The Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 190
How many times have you said, “We don’t have enough volunteers” in the last year?
I’m going to guess you’ve said it, or at least thought that, at least once a month for as long as you can remember! This is among the most common challenges that church leaders face, and I can relate. For the many years that I served on a church staff, I’m not certain that I ever hit a point in ministry where I couldn’t have used at least a few more people to flesh out the depth chart on my ministries.
This begs the question: is volunteer recruitment the perpetual thorn in the flesh for all ministers? Does it have to be this way? Or is it possible for us to actually get ahead, to have the volunteers we need, and to truly have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to our volunteer rosters?
As I’ve partnered with churches, I’ve noticed a handful of consistent, fixable mistakes that almost every church makes. While volunteer recruitment will never be easy or automatic, it is possible for you to get ahead and not feel desperate or discouraged from week to week.
Below, we’ll explore five simple but often overlooked tactics for volunteer recruitment that any church can implement and begin to gain momentum.
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Tactic 1: Minimize Attrition
They say the best offense is a good defense. I am a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan, and I can attest to the depressing reality that having a top-five offense means very little when you have a bottom-five defense. You cannot score enough points in football if you can’t stop the other team from scoring when they have the ball.
The principle applies to volunteer recruitment, too. You cannot recruit enough volunteers to overcome a back-door problem. If you find yourself burning out volunteers, or simply not able to get people to serve frequently enough, you have to focus on minimizing attrition.
First, clarify the level of commitment up-front. As counterintuitive as it might seem, by limiting the volunteer commitment to one-year sprints, you’ll encourage people to remain committed to the ministry. If people perceive that volunteering in your church is a life sentence, they’ll remain on the fringes or resist signing up altogether. Have clarity about how long you’re asking them to serve and at what frequency. As it’s been said by Brené Brown, “clear is kind.”
Second, make the volunteer culture at your church fun and not a drain. It should be a joyful experience to be on your team.This doesn’t mean you need to throw a party for your volunteers every month, but create an environment where your volunteers are known and cared for. In our Leadership Pipeline Design training, we teach that it’s best practice to meet one-on-one with most of your volunteers at least once a quarter for coffee and coaching. This shows that you care about them as a person, and not just as a cog in your ministry wheel.
Tactic 2: Recruit from Calling, Not Desperation
I would assume that most of you reading this article are familiar with Ephesians 4 and the concept of “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry.” Yet I wonder how well the wisdom from Ephesians 4 is trickling down into how you structure and operate your ministry. Most pastors behave as if Paul instructed us to “beg the saints to volunteer in the ministry” as if they’re doing you a favor, rather than actualizing their calling.
Shifting your language about volunteering in your church isn’t a psy-op. You’re not trying to trick or manipulate people into wanting to serve in your ministry. Instead, it’s critical that we teach biblically about what it means to be a local expression of the Body of Christ, and the individual calling each of us has to participate in the Body. As Paul teaches, I do not as a “hand” have to ability or authority to operate on my own. I’m only useful inasmuch as I have a connection to the arm and receive direction from the Head.
One of the greatest tragedies in the Church is a failure to grasp discipleship as a process that depends on my participation. Too many churchgoers perceive discipleship as a passive process done for them by the church, rather than an active call for every believer to “build up the Body” until everyone “attains to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood” (Ephesians 4:12-13, ESV). That is to say, discipleship is a team sport, not a solo journey.
Therefore, don’t fall into the temptation to beg your congregation to volunteer. There is nothing more pathetic than a pastor pleading for volunteers from the pulpit. Instead, create a culture of accountability and raise the theological IQ of the believers in your church to know and understand their calling into ministry within the Body of Christ.
Tactic 3: Prioritize Newcomers
The people who are newest to your church are the people who are the easiest to recruit to serve as volunteers. You may believe that newcomers want to sit in the back and “heal up” or get acquainted with the church before being willing to serve. This is not generally the case. There are two key reasons why recruiting newcomers is easier than recruiting from existing attenders and members.
First, newcomers are more enthusiastic about your church than those who have been there for a long time. For clarification, by newcomer, I mean a person who has regularly attended your church for fewer than six months. These people are excited about your church. They have chosen to start attending on a regular basis because they like the ministries, the preaching, the people, or some combination of other factors. They could have chosen to worship somewhere else, but they’ve chosen you. Therefore, capitalize on their enthusiasm by teaching them about the importance of serving within the Body of Christ and getting them connected to an opportunity to use their gifts.
Secondly, newcomers have not yet formed their habits in relation to your church. They don’t have a preconceived self-perception of what it looks like to be a part of your church. They haven’t established a rhythm that excludes volunteering. They’re open to new things, open to joining a group or class, and open to joining a volunteer team. These things might be a bit uncomfortable, and we must make it easy and obvious to join a team. However, they’re not closed off to serving the same way that a long-time attender who does not volunteer is. Regular attenders who do not serve but have been coming for years have no urgency or openness to start volunteering, and it requires good discipleship and shepherding to lead them out of their comfort zone.
To make it easier for newcomers to join a team, you need to limit the number of available opportunities for them. It might seem like a good idea to offer twenty or thirty different volunteer opportunities, but this is overwhelming. Help them identify their area of giftedness by using a tool like the SHAPE assessment, and then suggest a small handful of opportunities that align with their divine design. In this way, you’re reinforcing the theological idea that everyone in church is called into the ministry, and you’re equipping them with a deeper knowledge of themself that they can apply to their journey of discipleship.
Tactic 4: Create Positive Peer Pressure
There’s a theme in this article that I hope you’re beginning to perceive: serving is an aspect of discipleship, and needs to be treated as such. Therefore, when you start to see service through this lens, you can begin to integrate it into other aspects of your discipleship pathway. By looking at the discipleship process as an integrated whole rather than as siloed parts, you’re able to leverage the individual parts to affect the others.
This often looks like integrating a discussion about service into your community life groups or classes. I often point out to churches that no one has to teach their small group leaders or Sunday School teachers to take prayer requests. Prayer is a core value for most churches, so a desire to take time to pray for one another and for their needs happens without specific direction. Likewise, if service and building up the Body of Christ becomes a core value, we can begin to integrate discussions about our service to one another into our groups or classes, as well as more naturally speak about it from the pulpit.
When we create a culture where people are accountable for taking their next best step in discipleship, and that includes service, you can create an atmosphere of positive peer pressure. Those who have not yet started to volunteer in an area that aligns with their divine design will feel left out, and cultivate a desire to serve. This might seem like a fairy tale, but I assure you that churches can develop a culture where service is natural, not extraordinary.
Admittedly, when you’re starting to build this culture, it might feel a bit forced. This is no different than when you first begin making healthy changes to your lifestyle. At first, eating healthy and exercising may feel forced, and you might feel some imposter syndrome. But the more you become consistent in transforming your lifestyle, the more natural it becomes. Likewise, inculcating your church with the theological truth that ministry is for everyone will feel forced initially, but the trick is to not abandon the commitment. The more you stay focused on teaching service as a critical step in discipleship, the more natural it will become, and the more positive peer pressure you will be able to generate.
Tactic 5: Leverage Others to Act as Recruiters
Quite simply, in most churches the base of volunteer recruiters is too small. The burden of recruitment usually falls on the pastor and the staff. In small churches with one pastor (or even a bi-vocational pastor), this means that volunteer recruitment goes onto the back burner while other, more urgent-seeming tasks take priority. But even in churches with a larger staff, the team is rarely big enough to find and fill every volunteer need. You need more recruiters.
The pastor and staff have a limited sphere of influence. You only truly know a certain number of people in the church, which is why you find yourself asking the same people to step-up again and again. You likely know more people by face, but you don’t know their skills and abilities, and you lack the relationship to ask them to serve in a specific capacity. Therefore, the obvious solution is to expand the potential sphere of influence (and consequently the potential pool of volunteers) by including more people to act as recruiters.
Who should recruit? In our Leadership Pipeline Design process, we encourage churches to create a “Ministry Coordinator” level of leadership. This level of leaders is composed of volunteers who manage a small team of volunteers. For example, Children’s Pastor could divide their ministry into five smaller teams: Nursery, Preschool, Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, and Check-in/Security. Each of these smaller teams can be coordinated by a volunteer with management ability. By empowering that Ministry Coordinator to lead that team, you’re incentivizing them to help roster their team. They will know people you won’t, and ask people to serve you wouldn’t have considered.
Recruitment is a team sport, and the more people you can invite into that process, the more successful you will become at it.
Volunteer recruitment won’t necessarily ever be easy. It always requires effort. But these five tactics can improve your results, and ensure that you aren’t chronically stressed about your volunteer participation levels. Being in the ministry can be a joy, and as you begin to transform the culture of volunteerism in your church, it can also transform your own experience in ministry.
Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).