Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Retaining Key Volunteers

A lot has been said on recruiting and training technical volunteers; indeed it’s probably the biggest challenge we face as TDs. But once you find someone, train them and get them involved, how to you retain them? Especially the ones who prove to be high-value, high-capacity technicians? I would not suggest that I have all the answers in this area; I’m struggling to figure it out just like you are. But I have had some success in a few cases, and I’d like to share what I’ve found works. 

Give Them Ownership

One of the key things I’ve found, both as a volunteer and a TD, is that when you give someone ownership of something, they are much more invested in it. I was “the sound guy” in two churches for a long time, long before I joined the staff of a church. I spent many 12 hour Saturdays at church wiring, building, tuning and tweaking because I was trusted to do so.

In my current role, my two main lighting volunteers (both under age 19) have tremendous ownership of our lighting system. When we developed our lighting guidelines as a staff, I invited them in to be part of that process. They helped craft the guidelines they work within today. They have a lot of say in where we hang the lights and how we use them. They even help chose the fixtures we purchase. As a result, they are hugely committed and ready to come down and work on anything at a moment’s notice. 

The opposite of this is to withhold ownership. Expect greatness from your team, but don’t give them any authority to develop the systems and processes that will lead to great results. Nothing will frustrate a key volunteer faster than being given a lot of responsibility with no authority. 

Encourage Them Often

I try to never let a weekend end without telling my team they did a great job. Sure there may be things we need to work on, cues may have been missed and we can all always improve. But the fact is, they were there at 7:30 AM on Sunday, they came with willing hearts, worked hard and helped produce a powerful service. That’s a great job. 

I also try to provide feedback throughout the weekend with specific details. If I notice something the lighting guys did that was extra special, I’ll point it out. Same goes for the camera team. Even telling the ProPresenter op that their timing is steadily improving and helping the service flow more smoothly is a big deal.

See, the thing is, most techs—volunteer or staff—only hear complaints. Our job is to disappear and not be noticed. So when no one says anything, that’s a good weekend, at least from a production standpoint. However, from a human standpoint, it can be exhausting. After a month or two of not hearing anyone say, “Good job!” it’s hard to maintain the excitement about coming back next week. 

So give your team specific encouraging feedback. That will go a long way toward keeping them around

Don’t Overwork Them

It’s easy to abuse volunteers, especially the really good ones. It’s not usually intentional, especially when the volunteer keeps showing up week after week. As church staff, we know we need time off to rest and relax (we do know that, right?). Our volunteers are the same way. They need time off. I never like to let a volunteer serve more than 2 weekends a month, and prefer a 3-4 week rotation. I want them around enough so they remain proficient, but want to make sure they have plenty of time off, too. 

It’s easy to take the short-term view; scheduling a sound tech every Sunday for two years will get that position filled for that time, but once he burns out and leaves, you’re in a world of hurt. Moreover, so is he. I’ve been there twice, and almost left the church for good the second time. God is not pleased when the Church destroys a volunteer because we needed a position filled. 

Feed Them

This seems silly, but it’s really not. We often joke around our church that the tech team runs on its stomach. The truth is, we’re there early and late; we typically don’t really get a break because our workload is constant and high. So whenever I have an opportunity to buy my team lunch or dinner, I do so. 

Sometimes, after a really big event week, like Christmas or Easter, I’ll even pick up a few gift cards and hand them out to the ones who went above and beyond. That and a handwritten card goes a long, long way toward making someone well aware that the 30-40 hours they just volunteered was noticed appreciated. 

The two line items that I fought for and refused to give up in my budget this year were food and leadership appreciation. I will spend money out of my equipment fund if I have to in order to make sure our volunteers are taken care of. It doesn’t cost that much, and the rewards are more than worth it.

Some of the above comes from my experience as a high-capacity volunteer, and some from my role as a TD. Some comes from good experiences I’ve had, others from the negative. But all of it is my experience. I’m really interested to know what you’ve found works for you.

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10 Comments

  1. jamesattaway@ihop.org

    Great post! I've been a disgruntled volunteer more than once, and nothing wards that off better than encouragement and appreciation.

    There really are little things like the handwritten notes you mentioned that go a long way in making people feel appreciated. It goes far beyond any monetary value to say thank-you with something tangible.

  2. jamesattaway@ihop.org

    Great post! I've been a disgruntled volunteer more than once, and nothing wards that off better than encouragement and appreciation.

    There really are little things like the handwritten notes you mentioned that go a long way in making people feel appreciated. It goes far beyond any monetary value to say thank-you with something tangible.

  3. matt.schouten@gmail.com

    Good stuff! Two things that I would add (or make more explicit, because they're kind of implied):

    First, have a team a bit larger than you need. If the team is exactly the right size to keep your ideal rotation going, and someone leaves, you're leaning a bit harder on your volunteer team. Usually they'll stay because they enjoy it and don't want to leave you hanging. But they'll move a bit closer to burnout, and when you fill that open spot, they might decide they need a break. And now you're back to having an overworked team.

    Second, understand the people on your team and how they spend their time. The 22-year-old guy fresh out of college who's new to town likely has a lot more free time than the 35-year-old guy with four kids and a wife who's helping lead the women's ministry. Recognize that the threshold for burnout for different volunteers is different and the amount of time available for last-minute things (say, funerals or phone calls to talk through a setup or new equipment) is different. If you don't have a very good idea what else your team has going on, you're risking pushing past the amount of time they've set aside for tech volunteering.

    This actually relates to something I've been wrestling with a bit. I'm a tech volunteer, not a TD. I've been involved with other ministries which keep me from doing sound on Sunday (though our head sound guy has been asking me for years to join the Sunday rotation). The thing I've been trying to figure out is how I work M-F, serve essentially all Sunday (we have 3 morning services and an evening service), take care of my home and family (big Saturday projects, etc), and still have a Sabbath rest. If you have any thoughts on how to make sure volunteers get real Sabbath-rest, while serving on the usual Sabbath day, I think that could make for an interesting post.

  4. matt.schouten@gmail.com

    Good stuff! Two things that I would add (or make more explicit, because they're kind of implied):

    First, have a team a bit larger than you need. If the team is exactly the right size to keep your ideal rotation going, and someone leaves, you're leaning a bit harder on your volunteer team. Usually they'll stay because they enjoy it and don't want to leave you hanging. But they'll move a bit closer to burnout, and when you fill that open spot, they might decide they need a break. And now you're back to having an overworked team.

    Second, understand the people on your team and how they spend their time. The 22-year-old guy fresh out of college who's new to town likely has a lot more free time than the 35-year-old guy with four kids and a wife who's helping lead the women's ministry. Recognize that the threshold for burnout for different volunteers is different and the amount of time available for last-minute things (say, funerals or phone calls to talk through a setup or new equipment) is different. If you don't have a very good idea what else your team has going on, you're risking pushing past the amount of time they've set aside for tech volunteering.

    This actually relates to something I've been wrestling with a bit. I'm a tech volunteer, not a TD. I've been involved with other ministries which keep me from doing sound on Sunday (though our head sound guy has been asking me for years to join the Sunday rotation). The thing I've been trying to figure out is how I work M-F, serve essentially all Sunday (we have 3 morning services and an evening service), take care of my home and family (big Saturday projects, etc), and still have a Sabbath rest. If you have any thoughts on how to make sure volunteers get real Sabbath-rest, while serving on the usual Sabbath day, I think that could make for an interesting post.

  5. phillipgibb@gmail.com

    From my experience and frustrations I cannot agree more, especially with regards to giving key volunteers ownership. What goes hand in hand with that is respect for their expertise and experience. Nothing irritates me more than assuming you know more because you read and article and now want to disregard my years of experience (and yes I read that article and 50 million others, already, last year). grrr.
    It probably comes from too much micro management; for example with video editing – manage me, my work load and the project goals – don't manage how I edit for a specific project (especially if the suggestions come from that one article)

    best solution is to foster that ownership through respect and trust.

  6. phillipgibb@gmail.com

    From my experience and frustrations I cannot agree more, especially with regards to giving key volunteers ownership. What goes hand in hand with that is respect for their expertise and experience. Nothing irritates me more than assuming you know more because you read and article and now want to disregard my years of experience (and yes I read that article and 50 million others, already, last year). grrr.
    It probably comes from too much micro management; for example with video editing – manage me, my work load and the project goals – don't manage how I edit for a specific project (especially if the suggestions come from that one article)

    best solution is to foster that ownership through respect and trust.

  7. paul@trinitydigitalmedia.com

    10 year video volunteer here. I'd add "challenge them." I lose interest when I'm under-challenged and can easily burn out if over-challenged (thanks to Bill Hybels at this year's Summit for the language for this). I want enough of a challenge that I'm growing in my role.

    Paul

  8. paul@trinitydigitalmedia.com

    10 year video volunteer here. I'd add "challenge them." I lose interest when I'm under-challenged and can easily burn out if over-challenged (thanks to Bill Hybels at this year's Summit for the language for this). I want enough of a challenge that I'm growing in my role.

    Paul

  9. paul@trinitydigitalmedia.com

    One more thing. If someone leads an area, don't call them something b/c they're volunteer if you'd call them something else on staff. If a key volunteer leads video and the whole thing would fall apart if something happened to him/her, call them the "leader" if they're comfortable with it. Don't make up a word when it's clear that's what they do.

  10. paul@trinitydigitalmedia.com

    One more thing. If someone leads an area, don't call them something b/c they're volunteer if you'd call them something else on staff. If a key volunteer leads video and the whole thing would fall apart if something happened to him/her, call them the "leader" if they're comfortable with it. Don't make up a word when it's clear that's what they do.

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