This week Tivo McCrary, NextGen pastor at Cornerstone Church in southern Illinois, joins hosts Mike, Gina, and Kellen to share his experience in building a strong volunteer culture.


Welcome to the Orange Kids Podcast, where we talk about the big ideas of kids’ ministry and discuss practical solutions to our weekly challenges. This week Tivo McCrary, NextGen pastor at Cornerstone Church in southern Illinois, joins hosts Mike, Gina, and Kellen to share his experience in building a strong volunteer culture.

Today, Mike and Gina go Friends on us. Gina feels the Phoebe connection because “things just come out.” Mike admires Chandler’s gift of sarcasm. We’re missing Kellen again. Where does Kellen fit in the Friends cast? You tell us.

Friends aside, we’re happy to welcome Tivo McCrary to the podcast!

Tivo felt called into ministry from the young age of 13. He served anywhere and everywhere he could—including women’s ministry. He’s always loved church and a healthy church culture, especially where he served at Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, leading kids’ ministry.

Culture in a volunteer context can literally shape the way you do ministry.

Gina: I’m stuck on two things: What did you do in women’s ministry?!

Tivo: It was more like, “I’m going to make copies.”

Gina and Mike are now less confused.

Gina: Church of the Highlands. That’s not an easy place to get on staff. Highlands is known for its culture.

Mike: I’ve got two things. Where does the name Tivo come from?

Tivo: The interns at the church where I served at 13 started calling me Tivo shortly after the Tivo came out.

Mike has been stalking Tivo on his website and reveals that Tivo has been a featured extra in a Hallmark movie! We decide that’s another women’s ministry tie in. Gina requests a link, since its Hallmark season. Since it’s on DVD, you’ll have to link to your local library.

Mike: Tivo is joining us not to talk women’s ministry and Hallmark but what every children’s ministry rises and falls on—volunteers.

1. Talk to us about building culture as it relates to volunteers.

Tivo: People often say, “Our church doesn’t have a culture.” You’re letting that drive it. I love what Andy Stanley says, “Do for one what you can’t do for many.” That’s what I try to do when building a volunteer culture. What it would look like if everyone in your ministry started leading with that in mind?

If the lifeblood of your church depended on your volunteer culture—would your church thrive or would it shrivel up and die?

Many of us don’t have large staffs. If we’re not taking care of our volunteers, what are we doing with our time? [Volunteers] are the biggest asset that we have. Creating a life-giving culture for volunteers will ultimately translate into the way you can more effectively minister to families in your church.

Mike: We could end the podcast right here. Go and wrestle with this question: Is your volunteer culture thriving or dying? And why? That’s what we’re talking about.

2. What are the important elements of volunteer culture?

Tivo: While some church staff are full-time, many have to keep an additional job. And of course a part-time ministry job is never part-time. While I worked at Highlands, I also worked as a hotel manager. It all rose and fell on volunteer culture.

I’ve learned that the right system, the right people, and ultimately the right culture are what every organization and church need in order to have a thriving volunteer ministry.

Mike: What do you mean by right systems?

Tivo: Systems is a flashy word in ministry right now. The right system for assimilation, first time guests, etc. It’s simply: how are we consistently onboarding people, tracking their attendance, and pastoring them? What are we doing to ensure that all of that translates to children’s ministry?

Whatever your system is, how does that translate to an ability to keep up your vision?

You’re undercutting your culture if you end up throwing people into volunteer roles on an emergency basis. Put things in place culture-wise that make serving fun, so people want to be there.

Gina: There are some who want to say, “I don’t have a volunteer culture.” You do. The same with your systems. You have a system, but it may just be running through a list of parents to fill holes. It’s an unintentional system.

Right systems are going to elevate the values of your ministry and define the type of culture you want.

We always have to recognize that we have full lives. It’s less about recruiting a volunteer and putting them on a schedule. It’s about how are we shepherding them? Do we have a system in place that loves them well and helps them grow as they’re leading?

3. What is your recruitment system at your church?

Tivo: We do a pathway growth track. All new members go through a 4-week class to help them discover their purpose. When you plug someone into their God-given skill set, they’re more likely to serve long term.

We generally shy away from stage announcements. We do need [volunteers], but we don’t need just anyone. We need people who are passionate, and have certain giftings.

Just because we need someone doesn’t mean I’m willing to lower the standard and stick someone in a room who doesn’t want to be there.

God’s never sent us any more kids than we could handle. I remember being stressed over holes, but God always took care of it.

We reserve recruiting announcements from stage for rare occasions so it has greater impact.

Mike: Anyone can be a ministry volunteer, but not everyone should be.

Look at your system and see what is or isn’t working for you.

At our church, the majority of volunteers come from relationship with other volunteers. They lean into small group leaders to figure out who they should talk to. Like attracts like.

Tivo: We underestimate how powerful the testimony of the people serving in our ministry is.

If your ministry is thriving and looks fun and people are taken care of, it becomes really attractive.

Our ministry volunteers are like a small group. For each service, there’s a leader responsible for those volunteers. That person is in their lives, creating a small group culture so volunteers are known and cared for.

Gina: Everyone has a story to tell and a step to take. As a ministry leader, I can’t know that myself for every volunteer. But building in layers like that is brilliant. You’re putting someone in their life to know them.

Mike: What is working for you? What is not working? If it is working, identify the system in place that’s getting those results so you can continue. If it’s not working—what can we do to change?

Gina: I want to address the ministry leader who would say, “There is no other system that works other than my senior pastor standing on the platform and requesting volunteers.”

I was at that place. But things changed for me when I had to stop and ask myself hard questions. I realized new recruits came from platform pleas and not from other volunteers recruiting.

The pivotal question is: “Would I want to serve in my ministry?”

I sat in a 2 year-old room and asked, “Would I want to do this? Am I preparing them and setting them up for a win?”

I was on a sinking ship and asking people to get on it.

4. You mentioned having the “right people” in place. What does that look like?

Tivo: These things bleed into each other. We don’t just need warm bodies, we need passion. That looks different for each church. What’s your win? What’s your end goal?

We are always asking: How does it connect the family?

Get down in the nitty gritty and make sure the right people are in the right places. We had people in elementary that we would put on stage because they didn’t want to be small group leaders … but they were mediocre. It was affecting the kids. We finally found for some of them, their passion was connecting with families. So it was moving them from stage to check in/hospitality and they thrived. But we can’t do that if we’re just throwing bodies in rooms.

Gina: The worst thing you can do is a take a problem and throw the first volunteer at it.

Mike: The right systems deliver something in line with your vision. When you have the right people, you want to build and invest in them. What does that look like for you?

Tivo: The first thought in everyone’s mind is: “I’m too busy for this.”

Everyone’s busy, but we have to make time for it.

Once a quarter we have community nights for our volunteers. We don’t use “meeting” because that means “come and hear policies.” We feed them. You can potluck it if you don’t have budget. We play games together and see each other in a different light.

It’s true Gospel to do life that way. Jesus met with people over food in homes. It’s food, it’s fun, there’s a short inspirational moment.

We save policies and procedures for twice a year.

Our volunteers look forward to the community nights. We give them the dates for the year ahead. It’s a celebration for our team. It’s a big vision casting night.

Mike: It’s connecting with each other and your team. There’s some information, maybe a peak behind the curtain, and then celebrating stories.

You can’t do everything, but pick your spots. When people block it out on their calendars, that says something.

Every week you may have a touch point when you send out the lesson or small group questions. Every time you reach out, attach something to that that can help build and invest in them. It might be a quote about why we do what we do. A verse. A podcast. Simple things. It’s not adding to your already busy plate. It’s being intentional with every interaction.

5. When you have the right systems that help you find the right people, it helps produce the right culture. What does that look like?

Tivo: At Highlands, everyone said the church was a breath of fresh air. It was life giving. At Cornerstone, we’re trying to create engaging environments that teach biblical principles. That cultural looks like the Orange principles—showing up consistently and predictably.

We’re going to do everything we can to show up for a volunteer’s big life event. And we hope our volunteers will show up at the basketball games or recital of the kids they lead. We can’t do it for every kid, but when we can, we will.

Every email, text, message, every touch point, you’re basing it on relational equity. If you don’t build relationship or add something meaningful, volunteers are less likely to keep opening them. Your communication should be more than just, “I need this.”

We’re fighting to build a culture where [the message is]: “We don’t need you—we WANT you to be part of our team. And because we want you so much and believe God has gifted you, we’re going to bless you by showing up, by praying for you, by sending a goodie basket if you wife has a baby.

We get paralyzed because we think we don’t have the bandwidth or budget to do it.

I handwrite three thank you notes a week, taking 20 minutes tops. These are for specific things I’ve been told these volunteers did. Campus directors shoot me a text if someone goes above and beyond.

Build a culture where volunteers become owners, not just renters. They go the extra mile.

Gina: You’re demonstrating for your volunteers what you want them to do for their few. It has to be in you first.

Gina briefly goes Phoebe by creating a brand-new mythology of Teenage Mutant Ninja Warriors.

Mike: You’re producing raving fans of your ministry. We want our volunteers to speak so positively of their experience that they are a walking billboard for your ministry.

Land on these questions:

Do my volunteers love coming and serving in our ministry?

Do they have a relationship with me or someone on my team?

Do they feel prepared, valued, and set up to succeed?

Do they feel like they are heard?

That’s a culture based on the right systems. And when it’s working, it’s a beautiful thing.

Gina: As a ministry leader, where do I start?

Tivo: You can’t build culture; you have to be the culture. We want our small group leaders to lead small, so we have to lead small as ministry leaders.

Mike: It starts with an honest evaluation of your current systems. It’s going to take time and consistency.


Is your volunteer culture thriving or dying? Take a few minutes this week to look at whether you have the right systems and the right people in place to create a culture that supports your ministry’s vision.