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Volunteers Kevin Penrod
Ideally, I don't want to bring in a brand-new team member and then throw them at a high-level position like FOH or main lighting programmer.

Training Next-Level Volunteers: Solid Expectations, Communications Key

It is important to understand that we can’t turn everyone into a rock star audio engineer. There is a certain threshold of competency that must be met.

Every media ministry seems to have the same problem. No matter what size the church, the needs always outweigh the available resources. People and money – we never have enough.

For most of us, the problem is that we don’t have enough paid staff to cover all the positions, so we need to use volunteers to make it work.

Yet, somehow, we still need to find a way to make church happen every single week! And by the way, expectations will not be adjusted, to compensate for the lack of proper staffing.

How do we then navigate these very difficult and frustrating circumstances?

First, it is important to step back and take stock of the situation. I would make a chart or list the following items:  

  • Needed positions for services (FOH engineer, lighting programmer, etc. …)
  • Existing paid staff
  • Existing volunteer team

If you have a simple setup for your worship services, such as front of house audio, lighting, and graphics, this is an easy exercise. If you have a more complex crew, an added step would be to determine which of your positions are "entry-level" and which require extensive training.

It won’t take long to see how my resources match up with my needs. For most of us, the problem is that we don’t have enough paid staff to cover all the positions, so we need to use volunteers to make it work.

But what happens when those volunteers need to fill roles that we consider to be “high-level” positions? What kind of quality can we actually expect from a volunteer in that position?

I have always shied away from having an unpaid team member at FOH or as the main lighting programmer. I don't like the idea of putting that much pressure on a church member, and it makes me nervous to think that one of my key positions is run by someone who doesn't have a monetary motivation to show up and do an excellent job. 

It is important to understand that we can’t turn everyone into a rock star audio engineer. There is a certain threshold of competency that must be met. However, with a competent volunteer, the burden is on me to provide that person with all the necessary resources to make him or her successful.

Ideally, I don't want to bring in a brand-new team member and then throw them at a high-level position like FOH or main lighting programmer. I want to start every person at an entry-level spot and work them up.

For audio at our church, everyone starts as an A2. It doesn't matter how many big-time Christian college bands he has mixed, or who he or she claims to have run monitors for … welcome to the A2 position! The reason for this is even a seasoned veteran doesn't know how we do it at our church. He or she needs to get the lay of the land first, before jumping in deep.

This is one reason why clear communication is so important. Explaining the training plan from the very beginning, will provide a clear roadmap for how that volunteer will get from A2 to FOH A1. Also, it is important to communicate how I want everything to be executed during a weekend service.

One principle I have learned over the years is that volunteers will give you no more than you expect them to give you.

So, set your expectations high!

Have a lengthy discussion about how the mix should sound. Go into detail regarding the lighting design and the desired mood for the room. Don't shy away from expecting high-quality results, when using unpaid team members!

Another vital - and perhaps the most daunting - aspect of using volunteers in high-level positions, is the training. In other articles, I have gone into great detail regarding training in general, so I won't deal with that here.

However, when moving existing team members into more challenging or higher-profile roles, there are several steps I always consider. First, as discussed above, is clear communication. After I'm sure I can't scare them away, I want to provide them examples of what I want them to achieve.

For audio, we might listen to some live recordings or go to some concerts and talk about what we like, and what we think could be better. For lighting, we watch a lot of videos and check out Instagram for inspiration. For graphics, we can look at graphic design examples online and talk about font selection and layout. These are all simple examples, but it is amazing how much quicker a person can catch my vision, when I put an example in front of that individual.

Third, and most time consuming, I must provide appropriate training materials to help this person improve their skills and elevate them into the new position. These materials may be comprised of videos I make, to clearly show how to achieve the goal. Online training is also a great option these days, for literally every aspect of technology.

It may be worth the investment to subscribe to one of the many training websites that provide detailed instruction from high-quality teachers about their craft. Also, there are hundreds of quality people all over the world who have a passion for conducting training seminars on-site. The payoff of bringing in a person like this is not only the excellent training my team receives, but it is also the message it sends that I value them enough to invest in their training. Anytime that I have done training like this in the past, my team has talked about it for literally years later, referencing tips or phrases that the guest trainer gave them.

Finally, never underestimate the importance and power of feedback. My team needs to know if they are doing well, or if they need to improve. Give positive feedback as often as possible, so that it far outweighs the critical evaluations. Help them to feel like they are working in a safe environment, where an occasional failure is not the end of the world! Always have their back.

Volunteers are perfectly capable of handling next-level positions in your church, but it takes work and commitment to get there. Set expectations high, communicate clearly, and provide the necessary resources to set them up for success!

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