Many ministries are still reeling from the losses that they experienced in the wake of the COVID pandemic that closed their doors in 2020 and 2021. Churches were impacted financially, in their ability to teach and disciple their regular attenders, and in opportunities to reach and engage their communities with the gospel. Despite these real and troubling setbacks, one unexpected 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 revealed that 77% of protestant pastors surveyed indicated that development of volunteers is now their #1 need; coming in ahead of fostering connections with unchurched people, and concerns over a growing spirit of apathy within the church (coming in at #2 and #3 respectively).
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 that pastors and staff, no matter how numerous, cannot possibly accomplish alone.
Many of the volunteers who had formerly led Sunday School classes and Bible Study groups did not return to teaching when the church resumed meeting. As a result, the church desperately needs identify and train up a new batch of volunteers to lead Sunday School and small group Bible studies.
Yesterday’s Methods Won’t Work
Churches have quickly learned that the old methods of recruiting are no longer effective. In order to find and foster new leaders, we need to first change the way we recruit. Here are 5 tips to help you recruit and retain new volunteers in 2022 and for the future.
- 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 this often merely manipulated soft-hearted persons to acquiesce out of obligation, rather than to serve out of a sense of personal calling.
Guilt is no longer an effective means of recruitment. Members do not feel guilty for failed programs, and do not feel obliged to serve in ways that they do not feel passionate about. The initials spell it out: recruiting from a posture of Need + Obligation = “NO.”
- Communicate a Clear and Compelling ‘Why’ – Any ministry leader can readily rattle off the where, what, when, and how of their volunteer needs, but in my experience very few can articulate a clear and compelling why for their ministries. The current generation of volunteer prospects is motivated by ROI. People today are busier than ever (you are too). Every decision to say ‘yes’ to one thing means saying ‘no’ to something else. It’s not that people aren’t willing to serve, they just want to know that their service makes a measurable difference. They need assurance that something meaningful will manifest as a result of their investment of time and energy. In light of this reality, ministry leaders need to approach recruitment conversations armed with wise ‘whys.’ There are many reasons to develop your why statement . Your why is a declaration of missional purpose. It conveys urgency, importance, vision, and value.
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. We aren’t just babysitting kids while their caregivers are in big church; we are investing in an hour of intentional child discipleship to show kids the truth that God knows their names, needs, cares, and situations. We want kids to understand that God sees them fully, loves them deeply, and forgives them completely because of His Son, Jesus. We do this through trustworthy biblical teaching and relational discipleship. We want you to partner with another leader to invest in building relationships with a specific group of 12 kids over the next 6 months to help us accomplish this goal.
Volunteers who buy into the why, will be more deeply invested, and more personally connected to the ministry area in which they serve, and they will stick with the ministry longer. Put simply: when they buy the why, they won’t say goodbye.
- Clarify Expectations – Expectations impact everything. Unclear expectations lead to unmet expectations. Unmet expectations make people feel like they have failed. Many would-be volunteers have been burned in the past by having unrealistic and ever-increasing expectations placed on them. It is the responsibility of the leader to clarify exactly what is expected from a volunteer. Make each volunteer’s 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 the expectations of the role, including as estimate of hours requested per week, how to interact with their team leader, session preparation, arrival time, areas of service and responsibility, guidelines for interaction with kids, 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.
- 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. Very few people are looking for more work to do, but everyone wants to find a place to belong. Serving as a volunteer presents an incredible opportunity for the church to connect people in 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.
One of the most important expectations to clarify when approaching a potential volunteer is the duration of commitment you are asking for. Undefined open-ended commitments are a deterrent to many potential volunteers. 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 ask them to serve initially for a short-term period. This may be for six months or for a quarter/semester. In many cases, simply knowing that they aren’t signing up to serve for a lifetime, or the anticipation of one day having to have an awkward “I quit” conversation with you, will make it easier for people to give you their ‘yes.’ At the end of their season of service you can ask if they would like to renew for another round. If they have had a good experience, that short-term initiation may net you a long-term ministry partner.
- 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 out of date and 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.
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 whole new culture of service in your church where people are looking for places to plug in and opportunities abound. Recruiting and training up a whole new batch of volunteers will require changes to your strategy, and learning to have a different kind of conversation, but doing the hard foundational background work will pay 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 Peters is Director of Lifeway Kids. Before his role at Lifeway, Chuck had a prolific career in television and video production. He is a 3-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.