When My Volunteer is Smarter than Me

I know a thing or two about databases. I love how they organize information and the flexibility they offer over a spreadsheet; I can build a basic Access database. When I was hired as Director of Equipping People to Serve at St. Peter Lutheran three years ago, I was eager to put our church database to full use.

Kerri, a woman in Bible class with me, volunteered to help. Very quickly, I realized she knew much more about databases than I did. She has designed and manipulated complex databases for very large organizations. When she disagreed with my suggestions, she was often proved right.

Church leaders, both paid and unpaid, love volunteers. But it gets complicated when our volunteers are smarter than we are. It didn’t take me long to become comfortable with the reality that Kerri was smarter than me about databases. But when I imagine a volunteer who has more volunteerism experience and credentials than I do, who has stronger skills and has experienced more success than me in this area I love, I begin to get uneasy. Questions and insecurities arise. What if people like her more than they like me? Would I still be respected or would I become irrelevant? Would my job be in jeopardy?

What if people like her more than they like me? Would my job be in jeopardy?

All of our gifts come from God and are given for service in the body of Christ. “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. . . . All these [gifts] are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines” (I Cor. 12:7, 11). If we want people to use the best that God has given them, their best intelligence, training and experience, we’re going to have volunteers smarter than us.

When You’re Working with a Smart Volunteer

  • Deal with your insecurities with a good dose of the Gospel. We’re all sinners, redeemed by grace alone, through Christ alone. We’re managers, not owners, of His gifts and he values our faithfulness over our achievements. It’s not a competition and with God, you have nothing to fear.
  • Take time to get to know your smart volunteer. Treat them to a cup of coffee and meet the person behind the ‘expert.’ Get to know their other gifts, their family, etc.
  • Look at their motivation. Are they trying to ‘take over’ or do they actually have a servant heart and a desire to use their gift for the church’s good? If it’s hard for you to be impartial, ask someone with discernment for help.
  • If we want people to use the best that God has given them . . . we’re going to have to seek out and encourage the smartest.

  • Often the smart volunteer will also be new to the church or new to volunteering in the church. No matter how much they know about the task, you probably know more about your church’s culture and history than they do. They’ll need your insight in these areas.
  • Whether you’re staff or volunteer, your leadership position is a gift from God, as are its responsibilities. The buck stops with you, no matter how smart your volunteers. You and your volunteers are a team, with differing gifts but a single goal. With teams, credit as well as work is shared.

When You’re the Smart Volunteer

  • Respect the leadership and the responsibilities that come with their office, just as you’d wish others to respect your leadership.
  • You probably know more about your church’s culture and history than they do

  • Take time to get to know the leaders. Take them out for a cup of coffee; listen to their stories and stories about the church. Let them get to know you, beyond your obvious area of expertise. As you get to know the people, you’ll be better able to fit your work into the church culture.
  • Be willing to pay your dues. Be willing to be a helping hand for at time, even if your first urge is to jump in and revamp the whole thing. Trust is built over time.
  • When you get frustrated, be willing to take small steps. Don’t give up.
  • Remember you are first serving your Lord, not the church organization. Even as he is using your skills to enhance ministry, he is using the experience to build your faith in him.

Even as God is using your skills . . . he is using the experience to build your faith.

Kerri continues to work on database issues with me. A few months ago she represented our church at a conference hosted by our database provider. She joined dozens of other database leaders in a roundtable discussion of shared concerns. One participant raised the issue of whether or not to trust volunteers to work with a database. Most cited sensitive information and confidentiality as good reasons to limit database work to staff. After listening for a lengthy time, Kerri shared her experience and perspective as a volunteer. She spoke of trust developed over a period of time, of being willing to work under my leadership as I set goals and priorities, of accepting her assigned level of security. Afterward, several participants thanked her for her valuable contribution.

As she told me about it later, I realized those database gurus got more than information on databases and volunteers. They got a great lesson in equipping people to serve, not only from listening to Kerri, but from the fact that she was the one with them in the room.

July 2011

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