Ch.10 Recruiting and Keeping Teachers

Recruiting is the holy act of helping others discover their gifts and discern God’s will.
By Roberta Hestenes 2005

Some years ago I was responsible for recruiting someone to oversee a pastoral care program involving over 200 adults. It was a big job, and I was looking for a couple who could commit a great deal of time and energy to the program.

I prayed about this problem literally for months, wondering who would be willing and able to take on such a challenge. Eventually I sensed the Lord pointing me to Bill and Terri, a couple in their late 30s. I stopped them in the hall at church one Wednesday evening and said, “I have a new opportunity for ministry in mind for you. Would you be willing to meet and discuss it?”

The following week, they and I sat down together in my living room, and I laid out my proposal. I spelled out the importance of the program to the life of the church and told them all the reasons I felt they were the right couple for this ministry.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat this job,” I added. “It’s going to be tough.” And I carefully sketched in all the downsides I could think of. The church staff was already stretched too thin, so they wouldn’t get much in the way of help or additional resources. The hours would be long, and the job largely thankless. Yet the opportunity was significant.

I was beginning to think I had oversold the downside when Bill and Terri looked each other and then at me and grinned.

“In the car on the way over here,” Bill said, “we were wondering what sort of job you had in mind. And we said to ourselves, ‘If this is another one of those Mickey Mouse church jobs, we don’t want it.’ But you’ve given us something that really counts! We’ll do it.”

“Well, wait a minute!” I cautioned. “Don’t say yes so fast! Pray about it, think about, then get back to me.”

“All right,” said Tern, “we’ll pray about it—but the answer will still be yes!”

And it was. In fact, this couple invested a total of 14 years in that position, and the program was enormously successful under their leadership.

That to me is the prototype of recruiting, and it’s the type of conversation and long-term success I want to have when recruiting workers for the educational ministries of the church.

It doesn’t always end up successfully, of course. There will always be challenges in recruiting. But over the years I’ve found a number of practices that help make recruiting less of a chore and more of a ministry, and a successful one at that.

Finding a Ministry, Not Just Doing a Job

People get excited about ministry; they get scared off by jobs. So I don’t recruit to jobs; I recruit to ministries, as with Bill and Terri.

Although we are tempted to fall back on “duty” to motivate when recruiting, duty is a very poor motivator compared with the adventure of ministry. Consider this recruiting appeal: “I’m asking you to take this teaching job because we need somebody in the classroom every week.” Now compare that with this: “We’re looking for someone to lay a lasting foundation of faith in the life of young Christians.” Which would you find more persuasive?

Recruiting Is Relationships

All recruiting amounts to matching people to needs: you have a class that has certain goals and you find a person who will be able to fulfill those goals.

In order to find a good match, however, the recruiter needs to know the people in the church. It cannot be done in an institutional way. It can only be done in a relational way. We have to know what makes people tick, what gets them excited and enthused, how they enjoy spending their time, and what their passions and motivations are.

For example, let’s say I’ve noticed a young mother who’s been attending church for some time. I may be tempted to ask her to baby-sit in the nursery. But when I get to know her, I discover that she is gifted in relationship skills and has a desire to evangelize. So, instead I might ask her to design a meaningful outreach program for young mothers.

I believe in using the small-group programs in helping me recruit. If I need a certain kind of teacher for a certain class, I sometimes will call up a small-leader, describe the need, and ask if she knows anyone who can fill the bill. Small groups can be an effective avenue for uncovering and unleashing hidden potential in the church.

The Recruiting Team

I find that the most effective approach to recruiting—particularly in a large church—is a team approach. Hierarchical relationships cannot supply the broad network of relationships, the pool of ideas and imagination, or the depth of mutual support that team relationships provide. Moreover, teamwork—that is, community—is the biblical model for almost all Christian ministry.

The best recruiter for a ministry is the person who is closest to that ministry, the person who is the most excited about it. So the person who is enthusiastic about working with second graders is a better recruiter for second grade teachers than even the pastor of the church. With a team approach, individuals can be delegated to contact prospective teachers for the areas where they have the most interest and enthusiasm.

The Recruiting Conversation

A lot of people seem to prefer Sunday mornings as their recruiting time. I think this is a mistake. If I’m recruiting teachers for a two-year commitment to a class, I don’t want to catch someone on the run in the hall on Sunday morning. I want a quiet, unhurried environment.

I try to schedule recruiting conversations well in advance. For most people, teaching is not just an add-on; it’s a major rearrangement of their lives. So in April I’m already looking at my needs for September and beyond so I can give prospective teachers the time they need to plan, to pray, and to prioritize.

I try to recruit people for two-year commitments, with time off during that term so they’re not working every week for two solid years. I often tell people, “During the first year, you’re learning the job. During the second year, you should be training your successor.” Teachers sustain two year-commitments fairly well. Some last much longer, especially if we are careful to schedule breaks, breathers, and vacations.

I try to give the prospective teacher room to sense the authentic guidance of the Holy Spirit. The danger of recruiting is that we can easily become manipulative. We can become so convinced of the rightness and importance of our agenda that we try to bend the will of another person to the needs of our program.

I believe some of the most important time I spend in the recruiting conversation is not the time I spend talking, but the time I spend listening. I listen to the prospective teacher’s questions, fears, and apprehensions. I listen for signs of excitement and enthusiasm. And when there is reluctance on the part of the prospective teacher, I listen to discern the difference between reasons and excuses.

Reasons and Excuses

Dealing with excuses is one of the most delicate aspects of recruiting. For one thing, “excuses” are sometimes valid reasons. Learning to tell a reason from an excuse is part of the discernment that goes with recruiting.

If a prospective teacher says to me, “Gee, I’d really love to teach a class, but I’m president of the PTA this year, and I just can’t take on another duty right now,” my reply would be, “President of the PTA is a strategic position, and I want to support your commitment. Perhaps when your term is up, we can take another look at the possibility of teaching.” Then I would stay in touch and show a genuine interest in that person’s duties with the PTA.

If someone just doesn’t want to get involved, anything can be an excuse: “My mother comes to town every other weekend” or “Our family likes to go hiking and I just couldn’t make a commitment.” Those are excuses, pure and simple. If a person really believed the class was worthwhile, such activities would soon take second place.

The Inadequacy Excuse

One response that requires some special attention is “the inadequacy excuse,” which says, “I don’t have the gifts, experience, or knowledge to teach this class.”

When you consider it, the inadequacy excuse is actually a good place to begin. People should be intimidated by the job of teaching, whether it is teaching children, youth, or adults. It’s a profound responsibility.

No one is adequate. The apostle Paul didn’t feel adequate, Moses didn’t feel adequate, and I sure don’t feel adequate. But we can often answer the inadequacy excuse by offering help, training, prayer support, and resources to the prospective teacher.

One of the most common inadequacy excuses is “I don’t know enough to teach this subject.” In that case, I might ask, “Would you feel more confident if I helped you learn the subject?” or “How about if I give you some excellent resources?” or “Would a co-teacher help?” Then I listen carefully to the answers so that I can determine if that person just needs help and encouragement in order to say yes—or if I need to find another teacher.

Naturally, the teacher training offered will make a difference in people’s response. If they see that it will answer their concerns and be ongoing, they will more likely have the confidence to say yes to teaching.

Another factor that sometimes elicits “the inadequacy excuse” is the language used when we recruit. If I paint too grandiose a picture of the eternal significance of teaching college students, my prospective teacher is likely to respond, “I’m not a good enough Christian to have that kind of impact!” Instead of inspiring and motivating, I’ve scared that teacher away!

The language of vision and ministry should be appropriate to the level of the person we’re talking to, and appropriate to the level of the teaching task.

Don’t Take Yes for an Answer

Another principle I always follow in recruiting: Never let people respond in the initial conversation. My job is not to rope people into my program but to help them discern the will of God. The question is always, “Is God truly calling you to this ministry?” If God has not called that person, I don’t want that person to teach. So I always close with words to the effect, “Let’s pray and think about this possibility for the next few days.”

The Elijah Syndrome

Teaching is draining. After a class, many teachers fall into “the Elijah syndrome”—a sense of energy depletion, dissatisfaction, and malaise, often accompanied by spiritual attack in the form of self-doubt and doubting God. We look back on our class time and think, “Who am I kidding? They’re not getting anything out of this class. I’m a failure.”

I always try to warn new teachers about “the Elijah syndrome,” and I suggest ways to counter it. Adult education teachers, for instance, can ask for feedback from their classes. I suggest that teachers pass out a response card with a few simple questions such as, “What is one thing you learned that has helped your relationship with Christ?”

Another way to protect teachers against “the Elijah syndrome” is to make sure they have an emotional lifeline securely plugged into the recruiting team, asking about their needs, helping them with problems, offering encouragement, and help with any particularly difficult issues.

Particularly in the case of new courses or new teachers, I believe in putting a friendly person in the classroom as a support person. This way I can get an independent report on how the class is going, but more importantly, that person can support the teacher by affirming what’s going well.

Another way to keep in contact with teachers and fend off “the Elijah syndrome” is by sending teachers encouraging notes. I once had a woman on the recruiting team who said, “I can’t stand up and teach, but I can write notes to the teachers.” That became her ministry. During the middle of the term, when most teachers begin to hit a slump, she sent dozens of handwritten notes sprinkled with honest affirmation.

I also believe in rewarding teachers, buying them books or other small gifts, especially gifts that will help prepare them to teach the next class. I like to acknowledge teachers in public by bringing them before the congregation and by printing their names in the bulletin.

Watch Out for De-motivators

I have seen teachers threaten to quit over de-motivators that could have easily been solved. For example:

  • Week after week, an adult education teacher enters the room to find it set up for children. Every Sunday she has to wrestle with furniture in order to create an environment for adults.
  • A teacher complains (to no avail) that audio visual equipment doesn’t work or isn’t available, that the bulbs in the light fixtures are burnt out and never replaced, that there is never any chalk for the blackboard.
  • A teacher is discouraged because her class is tucked away in some invisible location in the church, and there are no signs to help people find the room.

I believe it’s the teacher’s job to teach, and it’s the recruiter’s job to make sure that the mechanics are taken care of. A teacher should not have to do janitorial and maintenance work in addition to the task of teaching.

Another serious de-motivator arises, particularly in adult education, when the teacher is faced with a class member who has overwhelming emotional or psychological problems. The average teacher just doesn’t know what to do in such cases, so the recruiting team must become a backup system to help the teacher deal with those with extraordinary problems.

What If You Can’t Find Anyone to Teach?

During one summer Sunday school session, we couldn’t find a teacher for the children’s program. People wanted a summer program for their children, yet most of our teachers had left town for the month of August, and we had no volunteers.So we put a notice in the church bulletin and announced that there would be no children’s classes in August.

The worship services were altered to be less formal and to better meet the interests of children. Parents took their children with them to worship, and many people thought having the children in the worship service for a few weeks was a benefit rather than a hardship.

The Ministry of Recruiting

There are two passions that motivate people to teach. One is a love for the subject. The other is a love for people. The satisfaction of the recruiting ministry comes from finding people who exhibit this twofold love and from putting their passions to good use.

The recruiter’s focus is not just on the task but on the person. We are not just running a program; we are building people. We are recruiting for the sake of the teacher as well as for the sake of the church. It’s an exciting privilege to be used by God as his instrument to call others into ministry.

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