Around Christmas time and the end of the school year, I see a mad, frantic scurry to secure the perfect gift for adult youth ministry volunteers. Which low-cost, high impact, trendy but practical item is going to make that volunteer gush with fulfillment? I am a gift giver by nature, so it’s natural for me to want to buy or make things for the people I appreciate and care about. It’s also a cultural standard to give gifts to people who work for and with us. But, as explored and popularized by Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, not everyone feels the love when it comes to getting gifts. I found that in my own marriage and friendships that the concepts Gary teaches were incredibly helpful, and so I turned those concepts toward volunteer appreciation and came up with the following thoughts and ideas. Gift giving is by far the most common way volunteers are shown appreciation in a ministerial setting. It’s the same for employees, teachers, postal workers, even taxidermists. Gifts run aplenty. “We love the time and effort you are putting in and the initiative you take, here is a $10 gift card to Starbucks!” Don’t get me wrong, I am not devaluing giving gifts; gift giving is my personal Love Language and I enjoyed every single card, trinket and knickknack I’ve ever been given. But, in addition to costing the ministry or myself money, gifts are not always met with the same enthusiastic response by all my volunteers. What this means is that when I consider how I am going to show my volunteers my appreciation, there are four more ways to direct that energy for maximum results.
Quality time, in a professional or ministerial setting, can be hard. Time is a precious resource, in many ways more valuable even than that youth ministry budget. But, for those volunteers that value quality time over gifts, finding the time to spend with them is important to their feelings of being appreciated. Quality time is defined as time where the focus and energy is on another person. This does not mean buying tickets to an expensive show or outrageous outing. Hanging out and giving my undivided attention is enough to show that particular volunteer that I am thankful for them and their contributions. So having get-togethers where leaders can socialize and I can give them that undivided attention is a big part of how I structure my calendar now. No talking shop*, no multi-tasking, no taking work calls while they sit and wait. Instead, I like to meet away from the church and youth rooms, at a home or casual dining restaurant and spend time eating, laughing, relaxing and enjoying my volunteers. This is such an easy and fun way to connect with my volunteers, plus I use it to go to burger places my wife doesn’t like to go to, so it’s a win-win!
*There is also value in working on special projects with a volunteer. If they are teaching, leading or have ideas about the ministry, by all means I will talk shop. I try to make sure I have time to listen to every single idea or proposal my leaders have, because it’s where awesome ideas come from and it makes my volunteers feel valued. But, this does not take the place of time away from the ministry for relational time with my leaders. One does not substitute for the other, so finding time for both is important.
Acts of Service
Some volunteers, after spending all evening sitting next to Billy because otherwise he flicks boogers at the girls, then cleaning up the bathroom after a toilet overflowed, then ran the copies I forgot to run ahead of time, then waited 20 minutes after the end of youth group because Susie’s parents are running late and I can’t be at the church with her alone, just want to be taken care of. Because their love language is acts of service, they are often the hardest workers and the first to volunteer because the love the ministry, the kids and me. So when it comes time to let them know they are rock stars, finding the right way to do that is crucial. Maybe it means having their favorite blend of special coffee available at the coffee shop. Maybe it’s offering to babysit some Saturday night so they can go out to a movie. In the past I have even coordinated a service day with my volunteers once a month to work for an organization that the volunteers are passionate about. In the long run, these volunteers do so much for me and the ministry, to pay them back in a similar fashion doesn’t seem that strange of an idea.
Words of Affirmation
Next to gift giving, I think this is probably the most utilized form of volunteer appreciation. Words of affirmation is explicitly expressing affirmation, so a nice note in a card, a public announcement of achievement or a poetic scrawling on a bathroom stall all (probably) apply. Every year, at the end of the school year, I make time to publicly, usually in a worship service, affirm my volunteers. In my first church, I also installed a small chalk board and designated it a praise board, where youth and volunteers could write nice things about each other, and I made a point of writing something about each volunteer monthly. If this seems tedious or impossible because of limited time, limited wall space or a deep fear of chalk, then commit to emailing leaders weekly, telling them something they are doing well and how much it is appreciated. For someone who’s Love Language is words of affirmation, this small gesture means more than any iTunes or Starbucks gift card ever could, and it’s easy on the budget and a good life habit to get into.
I saved this one for last, because it’s the easiest to dismiss as inappropriate or weird. Most ministries and churches have specific rules limiting and discouraging physical touch in it’s entirety, especially between the adults. Unfortunately, we have had to discourage the distinction between platonic and sexual touch, because one can easily be misconstrued as the other. So is this a lost cause? Should I skip this section all together? I don’t want to be hasty, so here’s a bit about physical touch as appreciation in an appropriate and professional setting. First, a ministry is not a marriage or romantic relationship, so the expectations are different, so the rules and definitions are different. A high five, outdated and awkward fist bump or a good old fashioned pat on the back can be an acceptable and appreciated gesture. Second, appreciation isn’t something that is a constant; I don’t give my volunteers gifts or throw parties every Sunday. The volume of physical expressions doesn’t have to seem excessive or constant. Use them sparingly enough that they are noticed as appreciative but often enough to express how the appreciation the volunteers have earned.
Knowing your volunteers’ Love Language in a professional and ministerial setting might be too intimate or awkward of an endeavor for some, which is understandable. Sometimes people get weird around the “love” word. But, making sure volunteers are appreciated, affirmed and encouraged is a top priority in a healthy youth ministry. So the good news is you don’t need to know every intimate detail of how volunteers express love to their spouses or friends or pets even, just spread a wide base. Start doing a little of all of these things, because they are all nice things to do, and because it’s an easy way to observe which ways people respond. I challenge myself to find new ways every year to target both my volunteers and youth to make them feel affirmed and encouraged, since I also spend plenty of time challenging them. Or, if why not go a more direct route and just ask them! A simple, “Hey, how is the best way to show you appreciation?” can clear this right up. Even if it feels weird or awkward, it’s really important to know. In a relational ministry, just like in a relationship, these principals are key and will help nurture leaders who will then be more likely to continue to build the Kingdom (and continue to volunteer to work lock-ins).
This article first appeared on the Youth Specialties Blog here: https://youthspecialties.com/blog/appreciating-volunteers-5-love-languages/