I took over our small group ministry at the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor in the spring of 2009 and one of the first things I decided to do was to reach out to our small group leaders on a pastoral level. As a functional leader, I often take on an assignment, take account of what I need to do to get the job done, and do it. My wife, on the other hand, is a relational leader. She wants to make sure your well-being is being cared for while getting the job done. In this particular case, when my personal mission was to improve the health of our small group leaders, I was wise enough to choose my wife’s leadership style.

So, I came up with an initial plan. Schedule a 15-minute call with each small group leader (primary and co-leader) and asked three questions during our conversation. My hope was that the leaders would have a place to voice concerns, ideas, and prayer requests. The result? Small group leaders with long-term commitment, loyalty, and satisfaction with their involvement. Volunteers who felt heard, appreciated, and taken into account. The leaders that I talked to were very surprised, elated, and appreciative that I took time out of my schedule to check in on them. Many were downright giddy and excited to receive a personal call from the pastor that wasn’t in response to an articulated need.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, this is no one-time quick fix for volunteer burnout. Rather, this is a consistent and ongoing effort which over time, proves to volunteers that they are worth the time and energy. Almost immediately after starting these calls, I felt like this practice was something important for us to be doing as a church. Since then, I’ve invited our entire pastoral team to join me, bringing our total reach to 82 thrice-yearly calls.

Here are the three questions I ask each call:

1.) How are you doing personally, spiritually, relationally?

During this question I listen for themes and reflect back to the leader what I heard and translate that into prayer requests. I find that a lot of people are uncomfortable with asking for prayer; it seems selfish and greedy. By actively listening and generating a list of prayer needs, I found that it made it easier for them to offer other prayer needs.

Spend enough time on this first question, as it is really three questions wrapped into one. Make sure to check in on all levels: personal, spiritual, and relational. This question often digs into such topics as marriage challenges or joys, money problems, work, children, etc. Create a space that is safe for your leaders to share their heart on a variety of levels.

2.) What can I be praying for you for?

Prayer requests are important to write down somewhere that you keep in a safe place until you’re next call with this individual. That way you can follow up with them during the next phone conversation. You can imagine the significance of someone calling you back a few months later and checking in on a specific prayer request you had. It makes you feel heard and cared for.

I log everything into Community Center (our church database software). Any prayer requests are added to the database and I ask if I can share these requests with our prayer ministry team. Everything recorded about my calls is accessible to the pastoral team.

Make sure to end the call by actually praying for their requests! Don’t let them get away without prayer.

3.) Is there anything that you need to tell me or would like to tell me that you haven’t had an opportunity to tell me or that you haven’t been given permission to tell me?

This was the most important question that I asked during my first round of calls. It gave permission to the leaders to share difficult or negative feedback, mainly because I asked for it. My fear about this question was that I was going to invite a series of complaints, but instead, asking this question helped make the case for the need to do this across all our leaders and gave us insight into common themes that our leaders were experiencing.

Best of luck on your journey towards helping in the health and longevity of your volunteers. I hope that this simple, yet significant practice will be as huge a benefit to you and your leadership team as it has been to ours.

Extra note: The initial round of calls that I made took place between May and September 2009, with an average duration of 22 minutes per call. I make calls to each small group leader three times a year. The software that I used for note-taking is Community Center for Churches.