All pastors have had this conversation: The leader of a volunteer team mentions how few volunteers they have and asks the pastor to make an announcement to help fix the shortage. This is only one of many reasons why it’s lonely to be the leader because it can feel like everything rises and falls on your influence and that pre-sermon announcement from the pulpit.
But there is a better way! Over the years I have found a handful of mindset shifts to increase the volunteer force, while also working to keep those already a part of the ministry team engaged and committed. Here are seven keys tips to recruiting and retaining volunteers.
4 Ways to Recruit Volunteers
- Celebrate rather than guilt people into serving – The temptation is to pull people’s heartstrings. We all have seen the moment where the children’s minister brings up a cute kid on stage and says to the congregation, “These little bundles of joy need you!” Or the student pastor who says, “We expect all our parents to volunteer if your students are going to participate in our ministry.” Guilt will work in the short run, but it will fail you in the long run. A better strategy is to celebrate volunteers by acknowledging those who are making a difference behind the scenes, but in a very public way – for example, thanking them by name on social media or from the stage. People want to participate on winning teams that are making a difference. The leadership principle, what gets celebrated gets repeated, proves very true here.
- Leverage the power of personal invitation – Our default when dealing with a volunteer shortage is to want to fix the problem as quickly as possible. So we post on the church’s social media, send out a mass email asking for help or make an announcement from the pulpit. Most of these will garner little response, if any. The fastest way to get new volunteers is through personal invitation, not a public announcement. If your ministry leader made 20 personal invitations to potential volunteers, and avoid using guilt as the method of convincing, they will likely have 10 new volunteers come from those 20 invitations. Personal invitation is the quickest way to build your volunteer force.
- Ask existing volunteers to invite their friends – Now imagine if our volunteers themselves invited friends to serve with them! It took me a decade and a half to come to this realization, but the strongest advocates for a particular ministry are the volunteers who already are serving faithfully. The best and easiest way to double your volunteer force is to ask each of your current volunteers to identify one person they would enjoy serving with and invite them to work beside them. Most everyone can think of one person they could ask, and additional time together with a friend is a great selling point for a new volunteer.
- Use shadowing for easy onboarding – Most people’s biggest barrier in starting to volunteer is not knowing what to expect. They are asking the questions: What’s the commitment here? What if I sign up and hate it? What are they going to ask me to do once I say, “Yes”? We can remove this barrier just by adding a shadowing opportunity as the first step to joining a team. Most of the time, this trial will quell fears the enemy has placed in their minds. It also can help us avoid a disaster by having someone join a team who ultimately is not a good fit.
3 Ways to Retain Volunteers
- Thank everyone personally – One mistake I often see leaders of volunteer teams make is neglecting their most valued contribution to the current volunteer team – encouragement. I cannot tell you how many children’s ministers I see “filling a spot” made by a no-show volunteer. While this is admirable and sometimes necessary, it is usually a warning sign that the children’s minister has not adequately invested in his or her most important role: providing encouragement to every single person who has given their time to serve. A team leader who is not doing this every week in a personal way is always going to struggle to keep volunteers.
- Create community – A leader who helps individuals feel they are a part of a community will keep more volunteers. Community can be built in several ways. A few options I have seen work: pre-service vision meetings where the group gathers for an encouragement time before everyone goes to their stations, annual celebrations where everyone rallies together to be reminded of why they do what they do, meals at the leader’s home to find family inside the team they serve. The more community a volunteer feels, the more they want to continue to volunteer with their friends.
- Provide support – Most volunteers quit because they don’t feel valued or supported. We have addressed how to express value (see #1!), but we also need to consider support. We must recognize our volunteers are just that: volunteers. They have busy lives, families and full-time jobs, and the time they are giving to our organization is in addition to everything else. We must make volunteering as seamless as possible. If there are resources or services we can provide to make volunteering a joy rather than a burden, we should seek to provide it. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light (Matt. 11:29-30).
I truly believe that if these tips are practiced, any leader can build (and grow!) a strong volunteer team. Remember, God has given your volunteers (and future volunteers) a specific place in His body and, without them playing their part, the body can’t function properly.
Don’t see yourself as someone trying to get a job done for the church. See yourself as helping people find their place in the kingdom of God.
Published February 27, 2023