Regardless of the size or growth of your church, recruiting and retaining volunteers can be a daunting task. Ultimately, we need to start somewhere. People volunteer for all kinds of reasons: An invitation. Curiosity. To feel good about themselves. Guilt. Most likely they aren’t going to offer themselves for a need unless they see both the value in the role and their capability of excelling in that role. In my experience, a large number of people have a hard time initially seeing either on their own.
Here are some ways we can transform the stigma of volunteering to a healthy servant-minded culture and mobilize people within the church to take their next steps:
1.People are never going to volunteer themselves for a need they don’t know exists. Open doors wide to opportunity and help them see how they can be a part of what God is doing.
Give people a clear path to start. When all ministries and programs at your church are simplified to directly advance the central mission of the church, every role will have a definite correlation to the bigger picture. Serving is the best way for people to be connected to what God is doing within and through the church. Instead of watching from the outside, they get to play a part in the story.
The word “volunteer” somewhat miscommunicates God’s true intention for us. Followers of Christ are identified as servants (Matt 20:25–28) and members of a priesthood (1 Peter 2:4–9). Instead of a task-oriented focus on what we need them to do, what if we focused on who God made them to be?
“For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” Romans 12:1–5.
Being a participating member of the body, everyone has a role to play. Serving ideally stems from an act of humility and a voluntary, grateful response to God rather than a guilt-ridden obligation to volunteer. Christ himself was the prime example of this calling:
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6–8)
2. Take them from attending to engaging. Elevate their purpose and value through your language.
We can help cast vision and remove obstacles simply in the language we use. It’s not what we say, but how we say it, that can elevate or demote a serving role in people’s minds, even subconsciously. In our Sunday morning Kids’ Ministry environments, we’ve worked very hard to communicate to our teams in a way that elevates their value. Instead of using terms like “babysitting” and “childcare,” we intentionally select our words to reflect the significance of their role in a greater light. In our elementary environment, we are constantly reminding our Small Group Leaders that they are making an ongoing investment in kids so they can have a consistent influence in their life.
“When we lead small, we make a choice to invest strategically in the lives of a few over time so we can help them build an authentic faith.”-Reggie Joiner, Lead Small.
People want to serve a purpose rather than fill a need. In our nursery and pre-K rooms, our leaders are constantly reminding their people that Sundays are a ministry opportunity. By rocking babies and playing with toddlers, they are providing a safe and comforting space for children to begin enjoying church and hearing about God. The kids are starting to build relationships, which can create opportunities for influence as they grow. And those who are serving are also allowing parents that time to freely worship and hear God’s Word so that life-change can happen in their lives.
It’s a piece of the bigger picture. Leaders have to help people make those connections that they won’t naturally make on their own and see the eternal value in an ordinary task. Use active language that conveys the end goal. Give people something irresistible to be a part of and they’ll stick around through the nitty-gritty when they know the goal is something much greater and more eternal.
3. Once they are in a role, don’t just leave them there. Create a community of servants. Offer care, affirmation, and training.
There are 3 ways I’ve found to effectively accomplish this:
Build a team. This is not just a number of people filling slots. This is a group of people serving with a common purpose for a greater good. Get people on your team who get the vision, and are excited about it. And get them to invite their friends to be a part of it too. If you have a gap, it’s better to wait for someone who genuinely wants to be a part of the mission, rather than filling it with just anyone to cover the slot. Churches who build a strong sense of community for their teams, whether staff or volunteer, are going to get people who stick a lot longer and harder as a result.
Be flexible with their schedule, but don’t be afraid to keep expectations high. When you lower the expectations, you lower the value of the role. If you ask for a low level of commitment — that’s likely what you’ll get. And those are the volunteers who will be least connected to the church. Provide a variety of opportunities so people can ease into serving if needed, but don’t allow them to stay on the “easy track” for too long or you will eventually lose them. People want to feel like their time is valued and their contribution matters. So treat them that way.
Regularly connect them with others to celebrate and remind them they aren’t in it alone. We talk a lot about “celebrating the wins” on our staff. The best way to keep the mission in front of us is to regularly be reminded of the stories of life change and next steps of faith people are taking as a result of our ministry and leadership. The overall mood would be a lot different if we didn’t get that frequent reminder.
With my team of Small Group Leaders, I hold quarterly PowWows to POWer them up (provide training in small, concentrated doses) and Share the WOWs (celebrate the wins). It is infrequent enough that people are less likely to skip knowing there’s another one right around the corner. But often enough to keep them connected to their leaders and teammates, and reminded of the stories of growth and life-change happening in our ministry to keep everyone encouraged and on mission.
4. When we serve, we grow. Serving should never be a stagnant process. Keep building expectations and challenge people to continue growing through serving.
Encourage next steps at regular intervals. Create a DNA within your church where people are called to action — Believing, Inviting, Giving and Serving. Carey Nieuwhof, lead pastor of Connexus Church, says, “Christian service should be a paradox of renewal: when we give our lives away, we find them. When we serve, we grow.”
God designed us to contribute to His story. We, as leaders, need to relentlessly pursue people’s hearts with the vision before us to keep our ministries energized. That vision must provide clarity, carry value, and be repeated often to craft a culture of more than just volunteers — but servant-leaders, and as Nieuwhof says, “turn ordinary attenders into passionate champions of the mission.”