One of the more common challenges I encounter in churches is a shortfall of volunteerism – a lack of volunteers across different church areas. This shortage of leaders can force churches to shut down ministries; to overload those who are currently volunteering; or if budget allows, hire staff to lead things, which simply leads to a bottleneck later down the line.
Despite leadership frustrations, disengaged volunteers aren’t necessarily lazy or apathetic about the church’s vision. They might be, but possibly not – there are many other reasons that can contribute to lower church volunteerism.
People ask three questions when it comes to volunteering and leaders need to answer them all:
“Why should I volunteer?”
“What am I being asked to do?
“How does it fit in to my current stage of life?”
Fortunately, there are some good leadership practices we can take to help us answer these key questions, whilst also developing our church volunteers in both quantity and engagement, and most importantly, giving them opportunities to grow.
Think about your volunteer roles and how you frame them. How do they advance or serve the mission and vision of the church? When speaking to people, present the serving needs as opportunities to help advance the church vision. This communicates importance and meaning to the role, as you need to show why the role is needed for the forward momentum of the church. If you are unable to connect a serving role to the vision, it’s probably redundant!
This is also true for roles that are ‘behind the scenes’. Some people don’t want to be ‘people-facing’. That’s OK and doesn’t mean their roles or opportunities should be any less rewarding or important. They should still be essential for the vision of the church.
Connect volunteer needs to the church vision – there is no ‘front stage’ without a ‘backstage’.
Sometimes, we just need to ask people! I’m serious here – we can sometimes assume that people are busy (they are) and have many things going on in their lives (they do). Yet, rather than making peoples decisions for them, why don’t we empower them by asking and letting them decide? Sure, they may say ‘no’ – but they may say ‘yes’. More likely, they’ll ask ‘tell me more’ and you can have a conversation with them which will also show you any concerns or barriers to them signing up to volunteer. Sometimes, people want to volunteer but have something causing them to hold back. What if you could help them work around that issue? If you don’t ask, you don’t get!
Whether you are asking someone to help with a general area or a one-off event, or you have strategically asked a specific person about a specific need, think about how you could ask them. You can focus on the need (“we need someone to do this”), or their skillset (“you have the ability to do this”) but whatever you do, as I said earlier, connect the role to the vision. So ask – some people are simply looking to be invited to volunteer.
Give people time to think over your request and respond. They shouldn’t have to answer right there and then. You might need to have follow-up conversations. Let them ask questions. Perhaps they can’t do everything you are asking, but are willing to do some of it. It’s also OK for people to volunteer for short-term projects. It can seem daunting to make what can seem like a lifetime commitment to volunteer in a certain area, but it’s a different proposition if it’s a short-term role for a few weeks or months.
You never know; people might find that it’s not as demanding as they thought and be happy to stay in the role!
It’s been said that “volunteers don’t necessarily have the time, they just have the heart.” So it’s important you tap into that heart and help people know what it is you are asking them to do. Wise people will want to know what commitment is required of them before they will make a decision. Vague information will only ever elicit a vague response. Be clear:
- What are you asking them to do?
- How long are they needed for?
- Where and when do they go?
It will help people feel secure and knowledgeable about what it is they need to do. Clarity empowers a decision-making process.
Leadership culture reflects and affects your church. If it’s healthy, great! But if it’s not… the ramifications will permeate the whole church. For example, healthy church volunteerism won’t develop if there is a sense of obligation – “you must serve somewhere”. We might not word it like that, but if people are made to feel guilty for not serving, then they will disengage. That might not look like declining the opportunity. Even if they accept the role, in their hearts they’ll still disconnect and disengage. In a driven environment, volunteers are viewed as cogs, rather than people. If people feel used or like they are just unpaid labour, the feeling will create a culture that will impact the success of your church volunteerism.
Often times, there are people who want to serve but don’t know what the options are. Conversely, the same people – the long-standing, gifted or mature individuals – may get approached by different leaders to help out but they are already committed elsewhere.
Make it easy for people to find out what serving needs and opportunities for volunteers are available. One thing that can help promote serving needs and therefore recruit volunteer is having a serving station. Have a visible place where interested people can speak to an informed and clued up person, ask questions, and get clear next steps. Have a follow-up process for those who do come by. Don’t use unmanned sign-up sheets which convey little, if any, information, let alone vision! Don’t leave it to people to ‘talk to Jane or John’ because they might not know who they are or where to find them! You’ll lose willing but uninformed people.
You can also use other communication methods to share church volunteerism needs. Perhaps consider:
- Social media posts
- Testimonies about the work an area is doing
- Interviews with area leaders or workers
- Video presentations showing what happens in a ministry
- Use your church website – have an ‘available opportunities’ page
These will help people know for sure what an area does, instead of thinking they know and making a decision from that erroneous information.
For some people, working and volunteering in a church area will give them opportunities to connect and build community with others. We all need friends, and whilst some of us find it easier to find them than others, it’s a fact that working side by side with the same team of people consistently will establish and develop relationships. That is much more appealing to many people than working on their own in some forgotten about or solo role where there isn’t any interaction or face to face contact. So help people connect with others. Sometimes we don’t mind what we do because we are more interested in who we do it with.
We all want to enjoy who we work alongside. Think about how true this must be if you aren’t being paid!
Get small group leaders onside and ask them to share with their groups any needs or opportunities. This, of course, means that they themselves need to be made aware of ongoing or new volunteer opportunities. They’ll be aware of the capacity and commitments of people in their group, and will know how best to connect them with the right ministry gift-fits or passions.
Simply put, many times serving opportunities are boring. This can be especially true in staff-centric churches where all leadership is really held in the hands of the employees. It is ironic that someone who runs their own business, or has a degree, or has managerial or director level authority at work, could be limited to basic administrative or practical jobs that are called ‘serving’. Be honest with yourself – would you volunteer for some of the opportunities you are wanting to be filled?
If you want high-level volunteers, they need high-level roles. If you have a culture where those roles are only available to employees, you’ll eventually begin losing high-capacity people. Help volunteers understand how serving fits in with their own spiritual development. If it won’t, don’t be surprised if it becomes harder to fill.
So ensure you are creating a healthy culture of church volunteerism by providing opportunities that challenge and inspire your volunteers. There is a difference between asking someone to serve coffee at the end of a meeting, and asking them to develop the whole Sunday morning hospitality ministry.
Let smart volunteers tackle challenges, solve problems and work out solutions. You’ll see engaged and excited leaders grow, I guarantee it.
Gratitude is huge. Sometimes leaders have a ‘hire and forget’ policy. They get a church volunteer serving in an area, and because they are so busy, they move onto the next issue to be solved. But they never check back in to see how things are going, or more importantly, say thank you periodically as people faithfully serve as volunteers in the church.
A simple way of showing gratitude is using ARE… appreciation, recognition, and encouragement. Continually show your church volunteers these and it will make all the difference.
Saying thank you will fuel the faithfulness of people.
If someone is doing a job or filling a role and have done it for any length of time, they will have ideas and thoughts on how to improve it. Ways to save money, time or improve efficiency, for example. A wise leader takes the time to regularly check-in and asks volunteers questions like ‘what would you do differently?’ This communicates so much and will feed empowerment in your volunteers – they will have an increased sense of ownership and input into their role if they are able to shape and influence it.
Low standards frustrate people. If you are asking someone to perform a role and they are unable to, or ill-equipped to, because they don’t have the training, information or resources, you’ll lower the morale of your volunteers. Everyone has different thresholds of tolerance but if these roadblocks aren’t addressed soon enough, you’ll begin to see your team performance, then numbers, decline.
Equip, develop and coach. Repeat.
Church volunteerism is a culture that requires creating and tending. These ‘best practices’ will go a long way to help you recruit teams of great volunteers who are motivated to make a difference in their area, and therefore the church overall.
If you want to see how I help churches like yours address other leadership challenges, you can go here.