don’t have to wait for a new volunteer to sign up so you can use the Volunteer Engagement Survey linked below.
Send the survey to a handful of your existing volunteers to gauge their engagement and get them used to using the survey.
One More Thing: Let Us Coach You Personally Through the Process
You may be feeling a little overwhelmed at the steps you need to take to make your new volunteer experience amazing. It might feel daunting to get all these systems planned, setup, communicated, and executed.
We know that building a new system for your ministry is a big undertaking and you don't want to do it wrong, especially when something as important as the new volunteer experience is on the line.
Instead of guessing your way through this process, not sure if you're implementing these principles in the right way, let us help. And when I say "let us help," I mean we want to actually help you personally.
If you're up for it, we'd love to personally coach you through this process, 1-on-1, human to human.
Our team is very experienced in setting up onboarding systems like this. We've done it ourselves and we've helped hundreds of ministry leaders do it, too. We know our stuff.
The coaching experience is simple. We'll book a video call with you and your team...anyone you want to include...and we'll start by talking through your existing onboarding system. We'll talk about your church culture and your leadership style.
Then we'll talk through a plan that fits your culture and style. We'll help you make decisions about each step of the onboarding process in a way that's easy for you to manage yourself.
Our coaching offer isn't limited to one call. If you need more of our time after the first meeting, then we'll book another call with you. It's that simple. We'll help you until you can run with the system on your own.
Get in touch with us to start the conversation. Ask for Scott or Aimee and tell them you would like a little guidance for your new volunteer onboarding process.
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