Volunteer Teams as Partners in Ministry

My wife, Gay, and I have spent seventeen years on the field in Kenya and Senegal. Very early in our time with the IMB, we were encouraged to pray about how best to utilize volunteers to help with the overall strategy of our teams on the field. Our partner churches want to be on mission, and we need to work with them effectively to give more chances for more people to hear the good news. That is why we partner with volunteers.

We quickly realized the great need for more laborers, and we prayed for more as the Bible instructs us to do (Luke 10:2). Then it was simply a matter of how best to accomplish it. We tried many things over the years. But finally, after seeing some really positive results—and a few not so positive—we began to think more strategically about the big picture of the ministry God had given to us. In particular, we began to really consider anew how partner churches could help us in the ministry entrusted to us.

A Fruitful Partnership

The more we saw out of these colaborers in ministry, the more we learned about how God was using them in unique ways. Many were very bold in engaging nationals and very supportive in whatever we asked of them, and we saw spiritual fruit from their efforts. In the five years that good partner churches consistently came to Senegal, we estimated that about half of the people coming to faith in Christ was the direct result of these churches coming and engaging Senegalese. That was incredibly encouraging to both the volunteers and the field personnel.

“Our partner churches want to be on mission, and we need to work with them effectively to give more chances for more people to hear the good news.”

One of the primary reasons that we think our volunteers saw fruit in the partnership on the field was because of their humble spirit and attitude towards the field personnel. They were willing to try different things. When there were issues to be dealt with, they were very willing to discuss them, and they ultimately trusted the field personnel.

We have been on the field for a year in a new country, so we are starting the process over again as we seek new ways to engage the culture here with volunteers. As we do, we’re developing some helpful guidelines for healthy partnership with short-term volunteers on the field. Those guidelines are below.

For Volunteer Churches and Field Personnel

  1. Once communication has started between a team on the ground and a church, team goals and strategy should be openly discussed. Both sides need to agree whether to pursue the partnership.
  2. Send a small team made up of future team leaders for a vision trip in order to prayer walk and spend time with the field personnel. The vision trip should not last more than three to five days. Then, with experience and information in hand, the field personnel and church should decide if and how to proceed.
  3. When the first team is sent, field personnel should begin training them to be self-sufficient as much as possible in their work. The field personnel should spend increasingly less time with the partnering churches while they are on-site so that short-term teams are less dependent on them over time—maybe something like 100 percent on the vision trip, 75 percent on the second, and so forth.
  4. Once the volunteers move from total dependency on the field personnel to almost none, the field personnel should concentrate on continued training of the partners in culture, language, strategy, methodology, etc. They should also continually challenge the volunteers to make sure the work on the field is affecting their church’s work in the United States.

For Field Personnel

  1. For partnership to work well, the field personnel must commit to making it work.
  2. A written document should be sent to the volunteer team clearly defining what is expected of them before each trip, while they are on the trip, and what needs to be done once the partners return to their home.
  3. The field personnel need to clearly define what type of volunteers they are looking for to work in harmony with the team on the ground.
  4. Always be available for encouragement of volunteers, discussion on various issues, and emergencies.

For Partner Churches

  1. Churches should first pray about what level of engagement they desire. Once they’ve come to a conclusion, they can begin to look for possible partnerships.
  2. Partner churches should serve to support the field personnel and the current ministry on the field, understanding that the volunteers are a vital part of carrying it out.
  3. Trust the field personnel. Listen to them and put into practice what they have learned in their training and experience.
  4. Continue to recruit new members to be a viable part of the partnership, whether on the field or at home.

To be honest the work is tough, the ground can be very hard, and we know that it will take all of us working together to cultivate, plant seed, weed, and tenderly care for new growth, in order to reap a harvest. We cannot do this alone. What better way to see God’s kingdom grow than to join together in partnership, walk hand in hand, encouraging one another in sharing the good news, and being obedient to make disciples. Pray and see where God wants your church to impact the kingdom.