Recruiting volunteers can be a challenging task in ministry. Four Lifeway ministry leaders have some advice and insights to share.
By Marissa Postell
The Greatest Needs of Pastors study from Lifeway Research revealed 77% of pastors say developing leaders and volunteers is an issue they need to address in their churches. More pastors said that was an issue they needed to address than any of the 44 challenges considered in the study. And another 68% of pastors said training current leaders and volunteers is also a challenge they face in ministry.
We asked four Lifeway ministry leaders what they’re seeing in ministries today and advice for recruiting volunteers. Here’s a look at the conversation:
Have you seen COVID affect churches and their volunteer bases? And if so, how have you seen that play out?
Ken Braddy (strategic partnerships director): COVID exposed the fact that most churches don’t have a good plan for reproducing group leaders through intentional apprenticeships. An apprentice leader is regularly in front of the group, leading and teaching. That person is purposefully being prepared to either take over that group or launch a new one. Apprentice leaders are the future of our groups and group ministries.
Chuck Peters (director of Lifeway Kids): We’ve absolutely seen an impact in the kids’ space. COVID became a break where people stopped doing what they were doing. And getting them restarted has been difficult. We need to recruit a whole new generation of leaders. The current generation doesn’t respond out of a sense of need and obligation. It’s looking for a sense of meaning and purpose.
Zac Workun (student ministry specialist): The answer is yes, 100%. The habit of volunteering was taken away. So, there’s some real relational investment that needs to be made. Folks who are doing better in this phase are relationally minded enough to not just make the ask but to nurture the volunteers they have.
Kelly King (manager of women’s ministry training): The great resignation was in jobs, but that’s also in your volunteers. So getting them back in and getting back in the habit is going to take a while. And you’ve got the great migration. People are moving all over the place. If you look around, at a lot of churches, there are a lot of new people. It takes time to cultivate those relationships and integrate them into the life of the church. So, another year from now, we’re going to be in a better place.The current generation of ministry volunteers doesn't respond out of a sense of need and obligation. It's looking for a sense of meaning and purpose. — @_chuckpeters Click To Tweet
Peters: Everybody’s looking for a place to belong and a place to feel needed and valued. People are looking for a return on their investment. We need to make sure we’re giving enough value to their calling—to identify the calling and to show that this isn’t just a need we have. It’s an opportunity for them to use their giftedness in a unique and valuable way—whether that’s with kids, students, women, men, or adults.
Workun: People have gotten really savvy with their time. And they’re not going to just toss it away on a Wednesday or Sunday. Either people got savvy with their time, or people feel way less guilty.
Peters: I think people feel tired. There’s something to the COVID fatigue, the Zoom fatigue. So, I wonder if we’re competing against, not just the sake of the calling but against everything in life that demands our energy
King: And something ministry leaders haven’t done a good job of when they’ve recruited people is they haven’t said, “Can you do this for this amount of time?”
Workun: Nobody will volunteer indefinitely.
King: Yes, but we almost assume that. As ministry leaders, we’ve got to understand our people have other lives.
Peters: We need to not only get volunteers in—that serves us—but we need to let them know how long this ask is. A lot of times we ask people to volunteer and sign the blank check to do whatever we need. But people need to know when there will at least be an opportunity for them to take a break or a breather or to re-up if that’s what they feel called to.
What opportunities do you see for ministry leaders in recruiting volunteers and leaders moving into this fall?
Workun: When you recruit, you need to have the whole pitch ready. And if you don’t have it ready, you’re not ready to recruit. We need to be as specific as possible for not just the ask but the task. Leaders need to craft those specific tasks and asks they’re making in a way that’s very presentable. Make it clearer than it’s been before.
King: We, as ministry leaders, sometimes think of summer as our recruiting time for the fall. But recruiting is constant. You don’t stop. If ministry leaders understood that 80% of their time needs to be spent investing in their leaders, it would make their ministries go so much smoother. When leaders take it upon themselves to equip their leaders, it’s a win.If ministry leaders understood that 80% of their time needs to be spent investing in their leaders, it would make their ministries go so much smoother. — @kellydking Click To Tweet
Peters: Recruiting is not a seasonal, temporary drive. It must be something we’re driven by all year—we’re constantly looking for people. Recruiting should also be us seeking out people we deem to be qualified candidates, not just making a casting call. We need to know people by reputation. We need to know them by their maturity. We need to be seeking out people who we believe would be great adds to the team.
That said, if you miss the opportunity of summer, you’re missing a really big opportunity. Summer affords us the chance to do a test drive with new volunteers. A break from regular programming is a great opportunity to give regular, year-round leaders a break. We can recruit leaders to lead for four weeks, and this allows us to give people a chance to have a good experience serving in our ministries at a low-commitment level. That’s a great way to start to identify people who shine in those moments. But also, it helps us avoid putting ourselves in positions where we’ve recruited a person and put them in a long-term role and then realize they’re just not great with kids, aren’t good with students, or aren’t good at facilitating a group.
Braddy: One opportunity we should capitalize on is to recruit people to a vision, not to a job description. Yes, a job description is important and should be shown to a potential new leader, but don’t stop there. As you describe the role of a volunteer group leader, talk about the importance of that role in making disciples, and how that person can affect individual people’s futures. Focus on the vision for what this role can do, and how God can use that individual to impact future generations.
How do we give potential volunteers everything they need to know without overwhelming them?
Workun: You’ve got to lead with the impact and follow up with the training. If you ask them to be front row for life change or to be invested in six to multiply to 60, that’s a very different ask than “be a small group leader on Sundays.” It’s ask before task, not task before ask.
King: It goes back to mission. I was going to add too, that sometimes we ask people and plug them into places, but then we never celebrate them or show gratitude for what they do. It’s important to celebrate the people who serve.Recruit people to a vision, not to a job description. — @kenbraddy Click To Tweet
Peters: I would never suggest we under-sell what we’re asking. We need to be realistic in what we ask of people. We need to make sure we, as leaders, are faithful to set boundaries for them. Everyone who steps in as a volunteer is going to put up some emotional barriers up to say: “I don’t know if I trust you. You might take advantage of my time or ask a lot.” So as leaders, we need to set guidelines that help us set people up for success and satisfaction. They need to feel that they’re good at what they’re doing—that it makes a difference. They need to feel appreciated. And they need to feel a part of the team.
King: I learned this the hard way in my first staff position, recruiting student leaders for our student ministry. And my student pastor was like, “Hey, Kelly, I don’t know if you realize this, but every time you go to talk to someone, you have an agenda. You’ve got a task for them. Just love on the people. Just be relational.”
What are some ways churches can minister to volunteers?
Workun: Volunteers are probably trading off some valuable life group time. If you really want to take to heart that you have a volunteer team, you need to be planning as much stuff for them as you are the ministry area you’re serving. If you have great student activities and there’s nothing on the calendar for the volunteer team, then you really haven’t thought about them as a team, celebrated them as a team, pastored them as a team. If your team members feel like they are nurtured, ministered, pastored by you, they’ll do the work.
Braddy: Create a sense of family among your leaders. Minister to them by creating occasions where they collide relationally. That sense of family and a team spirit it creates can keep a volunteer team together for a long time, reducing the need to constantly recruit new leaders. Also, encourage adult groups to stay connected to people who have left their group to go and serve elsewhere.If your volunteer team members feel like they are nurtured, ministered, pastored by you, they'll do the work. — @zacworkun Click To Tweet
King: Most churches back in the day would have a teacher’s meeting on Sunday evening before Sunday evening services. So, you had built-in time to develop those relationships and to equip people. And that’s not going to come back. But we do have to be more intentional to build in those times where your volunteers get to know each other.
Peters: We need to be leaders who create a culture people want to belong to. We can run a program, or we can run something that feels like a different type of small group. When the people I lead with know my name, my needs, and my story and I know theirs, we care for each other, pray for each other, labor together, and have common goals and vision. Those are the kinds of things that really cement people together. Those are the things that make them stick with a ministry role long-term, not for a season.
As a leader, whatever you have is contagious. So, if you’re grumpy, dissatisfied, hard to please, or out of sorts, that’s contagious. Likewise, when you lead with enthusiasm, that’s what people will catch. And when enthusiasm becomes contagious in a ministry, that will draw other people to want to join it and belong to it and stay with it.
What kind of person should we be looking for in our churches to serve as leaders? Why does the who matter?
King: Faithful, available, and teachable. I’ve recruited people before, and I didn’t know how it was going to go. But they were interested and teachable and had a desire to make a difference in people’s lives. If they’re going to show up and say, “I want to learn,” they can be some of your best people. Don’t count anybody out who’s willing.
Workun: A lot of ministries want to hire people who are cooler than them. And that may not be your best volunteers. Ask for the best and the most consistent. Those may not be the same person. I love pairing a “best leader” with a “consistent leader.” The categories of best, consistent, and people who are not like the youth pastor or kids minister are important categories.
Braddy: Shepherds! It’s been said groups in the future will be attracted to connection and community as much or more than content. Shepherd teachers may not be the very best teachers in the church, but they tend to have very stable (and sometimes larger groups) because everyone knows the leader truly cares about them and knows them on a personal level.
Peters: In Exodus 18:19-22, Moses’s father-in-law Jethro tells Moses to select leaders from among the people. I love to point us back to the word “selective.” We need to choose people, not just take whoever’s available. Now, in smaller churches, this can be hard. The bench is not deep in a lot of places. But still, we can’t compromise when it comes to the qualifications and qualities we look for. Jethro tells Moses to select qualified, capable, teachable, trustworthy, committed people. Moses was to select people who have those qualities and then teach them the law and how to be good leaders. As leaders, we must delegate so we can elevate. We need to be investing in others to be multipliers of leadership.As leaders, we must delegate so we can elevate. We need to be investing in others to be multipliers of leadership. — @_chuckpeters Click To Tweet
King: One of the things I love in that passage is that we need more leaders of 10 than we need leaders of 1000. And sometimes we forget the importance of the leader of 10.
Peters: Big things happen in small groups. Bigger groups don’t mean better ministry. God does really big things in one-on-one relationships. Discipleship is always in the context of relationships. The best leaders are the ones who are relational first, who are caring, present, and consistent. Kids, students, and group members of all ages need a leader they can grow to trust and respect over time. When we add trust and respect, we gain influence.
What advice do you give ministry leaders about how to find these kinds of people in their churches?
Workun: This is where nurturing matters. Your best leaders will know the other best folks. You don’t have to know everybody. They’ll know who to ask, but you’ve got to keep nurturing them to make them a part of the team. Andrew brings Peter, but Peter is now in with Jesus and James and John. Andrew fades back and now Peter is very much in the mix. But Andrew brought him.Instead of telling His disciples to work double shifts, Jesus told them to pray God would call out the workers. — @kenbraddy Click To Tweet
Braddy: Pray. Jesus used a field ready for harvest to explain that the workers were few. Instead of telling His disciples to work double shifts, He told them to pray God would call out the workers. The word translated “pray” here means to beg because of a lack or a need. That’s a compelling picture of the posture we should have when it comes to finding workers.
Is there anything you want to touch on with recruiting volunteers that we haven’t gotten to talk about yet?
Workun: A lot of pastors are building up resentment against the perceived lack of commitment from their volunteers. But if we don’t nurture the ones we have, we won’t earn the right to the ones we do not. There’s got to be as much of a nurture plan for our volunteers as there is a training plan.
In this next season, we’re going to have to win in quality—both in the care of our leaders and the intention of our programming. The nurturing is slow. And it will slow down how much other programming you can do.
Peters: I have a list I call “A Dozen Do Nots for Recruiting.” The first step to good recruiting is to stop doing the worst things. So don’t beg. Don’t bribe. Don’t pressure. Don’t manipulate. We need to be careful not to hint. Don’t guilt trip. We also need to not assume. It’s always bad when we assume someone either is in or isn’t in. Don’t compromise. That’s where we need to not lower our standards in order to fill roles. Don’t take it personally if someone is not able to do it. Don’t be passive. That goes back to don’t hint. Don’t put it off. That’s the procrastination aspect of recruitment. And then the last one is: don’t ever stop. So, there are a few of the worst things I would encourage people not to do.
Instead, we need to be leading people out of purpose. When we win them with the why, we won’t say goodbye. They need to know not only what the need is but why this is so crucial and important. And if they buy into the “why” for our ministry, we’ll keep them for a long time.
Marissa Postell Sullivan
Marissa is the managing editor for LifewayResearch.com.