The volunteer crisis is really a church communications crisis

I encounter pastors all the time that are struggling with recruiting and retaining volunteers. Well, there are a few reasons why churches are struggling to get volunteers more today than they have in the past: the Boomers were the church core for a really long time and have either dropped out of church or stepped back from their roles in the church, the pandemic caused people to reevaluate how they spend their time, and, like many other things, trends that existed prior to 2020 accelerated during the pandemic.

That being said, the main problem with getting volunteers centers around poor communication. Communications in churches is multi-faceted and encompasses pretty much everything a church does. When it comes to recruiting and retaining volunteers, it’s the linchpin for a church. If you don’t do it well, you’ll struggle with a volunteer shortage.

So how do we actually get better at communicating so that we can improve volunteering? Well, it takes a certain amount of organizational transformation, but there are also some low hanging fruit as well. Here are the most important elements of communicating as a church so that volunteers are recruited and retained:

Share a “Big Idea” that God is calling your church to in this season

One of the challenges with churches is this sense that the community is already oversaturated… and there’s truth to that. Many churches are merely doing that same attractional model that I wrote a bit about a couple weeks ago. All said and done, most churches haven’t really communicated effectively how God has uniquely gifted that church and the unique discipleship challenge he’s equipped them to meet.

Most of us that attended seminary had to study Haddon Robinson for hermeneutics… with good reason! Robinson was a phenomenal communicator and always drove home a “Big Idea” found in a given passage. Here’s the thing, this extends beyond the sermon, your church also has a “Big Idea” that you need to recognize and then hammer home to the congregation.

I learned years ago in preaching that I can never say the Big Idea from the passage too many times. If I only drop it a couple times then there’s a good chance everyone will forget by the time they head off for lunch… same goes for the church. Gary Vaynerchuk… like him, love him, or hate him… is a great communicator and he openly admits that he is constantly harping on the same things because he knows it’s not going to be picked up by his audience unless he is saying it again and again over dozens of videos, keynotes, and posts. Your church has a whole lot more important message than anything Gary Vee has ever said so keep harping on it!

Create a culture of connecting

Hats off to the first church I was on staff at, Real Life Ministries in Post Falls Idaho. Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Part of that church’s DNA is to help people find their place in ministry so every single staff member and a lot of the volunteers would take it upon themselves to help people find the right ministry to volunteer in. If you have a church wherein someone expresses an interest to volunteer, they meet the leader of a ministry like the kids ministry, and discover that isn’t the right fit, then the leader should be helping them find the right fit even though it doesn’t directly benefit their ministry. If everyone does it, the right people end up in the right places and it’s a much more pleasant experience for the volunteer when the church holds their hand through the process.

Never ever beg for volunteers

This one goes out to Craig Miles who taught me the key to recruiting volunteers was to never beg for them. You’ll see a lot of churches make announcements that a ministry needs volunteers… or is desperate for volunteers. How do you think that comes across to the butt in the pew? They think “yuck, if nobody wants to volunteer then that volunteer role must really suck.” The only time Craig would ever do an announcement it would go like this:

Hello everyone, as you know, our Kids Ministry sends our volunteers on break for the summer. Most of them don’t want to do it because we have a lot of fun and they really love coming in, but we insist on them taking a break so they can come back refreshed, have the chance to take a summer holiday, and be even more excited to come back for another ministry year. During this time, we are asking for members to step up as a “kids ministry B-team” for June, July, and August. Come talk to me or sign up at the foyer.

Craig Miles

Yeah, Craig has been swimming in volunteers as long as I’ve known him. Can you see why? He is an absolute legend at positioning his communication that volunteering is not a chore but is something that people really love doing. Admit it, you’d probably respond to his call for volunteers as well! 😉

Get ruthless with ministries that don’t fit anymore

[Sigh] there are so many ministries out there inside churches that just don’t make sense anymore. Sure, in 1982 they were a great idea and worked really well, but today they just don’t work. What’s worse, is you have a handful of volunteers in those in this catch 22 situation wherein they don’t have enough volunteers to run the ministry but they are pulling volunteer resources that would be much better spent on a ministry that fits the church’s Big Idea.

I’ve seen a lot of examples of ineffective ministries that needed to be killed off because they just aren’t working today… and this will be really controversial… don’t get me wrong, one of these might be working in your church, but you should always look closely at them to see if they still work today:

  • Sunday school
  • Christian clubs
  • Flower arranging
  • Alpha programs
  • Worship band
  • Committees
  • Choir
  • Small groups

Now, I actually really like a few of those, but if one doesn’t fit the big idea then you need to A.) share that compelling Big Idea that your church is on, B.) determine whether the ministry needs reinvented (i.e. Sunday School becoming a Kids Church or adopting in/out/up framework for your small groups) or replaced/eliminated altogether (Alpha, committees, flower arranging, etc. tend to be a resource black hole at most churches), C.) communicate in a personal and understanding manner why change has to happen… D.) and of course pray not to get fired because a lot of feathers will get ruffled when you do the courageous thing and end ineffective ministries. 😉

Here’s an email template that might help:

Dear *|FNAME|*,

Today I feel saddened to say together with the board and staff, that we have decided to wind down <<ministry name>>. 😢 It has been a staple of the church for many years and during that time has helped to transform many lives; however, given the unique calling God has placed on the church during this season and that the cultural setting in which that ministry was designed and so effective has radically changed, we believe it's time to wind down <<ministry name>> and empower everyone who had been volunteering in it for their next phase of ministry.

<<Ministry name>> had a long history and did some genuinely good ministry in the past, so we would like to put together a time to memorialize and celebrate the work God has done through this ministry at the next member's meeting. If you have a story about how God used this ministry to transform someone's life, we would love to know about it so we can share those stories at the member's meeting.

<<Pastor Steve>>

P.S. This was not an easy decision for any of us, but after much prayer and discernment we believe God is asking us as a church to change how we reach out and minister to a culture that continues to evolve. It's my hope you will continue with us on that adventure.

Have a discipleship pathway that encourages volunteering

Intercept mature Christians at the strategic points on your discipleship pathway. This is a lot easier if you have a Saddleback-ish progression wherein you have contact with your congregants as they move through the progression via a 101, 201, 301, 401 type of structure, but you can use other criteria to identify points at which you want to stress the importance of members using their gifting. You can call your points whatever you like, in the past I’ve worked at churches where 101 was initial membership and then 201 was the push for volunteering, then 301 and 401 were going deeper into ministry preparation. You can think of 201 and up as your volunteer pool and focus on getting all of them into ministry.

Get smart about using your email list to recruit volunteers

You need to leverage your Church Management System (ChMS) to track who is volunteering and who isn’t as well as at least loosely tracking where they are at on the discipleship pathway. Then you need to be able to send personalized emails and video messages either thanking and encouraging existing volunteers or personally exhorting people who aren’t volunteering into using their gifts. Here’s an example email you can absolutely tweak and steal:

Hi *|FNAME|*,

I wanted to take a moment to ask something of you. I know you've been a Christian a long time and it's clear that the Holy Spirit has been at work in your life. I want to invite you to volunteer with our <<ministry here>> because I think they would benefit a lot from your unique gifting.

I know, life can feel kind of busy and hectic as is, but hear me out here. One thing I've found over the years is that being a Christian is a bit like being a pond... exciting analogy, I know! 😉 Now a pond that has water coming in but no water coming out ends up stagnant, but a pond that has water coming in and water going out stays fresh. Our Christian walk can become stagnant if we receive via other's gifts but don't exercise our own gifts to bless others.

Look forward to hearing from you!

<<Pastor Steve>>

P.S. If you feel a call to another ministry, let me know. There are quite a few ministries that would be blessed through your gifts.

When people respond, don’t drop the ball!

Getting ghosted sucks. It especially sucks when you get ghosted by your church. If someone responds to a call for volunteers, you need to be all over that. Ideally you want to respond within a business day thanking them for their interest and setting up a time to meet with the ministry leader. Maybe they won’t be the right fit for what they volunteered for… that happens, but never just end the process with them. When someone volunteers walk alongside them until they get connected directly to the right ministry leader and then follow up to make sure they haven’t run into obstacles.

On a personal note, I’ve been ghosted by churches a lot since I left the missions field in 2011. I’ve got two decades of experience, an M.Div., a heap of ministry certifications, and cross-trained in nearly every ministry churches do. I’m also the sort that has a tendency to throw my hand up when volunteer needs arise, but then they don’t email or call. This kind of behavior from churches perplexes me because if you aren’t jumping at the chance to have a bona fide ministry professional helping you completely free for something you say you desperately need help with, then what are you jumping at? 🤷

For a deeper exploration of what happens when you drop the ball with what should be your best volunteers, how widespread it actually is in churches, and how disastrous it is, Carey Nieuwhof goes into some detail about engaging the “high-capacity volunteers” in his blog article here.

Celebrate your volunteers

One of my favorite things when I was in children’s ministry were the 4 annual pizza and ice cream parties we would throw for the volunteers. Now, these were also opportunities to remind the volunteers about important things like our anti-grooming policies and our ministry goals, but they were a time to let everyone know that it was through them using their gifts that kids were being influenced for Christ. You need opportunities to celebrate your volunteers, I like doing custom lanyards for people who have volunteered for a while that highlight something about them… like if someone has been in the AV ministry for 30 years I’ll add a subtitle to theirs that says “mix master” or “Big 30” or something like that. They’ll get asked about it and smile broadly and say “oh it’s because I’ve been serving in this ministry 30 years now.” Look for similar personalized things you can do for your volunteers that communicates how much using their gifts to bless the church is valued.

Closing thoughts

Alright, so I realize there is a lot to digest there. A mentor once said to me “ministry is eating an elephant bite by bite,” so take it one step at a time by first communicating that Big Idea that represents your church’s current unique calling. From there, start tackling each of the other elements by growing some core volunteer team members. Don’t spend time with every volunteer… especially not the flakey ones, but spend time with ones that have the ability to help you excel at these communication elements. Before you know it, volunteer recruitment issues will be a thing of the past.

Isaac Johnson

Isaac has been in professional ministry since 2002, holds an M.Div. from Moody, and his goal is to equip churches to reach digital natives.

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