Editor’s note: This blog first appeared on this website in August, 2011. We’re reprinting it now, in case you missed it. Many churches will welcome a new group of volunteers next month. How will you help them feel needed and welcome?
Can you believe your eyes? Maybe. Maybe not. Pilots flying in fog, for example, easily become disoriented. Which way is up? All the plane’s instruments may indicate it is turning or even diving, while all the pilot’s senses contradict this information. If the pilot acts on what she feels, she may fly straight into a mountain or head out to sea, never to be seen again.
New staff or volunteers in your church or Christian school probably won’t ditch in the Atlantic, but their disorientation may last for days or even several months. If the fog is thick enough, even a high-potential volunteer may head out the door, never to return. You want to prevent that! And to do it, you need the help of every current worker—from your senior pastor to the newsletter assembly team to your campus flower-bed weeders.
Places & Things
I once worked in a school where basic office supplies were invisible. The closet where pens, markers, and paper were supposedly stored was as empty as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. For the first six months, I shrugged and bought my own supplies. Then another member of the faculty explained the way he got what he needed from the central office.
I hope your church is not this bureaucratic! I also hope your newcomer orientation includes basic information about where to find necessary equipment, how to brew coffee, where to park when it’s raining, and whom to ask when questions arise.
A day or two before a new staff person or volunteer arrives, take a look around that person’s workspace. Is it tidy and safe? Are the desk drawers free of lint and cookie crumbs leftover from the area’s last resident? Have desktop stains been removed? If there’s a phone or computer, does it work? Is it plugged in? Is the key board sanitary? How will your newcomer know how to log on to the Internet or make an outgoing phone call? Is the area inviting and conducive to the work you’re asking the person to do?
People & Information
It’s only natural for people who have worked on the same staff for years to have deep friendships, to share similar preferences, and to smile knowingly at inside jokes. Teams like this are fully oriented! Leaders need not worry about crash landings. That’s good. But there can be a downside, too. No one intends it, but the closeness shared by “old timers” can easily feel cliquish to newcomers.
You don’t want to loosen tight friendships. (And you probably couldn’t, even if that was advisable!) Instead, work on drawing newcomers into the existing friendship circles from the beginning. Lunch together on the new person’s first day is a fine idea—so long as everyone remembers that one lunch will not instantly create deep friendships! Ask two or three friendly and well-connected workers to look out for newcomers, keeping their efforts low-key, informal, and friendly over the first several months.
In some cases, you may want to assign a mentor to help orient a new person. Ideally, the new worker will be able to confide in the mentor, so it’s best if the two aren’t in a reporting relationship. Depending on how complex the job is and how much experience the newcomer brings to the table, expect the mentoring process to continue for a few weeks, a few months, or even a few years. Over time, the teaching/learning process will grow more equal and, ideally, mentor and mentee will become friends.
Curmudgeons & Crocodiles
Even in churches, there’s often one misery-maker whose comments and actions seem to come out of the blue beyond, stinging as they fly and land. First days and weeks are disorienting enough, but the smoke blown by Terry Territorial or Paula Passive-Aggressive will always make life unpleasant for a newcomer who has no way to know how to interpret what’s going on.
Of course, you should be coaching Paula and Terry already, helping them to overcome their destructive words and actions for the sake of the entire organization—and for their own sakes, too! But if you’re bringing in new staff or volunteers, stay especially alert for unacceptable behaviors on the part of your curmudgeons, and confront it immediately! Don’t let an off-hand comment or a tactless act ruin a new volunteer’s initial impressions.
Down the Street & Back Up Again
Finally, remember that while new people have much to learn, they may very well also have much to teach! New people bring new ideas. “Learning Street” runs in both directions, especially the first few weeks a new person is onboard.
Don’t waste the “outsider’s lens” newcomers bring. A new person’s ability objectively to evaluate your policies, procedures, strategies, and outcomes won’t last long. Once you’ve successfully oriented them, they will no longer have a fresh perspective to share.
So find ways early and often for them to share. Invite comments. Listen carefully without offering explanations or excuses. Make it safe for them to speak honestly. Make it your goal to learn two or three things from each new person. You may be amazed at how helpful these learnings can be.