Posted on : Tuesday September 1, 2009

By Troy Bush
Embrace Baltimore Director of Church Starting

Volunteer missions teams are nearly synonymous with missions and church starting. In fact, many cross-cultural missionaries began their journey to become missionaries after serving on a volunteer missions team.

I love volunteer teams and have worked with them for nearly 20 years. They can be great catalysts in any missions effort and deep friendships often form. They bring fresh energy, critical financial resources, additional manpower, and personal encouragement when they engage a missions effort.

Some missionaries and church starters do not enjoy working with missions teams. A few have tried it and their experiences were not pleasant. Others question whether mission teams are worth the effort to secure housing, provide transportation, prepare meals, and work through disagreements or even conflict.

Here are a few principles that will make your experience with volunteers more enjoyable and rewarding. A number of fine works are available to help you with covenants, planning, logistics, communication, setting goals, timelines, etc. See Whirlwind Missions, Impact Your World, Successful Mission Teams, STEM Int’l, The Essential Guide to the Short Term Mission Trip, and resources developed by First Church Woodstock.

In the few words that follow I will skip most of the details found in these works. I will focus on qualitative, less tangible details that can ensnare you and turn a good volunteer team into…well let’s just say it is something you do not want to experience.

Following these principles will make a difference in your relationship with volunteers. When church starters or volunteer teams have a bad experience, the church starter has usually neglected at least one of these principles.

Treat’em like family
Some church starters treat volunteers as if they are a rental car rather than a prized automobile, which they have saved for years to purchase. Remember, a missions team is as much about relationship as it is about accomplishing a task, and there is no substitute for a strong relationship between the lead church starter and the volunteer team. You can delegate many details and tasks concerning a volunteer team, but you cannot delegate the relationship (time). Volunteers are not mercenaries or hired hands! If you treat them as such, you can expect difficulty and the missed opportunity for a long and fruitful partnership.

Over communicate

Church starters are like a pilot of the space shuttle at launch. They give their attention to a very limited number of details in order that they may do them well. They are focused. At the same time they need volunteer teams to help them, and those teams have 954 questions, of which 934 will not be important to the church starter until 5 days before the team is scheduled to arrive.

Set up a system to communicate with the volunteer teams. Taking the time to answer the most common questions for all of your teams and making that information available 24/7 to all your teams will save you time and will save them stress. It is too easy to use pictures and videos to communicate details of the area and the accommodations.

Create a reusable, daily itinerary that you can complete for each team and put it in their hands early! If you do not have logistics confirmed 30 days before the team’s arrival, you are behind.

Keep the volunteer team leader updated concerning changes and new opportunities. Even if the team leader is laissez faire about details, you need to communicate, communicate and communicate.

Never blame a private for a general’s mistake
I have worked with dozens of volunteer teams in the US and in other countries. Two of those teams were bad teams, really bad teams. To make matters worse, I experienced them within weeks of each other while serving in Russia as a missions strategist. It would have been easy to say, “Never again will I work with volunteer teams.” I did think those words. Nonetheless, the problem was really not with the teams. I made assumptions about the team leaders, and those assumptions led to serious problems. For example, I assumed the team leader was meeting with his team and communicating information and updates I was sending him. I expected the team to be prepared and pre-oriented when they arrived. To my shock, and grief, I learned he had not given them any of the information, and he only met with them when they arrived at the airport to depart for Russia! These experiences changed the manner in which I deal with generals (team leaders). I have continued to enjoy working with volunteer teams, and I have avoided the mistakes these teams made.

Prepare and verify
Change will occur. Your plans will change. Your housing will change. The daily itinerary will change. Change will be your companion. This reality is no excuse for procrastination and poor preparation.

Project worksheets can be your friend if you will give an hour to complete one for each missions team effort. This resource will give you a check list, a timeline, and assign given tasks to the volunteer team and to your team.

Project management software is available for purchase, and EXCEL has a number of useful templates. See additional resources HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

I enjoy fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. When boating in the Gulf, especially when I can no longer see the shore, I regularly check my heading and bearing on the GPS. Regularly reviewing the project worksheet will help you and your team stay on course with volunteer teams. The following comments may be signs you need to verify further and storms may be looming: “I’m working on it; I’m waiting on confirmation; they haven’t responded to my email; I left a message; they will get back to me; we have plenty of time; I assume it will work; I sent them all the information by email; they said they will clean it up; and (my favorite) let’s just pray it will happen.” When using a team to conduct a community effort, pre-registration of participants is a great way to verify if your announcements are being received well.

Tell ’em what to expect and tell ’em again

This principle may be the most frequently neglected when working with volunteer missions teams. Set clear expectations about communication and information (how often and how much) you will provide as the team prepares for their trip. Communicate what the team can expect each day, and, in love, communicate what you expect from them. Establish financial expectations (who pays for what, how much, and when), and tell them what you expect to be the result of the teams efforts. You and your staff, including your families, should expect to make new friends and expect to have fun with the team. If you will learn to use a bit of humor, you will improve your communication of expectations and find it is not so difficult after all. Oh, did I mention that you should repeat your expectations?