Does Jesus care about how we treat our volunteers? You bet.

Some of the harshest words of Christ recorded in Scriptures were reserved for the Pharisees and their leadership-development program. The Pharisees were one of the premier religious institutions of Jesus’ day, and they had an elaborate training system in place for the next generation of leaders. Jesus commented on their leadership-development program in Matthew 23. By paying attention to Jesus’ evaluation, we can avoid making the same mistakes.

  • Don’t place demands on your volunteers that you’re unwilling to bear yourself (Matthew 23:1-4).

Jesus criticized the Pharisees for placing demands on their followers that they didn’t intend to keep themselves. In Matthew 23:4 Jesus compares the Pharisees with some of the biggest villains in their national history—the Egyptian slave masters. Their disciples are enslaved by the demands of their laws, while the Pharisees stand idly holding their clipboards, measuring performance.

How do we lead? If we’re going to ask our volunteers to build friendly relationships with children during the week, we need to first model the behavior ourselves. If we’re going to ask our teachers to be early and prepared on Sunday morning, we need to arrive earlier and with our ducks in a row.

  • Don’t use your leadership position as a means to feed your ego (Matthew 23:5-12).

Jesus mocked the Pharisees for their gaudy “teaching accessories” and their insatiable need to build a crowd before they did a good deed.  “Jesus knew that nothing undermines God-honoring leadership more than ego-driven bids for attention or self-validation.”  God-honoring leadership more than ego-driven bids for attention or self-validation. Read verses 23-28 and take a good look at the insane, compulsive enterprises the Pharisees embarked on just to keep up religious appearances. Jesus turned the Pharisees’ approach on its head in verse 11: “But the greatest among you shall be your servant.”

Here’s a job title for the future of children’s ministry: The Servant Teacher. You and I need to be able to teach leaders—free from our own ego needs. Instead of being driven by a need to impress or to have the private pride that comes from a children’s ministry martyr complex, we need to commit to our ministries for the right reason—transformed lives. Look at 1 Timothy 1:5. Paul instructs Timothy to teach for three outcomes. Self-promotion isn’t one of them. So serve those you teach.

You serve when you coach your teams through their felt needs, even if it means abandoning your agenda. You serve when you’re ready to turn off your PowerPoint presentation, listen to the frustrations of your people, and help them. You serve when you care about their personal lives and not just how they can help you be a successful director.

  • Don’t distract your volunteers from the “One Thing” (Matthew 23:13, 15-24).

Here’s the central judgment Jesus leveled at the Pharisees: Their coaching style actually blocked their followers from developing a friendship with God. Look at the finer points of the Pharisee’s syllabus: “Tithing your spice rack,” and “Face-saving ways to break an oath.” Compare that with Jesus’ course work in Matthew 5-7. The Pharisees were so busy transmitting their to-do lists and dysfunction that they had no time to prepare their students for kingdom living. Lead your volunteers to what matters: friendship with Jesus.

  • Don’t generate appearance-obsessed volunteers (Matthew 23:25-28).

The Pharisees contented themselves with developing outwardly conforming students. Since the unspoken goal of the Pharisees was social power, their coaching objectives centered on making Pharisees look good as an organization. However, in the Good Teacher’s eyes they were a gift-wrapped mass grave. Ribbon and bows notwithstanding, no signs of relationship between the Pharisees and God existed.  Don’t let your volunteers ever forget that excellence is a form of worship, not a substitute for worship.

  • Don’t offer your volunteers the wrong yardstick (Matthew 23:29-36).

The Pharisees got lost in their own teaching system to the point that they actually believed they had spiritually arrived. Why? Because they’d built yardsticks that were exactly their own height. The Pharisees compared themselves against generations gone by, and decided that they’d never make the same mistakes their ancestors made. Since they viewed themselves as a finished product, the Pharisees were full of pride and spiritual complacency.

In contrast to the know-it-all attitude of the Pharisees, Jesus exalted a different kind of ideal: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Congratulations to the leader who understands that both leaders and volunteers are incapable of living out God’s kingdom-rule without God’s help.

My friend, if you and I avoid the leadership pitfalls that Jesus condemned, we’ll begin to lead our volunteers in the right direction.