Nuts & Bolts: How to Lead Construction Even When It’s Not Something You Do Every Day

Every ASP Group Leader has some level of nervousness or anxiety about leading construction projects. If you’re a seasoned contractor, you may not be used to working with youth or doing repair work in Appalachia. If you never do construction, you might be a little more anxious. That’s okay! In this Nuts & Bolts article, Allen Keller breaks that anxiety down and provides tangible ways for you to take on leading a construction project, even if it’s not something you do every day.

There are at least two dimensions to volunteer construction anxiety:

  1. Encouraging others on your team to manage their personal construction anxieties.
  2. Providing effective leadership on a team despite your own anxiety about a project.
  3. Remembering to Celebratewait, two dimensions, what’s this?  Maybe the most important dimension!

1. Encouraging Others

Encouraging others is a good basis for how you manage your own anxieties, so we’ll attack that one first.

It doesn’t take a psychologist to know that fear is part of life and always has been. Whenever we are in a position of anticipating something that we haven’t done before, it is normal and appropriate to experience fear at some level.  I know it’s not really this simple, but when we face fear, we are faced with the choice of running from fear, or embracing fear.

Running or Embracing

When I see a coal truck coming around the corner as I walk across the highway to rescue a turtle, running back to safety is the right choice!

If I’m a teenager asked to join an ASP trip at the last minute, I may be very embarrassed around my new friends because I completely misunderstood what “toenailing” was.  I’ve never even used a hammer before, let alone “toenailing”.  It might be appropriate for an adult to sense my peer anxiety, teach me by example with commentary, and encourage me to accept the challenge and try my best.  At ASP, we often “do the best ya can with what ya got”.  Sometimes that means using a scrap 2×6 instead of the extra 2×4 we left back at the center.  And sometimes that means I’m just doing the best I can at what I’m doing even though I’ve never done it before.

Know Your Team

As a Group Leader, it really helps to get to know your team beforehand.  If you ask young people if they have any fears you can pray for leading up to the trip, they might actually tell you!  If so, you can be part of the answer to that prayer by helping them through that first time they crawl under the house, or whatever their fear is.  I try to let the entire team know well ahead of time that no one is going to make anyone do anything they aren’t comfortable with.  But you can expect that as the week goes on, you might get some understanding encouragement to try some new things that challenge you, little by little.

Practice

Another thing a GL should do far ahead of time is to get all your trip participants together and give everyone a chance to measure, saw, hammer, climb some ladders, push a wheelbarrow, whatever!  I like to divide up with the construction gurus leading each of those events at stations, and have groups switch stations every 15 minutes.  Make it fun and wrap up the afternoon with teams competing on an obstacle course of “ASP Olympics”, including making mini PB & J sandwiches as the first “obstacle.”  Blast the Olympic Theme, Rocky, We Are the Champions, etc. while they run the Olympics.  Get in touch with me if you want more details of a typical ASP Olympics course. Also be on the lookout for more information coming through the Nuts & Bolts blog!

Show Grace

Make sure your team understands God’s grace, and our grace towards each other and ourselves too.  You will make mistakes.  I’m pretty sure that even Jesus drove a few crooked nails when he was a young carpenter.  It’s okay!  God forgives you.  Your leader forgives you.  The challenge is this: we are often our own worst critics.  Can you forgive yourself?  We all should learn to accept that we will make mistakes, and it’s okay.  Without our mistakes, it would be hard to grow and learn.  When I was learning to ski, I used to say that if I wasn’t falling enough, I wasn’t trying hard enough.

ASP-Volunteer-Collage

2. Providing Effective Leadership

…even if you don’t quite know what you’re doing.

No doubt about it;  it can be scary being a Group Leader, especially when you are unsure of what you are doing.  But somehow, God put you in this position for a purpose.  God doesn’t expect you not to make mistakes.  Just to do your best.

The Right Jobs for the Right Teams

Earlier I mentioned that you might express to your team members that no one is going to make anyone do anything they aren’t comfortable with.  Go up one level.  The same goes for ASP staff assigning tasks to teams.  But ASP needs you to help with that process.  It never makes sense to mismatch jobs and skill levels.  There is a “Construction Information Form” that is important to get in before your trip.  That form gives ASP staff a fair idea what your team(s) are ready for and how to match up jobs to team skill levels.  You’ll also talk to staff on the phone the Wednesday before your trip.  A contractor with ASP experience and sensitivity skills might make the most unskilled bunch work like a skilled team.

In my experience, job assignments aren’t set in stone until the day you arrive at your center.  So when teams are matched to projects, keep in mind the abilities of your team(s).  This can happen fast, because teams are anxious to lock into jobs they want to do, so pay attention during those critical moments of that first leader meeting.  Ideally, teams should be challenged, but not paralyzed with fear!  Voice your objections or excitement on the spot before things get very far.  Comments like, “I have a team who would love to do a roof!”, or “I have an unskilled team that would be quite satisfied to build a retaining wall, dig some footers, or do some painting, but they’re not ready to re-pitch a roof!”  Use those critical moments, before the jobs are fixed in concrete for the week.  If you need to swap jobs between teams in your own group, or other teams at the center, let your staff know right away as those jobs are getting handed out.

Resources for Leadership: Read and See

ASP Construction Manual.

You don’t need to read it cover to cover.  I always flip through the most recent one before I go on an ASP trip.  Even if I just flip through, I’ll have an idea what’s in there, and where to find it if I need to recall something like what angle to make a wheelchair ramp.  It’s a handy book, and even if you are a construction genius, ASP would prefer if you follow their book.  If for whatever reason you ever think you need to deviate from the construction manual, please check-in with the staff first. A hard copy of the manual will be available to you at the center.

Your Family File.

Be aware there is a process to follow with staff in order to plan your week, the next day, and making certain you will have everything you need the next day in terms of materials and tools.  We’ve covered some of the tough mental attitude stuff.  You’ll get process details another time!

ASP Construction Videos.

ASP’s YouTube Channel has several short construction videos.  Like the manual, don’t memorize them, but have a look at a few of the jobs you might feel a bit uneasy about.  Watching someone else is a powerful way to learn.  When you begin to understand what might be asked of you on any job, it can change a paralyzing fear into a reasonable challenge.  A reasonable challenge is your sweet spot.  A little iffy, but so fulfilling when you are done!

Resources for Leadership: People

ASP staff at your center are the most important resource you have.  They have spent 2 weeks in intense training on tasks related to the typical ASP jobs that you might be doing.  If they don’t know how to handle something, there is an Construction Consultant who they can contact, and sometimes even come to your specific site to provide advice on that strange existing roof that isn’t made out of logs, it’s made out of random-spaced crooked old tree branch “rafters.”

ASP center staff, construction consultants, program managers, and leaders of other experienced groups at the center will all want to help you as much as you need them to.  During your week at ASP, every one of those people is busy.  But they expect you to need help.  They also need your help in having that conversation.

Be Patient

Every Group Leader should talk to the staff person they are assigned to every day.  It’s required that you check-in with them daily in the evening.  They or another member of the staff will be at your worksite at some point during the day as well, so you’ll have a chance to point out things in person, instead of drawing pictures or trying to describe how the existing roof has 5 different pitches.

Be Prepared for Conversations

Draw pictures.  With your family’s approval, take pictures to show staff that evening.  See if there is something in the ASP Construction manual that applies, or comes close.  Do you have an idea how to solve the problem?  Mention it.  You probably know much more than you think you know, and your sense of the issue is often key.

Tell People How They Can Help You

When you are having that construction conversation, explain what you know about the issue, what you don’t know, and how staff can best help you.  For example, “I’ve built walls before, but someone gave us all the materials.  I’m not sure what the manual means when it says 16d nails.  And I need to know how to do the stud spacing when it’s interrupted by a door frame.  And, exactly what does “RO” mean as the dimension in this picture?”

Be Flexible. Be Kind.

Things don’t often happen the way we’d like.  You might not have a chance to prepare for your staff conversation.  It was all you could do today after listening to the homeowner talk about the electric company coming to disconnect tomorrow, keeping the group from engaging in a paint fight, finding your way back to the center on Monday, and you just sat down to dinner when your staff person sat next to you to check in.  You had hoped to do some research in the manual, but no way, it couldn’t happen.  Talk to staff.  Let them know if you had a challenging day.  Maybe you can get together with them after Evening Gathering (EG), or invite them to go with you for ice cream after EG, and talk to them there.

youth-and-adult-volunteers-holding-tape-measure

3. Remembering to Celebrate

The third dimension of the two dimensions of Construction Anxiety. 

I celebrate that you have taken up the cross to be an ASP Group Leader.  There is a lot of responsibility that goes with it, but God didn’t put you in this position to leave you alone.  God is with you.

God is all about Creation.  And God loves it when WE Create, TOGETHER, with GOD.

No matter who you are on the team, celebrate your ASP day!  With God’s help, you did it!  In that moment of anxiety during the day.  In that meeting with the staffer after EG.  As you lay down and finally get to close your eyes after all the kids stop playing with their flashlights (because they would never have their phones out after 11pm!).  You did it.  You, the Group Leader, Trip Leader, Team lunch break announcer, Team Mom, Team Storyteller, Team Safety Officer, Team Construction Lead, Team Sandwich Maker, Team Measure and Cut Person, Team Staple Operator, Team Family Chaplain… Whoever you are on the team, you have a role, and you did it.  You were a human at ASP and got through some challenges today.  Thank God for the amazing day that is behind you!  Thank God for the sense of fulfillment you have in meeting those challenges, mistakes or no mistakes. You, God, and your team, created this day together.  You used your anxiety to drive you toward your best and God saw that it was good!  God smiled.  And peace overcame the chaos.


Rev. Allen Keller is a longtime ASP Group Leader, Ambassador, and Helping Hand.  He is a United Methodist Deacon serving in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.  As an ordained deacon, he is appointed to serve both as a Chaplain at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children and as an ASP Ambassador.

 

 

 

 

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