By Chuck Peters
Many ministries are still reeling from the losses they experienced in the wake of the COVID pandemic that closed their doors and altered their operations. Churches were impacted in their finances, their ability to teach and disciple their regular attenders, and opportunities to reach and engage their communities with the gospel. One area of concern has now risen above all of these in the eyes of pastors: the ability of churches to recruit, develop, and retain volunteers.
A recent survey by Lifeway Research on the greatest needs of pastors revealed 77% of Protestant pastors say developing volunteers is an issue they need to address, coming in ahead of fostering connections with unchurched people (76%) and concerns over a growing spirit of apathy within the church (75%).
The church needs volunteers
Ministry leaders know how heavily the local church relies upon volunteers to conduct weekly ministry. Volunteers help to park cars, greet guests, pass out programs, serve coffee, teach Sunday School, and lead Bible studies—things pastors and staff, no matter how numerous, can’t possibly accomplish alone.No matter how many staff members a church has, they can never accomplish all that needs to be done without volunteers. Click To Tweet
Many volunteers who had formerly served in the church didn’t return to their volunteer position when the church resumed meeting. As a result, churches desperately need to identify and train a new batch of volunteers to serve in the church.
Yesterday’s methods won’t work
Churches have quickly learned that the old methods of recruiting are no longer effective. To find and foster new leaders, we must first change the way we recruit. Here are 5 tips to help you recruit and retain new volunteers in 2022 and for the future.
1. Stop leading with need and obligation
Old school volunteer recruitment leaned far too heavily on guilt-tripping loyal members to serve out of a sense of duty. This approach may have seemed to effectively fill holes in needed areas, but it often manipulated soft-hearted persons to acquiesce out of obligation, rather than serve out of a sense of personal calling.Guilt-tripping loyal members to serve may have filled holes in needed areas, but it often manipulated soft-hearted persons to acquiesce out of obligation, rather than serve out of a sense of personal calling. — @_chuckpeters Click To Tweet
Guilt is no longer an effective means of recruitment. Members don’t feel guilty for failed programs and don’t feel obliged to serve in areas they aren’t passionate about. The initials spell it out: recruiting from a posture of Need + Obligation = “NO.”
2. Communicate a clear and compelling “why”
Any ministry leader can rattle off the where, what, when, and how of their volunteer needs, but in my experience, few can articulate a clear and compelling why for their ministries. The current generation of prospective volunteers is motivated by ROI (return on investment).
People today are busier than ever. Every decision to say “yes” to one thing means saying “no” to something else. It’s not that people are unwilling to serve; they just want to know their service makes a measurable difference. They need assurance something meaningful will manifest because of their investment of time and energy.Volunteers who buy into the “why,” will be more deeply invested, more personally connected to the ministry area in which they serve, and more likely to stick with the ministry long-term. — @_chuckpeters Click To Tweet
In light of this reality, ministry leaders need to approach recruitment conversations armed with wise “whys.” Your “why” is a declaration of missional purpose. It conveys urgency, importance, vision, and value. For example, we might convey to a potential helper that our children’s ministry is a crucial strategic investment in raising up the next generation of Jesus-followers.
Volunteers who buy into the “why,” will be more deeply invested, more personally connected to the ministry area in which they serve, and more likely to stick with the ministry long-term. Put simply: when they buy the why, they won’t say goodbye.
3. Clarify expectations
Expectations impact everything. Unclear expectations lead to unmet expectations. Unmet expectations make people feel like they’ve failed. Many would-be volunteers have been burned in the past by having unrealistic and ever-increasing expectations placed on them.Many would-be church volunteers have been burned in the past by having unrealistic and ever-increasing expectations placed on them. — @_chuckpeters Click To Tweet
It’s the responsibility of the leader to clarify exactly what’s expected from a volunteer. Make each volunteers’ job description as specific as possible. No one is comfortable saying “yes” to something undefined. The more specificity you can provide, the more satisfying the experience will be. Satisfied volunteers become long-term leaders.
Clearly outline expectations of the role, including an estimate of hours per week, how to interact with their team leader, session preparation, arrival time, areas of service and responsibility, specific guidelines, and what needs to be done before departure. There are two things required to provide this information when you recruit: preparation and communication. We need to invest time to define the role and the details of the ask, and we need to be ready and able to tell people what they are.
4. Give them an in and an out
Don’t just ask potential volunteers to do a job that you need done. Invite them to join a team. Few people are looking for more work to do, but everyone wants to find a place to belong.
Serving as a volunteer is an incredible opportunity for people to connect with others in the church and community. This requires you to be a team-building leader, connector, and coach, but it’s absolutely worth the effort. Take steps to create an environment where leaders know each other and root for one another. Consider giving your people matching T-shirts to identify them as members of the team. Pray together as a group. Encourage one another. Celebrate victories together.Few people are looking for more work to do, but everyone wants to find a place to belong. — @_chuckpeters Click To Tweet
One important expectation to clarify when approaching a potential volunteer is the duration of commitment you’re asking for. Undefined open-ended commitments are a deterrent to many. In the past, Sunday School teachers may have served for 25 years without a break. That’s a big expectation for a new volunteer to live up to. It is far easier to get a “yes” from new people if you initially ask them to serve for a short-term period. This may be for six months or for a semester.
In many cases, simply knowing they aren’t signing up to serve for a lifetime or setting themselves up for an awkward “I quit” conversation with you, will make it easier for people to give you their “yes.” At the end of their agreed upon season of service, you can ask if they’d like to renew for another round. If they’ve had a good experience, that short-term initiation may net you a long-term ministry partner.
5. Make it personal
The practice of enlisting volunteers by making an announcement to the entire congregation from the platform or through an insert in the bulletin is essentially ineffective. When asks are made to the masses, most everyone assumes someone else will respond.
The best way to communicate your compelling “why,” unpack expectations, and extend an invitation to join your service team is in person. For best results, schedule a time to meet over coffee or lunch and present the person you approach with an opportunity to be a part of a team with a compelling “why” that you are personally passionate about. As a leader, whatever you have is contagious. Make sure you exude enthusiasm for your ministry. When you do, others will catch it from you.Seek to create a culture of service in your church where people are looking for places to plug in and where opportunities abound. — @_chuckpeters Click To Tweet
Avoid the urge to make volunteer recruitment and development a once-a-year push like a Christian radio station’s pledge drive. Instead, seek to create a culture of service in your church where people are looking for places to plug in and where opportunities abound.
Recruiting and training up volunteers may require you to change your strategy and learn to have a different kind of conversation, but doing the hard foundational work pays off. When you can offer someone an opportunity to serve based on Your unique giftedness, an Exciting opportunity, and a Satisfying and fulfilling experience, you will get a YES.
Chuck is the director of Lifeway Kids and co-author of Flip the Script: Disrupting Tradition for the Sake of the Next Generation. Before his role at Lifeway, Chuck had a prolific career in television and video production. He is a three-time Emmy Award-winning producer, director, writer, and on-screen talent. A graduate of Columbia Bible College, Chuck, and his wife, Cris, have served in student and children’s ministry for many years.