Nobody starts out in a sport, discipline, or relationship saying, “Wow, I hope this doesn’t go well!” Or, “I hope I’m difficult to work with!” It’s not our intention in the beginning. When we fall or fail, usually something happened along the way that took us off course. If we don’t see these distractions, it is because we have become inattentive to our own lives.
As pastors, we aren’t immune to such blind spots. One of these potential blind spots is how we work with our volunteers. The latest research from Barna shows that most pastors are not interested in developing leaders that much.1 Evidently, we’re more interested in what we get out of volunteers than what we put into them. We have our plan, and we want them to come along with us and move it forward. The coaching posture is not there.
It doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, what you find is that when you help volunteers grow personally, your ministry will bear more fruit. Jesus focused on people in His ministry, and it flourished. Two of the best ways you can be people-focused are by helping volunteers become more self-aware, which involves helping them improve their emotional intelligence, and by helping them avoid common temptations.
Why should volunteers develop self-awareness?
I do a lot of highway driving. The other day I was about to merge, and had I not looked over my shoulder, I would have hit someone. The other driver was entering the same lane I was. If I hadn’t checked my blind spot, we would have collided and crashed.
If our volunteers don’t have the humility to check their own personal blind spots, they’re vulnerable to collisions and maybe even crashes. A crash in ministry could cause a lot of damage. When God’s work is on the line, we all need to watch out for such hazards. We’ve all seen it happen, and we know it can affect a lot of people.
Help volunteers grow in self-awareness
I found as a pastor that if I slow down and spend more time listening to volunteers’ opinions, then I’m able to recognize the things they care about. I’m able to hear patterns of thought and values or goals that might need to be addressed. That style of listening is important. My hunch is somebody has told most pastors that we’re not necessarily the best listeners. We’re used to talking a lot and leading a lot. But listening is the key to helping volunteers understand themselves.
If we pay better attention to volunteers, they learn to pay better attention to themselves. When that becomes habitual, they start to notice things differently. They observe little things going on inside that reveal a lot.
Noticing automatic emotional and physical reactions is key in growing in self-awareness. These responses are actually well-ordered reactions to stimuli around us. Maybe no one sees the little ways we react to situations. Our shoulders tighten, our stomachs may clench, or we may even shake our heads without saying anything. These reactions happen whether or not anyone is looking or listening. And they provide a lot of great information if we are attentive to them.
What I tell my volunteers is, “Imagine you’re taking a selfie of that reaction in that moment.” Take a picture of that emotional reaction, all of its details, and then save it for later. Then, when you’re alone you can prayerfully consider: “Why did I react that way? What was I feeling? Why did I feel blocked?” The data from that helps them understand what’s beneath the surface causing them to feel, act, or think a certain way.
Self-awareness in this way isn’t just for personal satisfaction. When I was in youth ministry, we carefully planned the curriculum. We plotted out what subjects we wanted the students to learn. I finally learned that my volunteers and I were a significant part of the curriculum. The students were studying us, and they knew our reactions almost better than we did. Awareness of this helped us be as mindful of ourselves as the students were.
Help volunteers understand the role of emotions
If volunteers are going to understand themselves more fully, they will need to have high emotional intelligence. Much can be said on that topic, but when it comes to leading volunteers, I have found four major areas are helpful to dive into.
For starters, encourage people to “put a sentry at the door” of their hearts. The Bible says, “Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). But before something even gets to our lips, it resides in our hearts (Luke 6:45). Encourage your volunteers to watch what goes in and out of their hearts. What feelings reside there? What thoughts and words want to come out?
Second, help volunteers name and label their emotions accurately. Starting this is not that difficult. Grab a cup of coffee with a volunteer. Ask him or her about something, watch the person’s reaction, and say, “It sounds like you’re feeling …” and fill in the blank. Give the volunteer opportunity to agree or to clarify. After you’ve both gained more awareness, ask the volunteer to practice this with others.
Next, help volunteers recognize the intensity of their emotions. Doctors use a pain scale from 1 to 10 to understand their patients’ subjective experiences. We can ask similar questions to understand the magnitude of someone’s emotional reaction. That is important information for learning about what’s important to the person; there is a lot to learn from relationships and situations that generate highly intense emotions. When they know how they feel, they’ll start to understand how feelings might affect others. That leads to my final point.
If leaders are to become emotionally intelligent, they can’t focus on just their own emotions. Urge them to expand their attention to others’ feelings and reactions. This is where leaders really start to mature. And since they’re all part of a team, that matters. Just like a basketball team needs to know where everyone is on the court, ministry teams need to know what’s going on with each member of the team. Otherwise they’re at risk of going it alone and not accomplishing the team’s goals.
Help volunteers avoid temptations
My family was traveling some back roads in South Africa a while back. These drivers went incredibly fast in their trucks at night. Our job was to shine bright lights into the darkness. The moment we saw something shine back, we would yell, “Stop!” to the driver. He would back up the truck, and we would shine the lights to see what was looking back at us from the darkness.
These guys were experienced enough to know by the shape and shine of the eyes what it was and what to do. Do you see where I’m going with this metaphor?
We need to shine the light of Christ and the light of Scripture into the darker spaces in our hearts. We need to check for shiny little eyes pointing back at us. When we see them, we need to be mature and humble enough to shout, “Stop!” and take steps back. And we may need a guide to help us identify what we’re seeing and what to do to avoid danger.
These are the five common temptations your team should look for. They lurk in wait for people of all ages. When we shine Christ’s light into our hearts, we are looking for hints of these things. If we see them, we need to stop, take inventory, and make changes.
- Prominence: The desire to be important, popular, bigger, and better.
- Control: The desire to be in the lead and to shape situations in dramatic ways.
- Shiny stuff: The allure of materialism captivates some of us.
- Inappropriate intimacy: The desire to have intimacy outside of God’s confines (from flirtation to fascination).
- Relishing resentment: The desire to hold onto bitterness for too long and to embrace anger and hostility.
Do you help your volunteers look into the dark places of their hearts? Do you ask them specific questions to help them shine light into the dark places of their hearts? We all face these temptations. It’s important we seek to understand—and overcome—them together.
Get more curious
When we internalize the habits of self-awareness, something else grows within us. We become curious. This is such a healthy attribute because it requires humility. We cannot be curious without acknowledging our lack of knowledge or without having an openness to learn. Therefore, this trait serves us well in our lives and in ministry.
As you seek to equip your ministry leaders to better care for others, you’ll benefit from Dr. Jeff Forrey’s Teach Others to Encourage Skillfully and Confessions of a Poor Listener and Sam Hodges’ Loving Enough to Say No: The Necessity of Confrontation.
- The study referenced can be found in The State of Pastors, published by Barna: https://www.barna.com/product/stateofpastors/.