The Easter egg hunt should have been a huge success. Over 250 kids showed up and there were young parents by the bushel in attendance. But the pastor was beside himself. “It’s not that we have trouble getting people to volunteer. We had over twenty people say they’d be here to help – but only seven showed up. The problem we’re having is getting our volunteers to do what they said they’d do.”
We regularly hear the cry that churches don’t have enough leaders … but in most churches it’s not just a leadership crisis, it’s a church-wide ministry support crisis. There never seem to be enough leaders and there never seem to be enough workers to get the job done. In some churches the problem is that they’re simply trying to do too much ministry for the number of church participants. But often, the issue seems to be a lack of responsibility.
We’ve uncovered five secrets to getting your volunteers to step up.
1. Implement the One Person, One Passion, One Position Policy
I’ve written about this policy before, so I won’t belabor the point (One Person, Passion, Position). Suffice it to say that a volunteer involved in five church ministries can only give so much … and they’re not giving their best to any of them. When volunteers work within their passions, they give it all they’ve got.
2. Recruit Well
Only a crazy person would post a want ad that promised it would hire anyone who wanted to apply. And yet, the church does that regularly. The bulletin reads, “We need volunteers for our discipleship ministry” or we make an announcement in worship saying, “If you’d like to serve on our stewardship committee, please let Barbara know” and expect that we’re going to get the quality volunteers we need.
In the words of Dr. Phil – “How’s that workin’ for you?”
If you recruit well in the first place, you’ll get volunteers you can count on. Begin by making a commitment to recruit face-to-face. No more want ads or pleas from the pulpit. Identify the people you want to serve and go after them.
The first criterion for recruiting anyone for any position should be passion for the ministry you’re asking them to lead or serve in. If they have passion for the task or the position, you can be sure their heart will be in it.
However, the second criterion is as important as the first. Anyone you recruit needs to support and reflect the congregation’s DNA (mission, values, vision). Too often, churches put passionate people into leadership with the hopes they’ll get on board with the church’s mission, and then wonder why there’s so much conflict across the congregation.
Hint: don’t put anyone in leadership you don’t trust – the same goes for the rank-and-file volunteer.
Finally, be sure you’ve adequately described the position and made the expectations crystal clear before you allow them to say yes or no. Let them know which meetings they’re expected to attend, any reports they have to prepare, and exactly what the position or task requires. There’s nothing worse than being recruited for one job and discovering you’re expected to do something completely different – or a whole lot more than you bargained for. And if you have a membership or leadership covenant that needs to be embraced before someone can step into leadership or become a volunteer, present it during the recruiting stage and make sure they’re on board with it.
3. Stop Treating Volunteers Like Volunteers
It seems that the cultural definition of a volunteer is someone who is willing to give their time and resources to a team, project, or task as long as it’s convenient. But if Aunt Martha from Boston drops by, if the grass needs cutting, or if the kid’s got soccer practice then church responsibilities are abandoned. Ministry is too important to be put into the hands of mere volunteers. So instead of recruiting volunteers, start recruiting ministry assistants and/or unpaid staff. Expunge the word “volunteer” from every conversation and every document at the church – let United Way work with volunteers. Preach and teach on the importance of the church’s ministry. And treat your ministry assistants and unpaid staff as if they were what their titles say they are. The next two secrets expand this point.
4. Set Clear Expectations
Old, Ineffective Model: “Ken, thanks for agreeing to teach the middle school youth. Here’s the curriculum we’ve been using. And here’s contact information for the parents in case you need some help. If you have any problems, let us know.”
New Effective Model: “Ken, thanks for agreeing to teach the middle school youth. Here’s the curriculum we’ve using. And here’s the parent’s contact information.
“Please read through the curriculum this week so you’re familiar with it. You’ll need to call all the parents over the next four days to introduce yourself and let them know you’ll be taking over the class. You’ll want to get to know them so you can look for a couple of folks to be your ministry assistants – but we’ll help with that too. Then let’s meet next Thursday evening for an hour and we’ll go over the curriculum for the upcoming lesson. If you have questions or concerns or if you need any resources, you can let me know then and I’ll make sure you have what you need.
“There’s a quarterly Discipleship Team meeting for all of our teachers on a Sunday evening. Here are the dates and times. You’ll want to make sure you’re there – we provide a light dinner and we have childcare if you need it. Finally, let’s you and I plan on having a monthly one-hour meeting so you get the support you need.
“Here’s my personal contact information and my mobile number. Call me if you have any questions between now and Thursday.”
Let your ministry assistants and unpaid staff know exactly what’s expected. Don’t minimize their commitment – better to overstate than understate the expectations. If someone can’t make the commitment to what you’re asking, then thank them for their interest and keep looking for someone who has the passion, the commitment, and the ability to serve.
5. Hold Volunteers Accountable
This is always the chief sticking point. No one wants to fire a volunteer. But here’s a trade secret: If you don’t remove ineffective leaders you’ll keep getting what you’re getting. Ministry is too important to be left in the hands of mediocrity, incompetence, or a lack of integrity (no matter how good-intentioned a volunteer might be). Besides, if a volunteer/ministry assistant/unpaid staff person isn’t living up to their commitments, they likely already know it and probably feel terrible about it. They probably had people-pleasing tendencies that made them say “yes” in the first place when they should have said no.
If you’re meeting with your ministry assistants/unpaid staff every month, and if you’re setting clear goals, it will be much easier to have that conversation than if you haven’t been faithful in providing excellent support.
A good “firing” conversation looks like this. “Traci, over the last few months it’s been clear you’re finding it difficult to juggle your career, your water skiing hobby, and the building committee chairmanship. I know the building remodeling is demanding more time than you thought it would. Let’s give you a sabbatical from the position for a year or so and see how things are going for you later on. You’ve done a great job keeping Steve in the loop and he’ll be able to step up and keep the ministry moving forward for the church.”
Yes, there will be times when you’ll have to remove someone who doesn’t want to be removed. That’s not an easy task, but if you remind yourself over and over and over that it’s your responsibility to put the good of the congregation above the good of an individual – and that effective ministry has eternal consequences – you’ll find the stomach and the backbone for doing what needs to be done.
These five “volunteer” management practices will help ensure that you don’t end up with more tasks than committed ministry assistants to git ‘er done.
Question: What have you done to help minimize volunteer disasters? Share with us in the Comments section below.
Great stuff here, as far as it goes. You may have assumed your readers understand three other basics of “managing” volunteers:
6. Employ their gifts, not just their hands. People with experience and passion for a service aren’t mere spear-carriers for your flawless strategy. Find out what they know, how they can best do the job. Involve the most invested of them in planning. Listen to them. Use the best of what they have to offer, not the least. Enjoy surprises!
7. Make it a team success. Help folks know that each person contributed to the success of a larger goal. (By the way, can you ditch self-important language like “I need you to” … and “I couldn’t have done it without the assistance of”?) It’s not about you! It shouldn’t need to be said, but … be kind. Volunteers don’t need a boss, they need a team leader. “Do this” and “Don’t do that” don’t work nearly as well as “Would you please help Joe with” or “We need someone to … Could you do that, please” and “Would you try it this way, please?”
8. Appreciate each other! Make it enjoyable to serve. Treat volunteers as valued persons, not cheap employees. Identify something special that you observed: “I loved the look on that mother’s face when you sang a song to her child. You have such a gift for making children feel special.” Thank them. Don’t bribe them with thank-you gifts, but expressing genuine gratitude is essential to serving together.
Larry, great stuff. Thanks for sharing you additional thoughts.
Larry, great stuff. Thanks for sharing your additional thoughts.
This is very helpful and concise! Will be sharing this with those I serve.