By Dale Sellers
If you’ve ever attended our 95Network Healthy Growth Engines Conference, then you’ve probably heard me say that “need is not a volunteer strategy.” The comment usually gets a few laughs whenever I say it; however, those laughs are more attuned to nervousness than amusement.
The reason is that I’ve clearly identified the process (if you can call it a process) that most small and midsize churches use in recruiting volunteers. The reality is the process is actually not a process at all!
For example, on any given Sunday, one of these scenarios takes place:
- Several new families show up for the service and upset the ratio of children’s ministry volunteers to children. Therefore, in a panic, you begin going through the halls or even the pews of the auditorium looking for anyone who can help “serve” in the kids’ ministry.
- For reasons ranging from unexpected sickness to a flat tire, the volunteer who normally serves every week in the nursery doesn’t make it, but you aren’t made aware of it until five minutes before service starts. So once again, you go into panic mode as you desperately try to find someone to fill in.
Do either one of these scenarios sound familiar? I’m betting they do because this is the way many churches manage their volunteer/service ministries. Far too many churches spend the majority of their weekly focus on what happens in the “main service” without giving any serious thought to everything else that optimizes the ministry as a whole.
I’m not implying that we shouldn’t focus on the main service. But what I am saying is that creating a healthy volunteer culture also deserves our attention. Yet, it appears many churches don’t really take it seriously. Solving the “volunteer problem” is more of a nuisance to them than a necessity.
Solving the “volunteer problem” is more of a nuisance to them than a necessity.
It Doesn’t Automatically Happen
If you lead any ministry, you know that creating a healthy volunteer culture doesn’t automatically happen. It takes a lot of hard work and strategic planning to help move people from attendees/consumers to volunteers.
I’ve often wondered why this problem never really goes away. I believe part of the issue is that we’re living in the residue of the seeker and attractional movements of recent decades in church life. This kind of consumerist culture has created apathy among churchgoers when it comes to serving others.
It’s also fair to point out that some pastors secretly want to have as many people hear them preach every week as possible. They have a “felt need” to have their emotional tank filled by having folks listen to them speak. Yet, if you study the New Testament, then you know it clearly says our primary focus should be on equipping versus educating those in our care.
Yet, if you study the New Testament, then you know it clearly says our primary focus should be on equipping versus educating those in our care.
Now don’t get mad at me for telling you the truth. Many of the people in our churches have become sponges that soak up your good preaching each week but never put forth the effort to squeeze out what’s in them to others. In fact, attracting spectators instead of participants is as old as the Bible itself.
Getting back to why this is a consistent issue, I’m sure there are many reasons we often forgo having an intentional volunteer strategy. One reason is that we tend to take the 20% of people who do 80% of the work for granted. We assume that “Sister Susan” or “Brother Bill” will step up like they always do when a need appears.
This actually happens a lot. I remember how my mom would wear herself out doing everything while complaining the whole time that no one else ever helped out. Yet, she still would fill in the gap every time a need arose because of her love for Jesus and our church. Everyone even applauded her as she gave all she had to offer. She became everyone’s go to as a ministry fill-in.
I’m sure you can think of people just like my mom in your ministry. Maybe you haven’t intentionally taken them for granted, but you know your church has. You may have also noticed recently that a lot of these folks haven’t returned to your church since the pandemic disrupted everything. If you stop and think about it from their perspective, can you blame them?
You may have also noticed recently that a lot of these folks haven’t returned to your church since the pandemic disrupted everything. If you stop and think about it from their perspective, can you blame them?
Here are a few reasons that I see for why our volunteer ministry is so dysfunctional:
1 – The pastor’s primary focus is on preaching and what takes place in the “main” auditorium. Honestly, as a pastor, it should be your focus! The pastor is the principal communicator for the church. The Sunday morning message needs to be a top priority as it’s a vessel for teaching, inspiring, and discipling the congregation. But since there are only so many hours available in the week, prioritizing volunteers is often at the bottom of the to-do list for pastors.
2 – Many church members have more of a consumer mindset than a contributor one. As sad as it is to admit, the mentality of a lot of church members is to come and watch versus go and tell. Along with this mindset is the pervasive thought that “the church exists to meet my needs until Jesus calls me home.” This is where you often hear things like, “I’ve paid my dues” or “That’s not my gift” as an excuse for doing nothing.
3 – The church’s leadership has never valued creating a healthy volunteer culture because it requires planning, recruiting, training, accountability, and consistency. In other words, a healthy volunteer culture doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of work and focus and prioritization and passion. We need to be encouraging our members to be sacrificial in serving because that’s what Jesus has called us to do. If people don’t know about volunteer opportunities (and why they should get involved in them), it’s easy for them to take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. They eventually become numb to the need!
Things Don’t Just Work Themselves Out
In my book, “Stalled: Hope & Help For Pastors Who Thought They’d Be There By Now,” I share a startling discovery that took me years to realize. It’s that issues we don’t deal with don’t dissolve; they destroy. Allowing need to be your main volunteer strategy will leave you in a desperate cycle of seeking relief from crisis every time you’re shorthanded.
It’s that issues we don’t deal with don’t dissolve; they destroy.
To help you solve this problem, I want to offer two practical solutions:
First, get a coach. Helping churches create a healthy volunteer culture is one of our passions at 95Network. So much so that we have a member of our team who is an expert in this field. After years of successfully launching and leading volunteer groups, Mary Ann Sibley started Matter Spark to help others create successful serving strategies in their own churches. Her wisdom is practical, and her passion is contagious. I learned a long time ago to value the expertise of others, especially when their wisdom is in areas where I’m ignorant!
It would well be worth your time to have a conversation with Mary Ann. I hope you will allow her to help you foster a healthy volunteer culture in your church today that will still be in place twenty years from now. If you’re interested, you can send her an email at MaryAnn@95Network.org.
Second, implement “The 10 Commandments of Creating an Engaged Volunteer Culture.” I teach these principles in the last session of our conference. Although we don’t have time to dive into each of them today, I do want to share them with you:
- Provide a WRITTEN job description for every volunteer position.
- Inspect what you expect by providing ACCOUNTABILITY.
- Whenever possible, match the volunteer position with a person’s GIFTEDNESS.
- Always give your volunteers an END DATE for current service.
- INSPIRATION is required before PERSPIRATION is expected.
- IDENTIFY and EMPOWER next-level volunteer leaders.
- Never perform any task yourself that can be done THROUGH someone else.
- Allow FLEXIBILITY on how things are done because there are multiple ways to do things.
- Be intentional about creating teams and ownership around vision without creating SILOS.
- Shower your volunteers with PRAISE through notes, gifts, and recognition.
Mary Ann and I would love to have a conversation with you in order to help you create a vibrant volunteer culture in your church. Please let us know how we can help.
Be sure to stop by our 95Network.org/online store to find helpful resources designed to encourage and strengthen your ministry leadership.