God created us to serve and grow within community, and no local church can run without volunteers—that is, members of the body playing their parts. Recruiting and retaining volunteers can be challenging, but it’s possible when people feel connected to the church and to a larger purpose, find value in what they are doing, and feel valued for doing it.
Pray for God’s leading as you determine volunteer roles and seek people to fill them. Then, consider things from a volunteer’s perspective: what pulls in a volunteers and keeps him or her thriving? A volunteer needs…
1. A compelling why
Are you mainly trying to fill a slot? Why should I care? Connect me to the bigger picture. Tie my service in with the mission and values of the church, and show me how we’re building the kingdom of God. Show how the church is growing its people and helping the world to flourish, and how I can play a part in that (1 Peter 4:10).
2. Ease of sign-up
Avoid making me do all the legwork, such as finding the right contact person or knowing which ministries need what. Can I sign up in the lobby? Can someone sign me up while I wait? Make it easy or I might not get around to it—or worse, give up.
3. Clear communication
Tell who, what, when, where, why, how, how often. What is expected? What is the goal? How much leeway do I have? Where do I put my stuff? What if I have questions? Think: if someone asked you to do this, what would you want to know? Also, offer various paths for ongoing communication, such as texting, emails, and face-to-face conversation. And if I request a role you don’t think is a fit, say so rather than leaving me hanging. If you’re replacing me, don’t let me find out by seeing I’m not on the schedule. Transparency builds trust.
4. Aid in discovering and using gifts
Some tasks need to be done whether anyone enjoys them. Chairs need to be stacked. Toddlers’ faces need to be wiped. As servant leaders, we know it’s important to do those things out of love, and to stretch us as believers. (And those with gifts of service and mercy may especially enjoy them.) But when possible, give me a chance to discover and use my own gifts. God placed the gifts He wants in the church (Ephesians 4:11-12; Romans 12:4-8), and the gifts He has provided help the church deploy its people. Consider letting me experiment, or possibly shadow someone in a ministry that interests me.
I may not want to do the same task forever, even if I’m good at it. Just because I’ve led small groups for five years, that doesn’t mean I won’t burn out in the sixth. Give volunteers regular chances to re-up our service and consider different avenues. If we feel stagnant or pigeonholed, we may drop out entirely. Offer extra training or mentoring, share inspiration, or simply engage us in conversation that sharpens us both. By growing and developing us, you help the church reach beyond its doors and into the world. Give us something on Sunday or Wednesday that we can use the rest of the week and in the rest of life.
Volunteer leaders are more engaged in their service when they feel empowered. So, introduce us around. Let us make decisions for our own areas, or train other volunteers. Praying over and commissioning us can show us you’re on our side and you trust us to steward our roles. It’s even empowering when you have high expectations for us. When we prove faithful with little, entrust us with more (Matt. 25:23). Make sure we have what we need to carry out our responsibilities—including information, access to where we need to be, and buy-in from leaders.
Thank volunteers for serving—but better yet, let us know what we did well. Feedback goes further than simple appreciation and helps us know what to repeat and focus on. Also let us know, gently, when you have suggestions for improvement. People often prefer negative constructive feedback to being ignored or overlooked. Say “goodbye” when you see us leaving, and a warm “hello” when we return. We thrive when we know that someone, besides God, sees what we do, and that we’ve made a difference.
8. To be part of the whole
We are not just helping an organization called “the church.” The church does not exist as an entity apart from its people. Rather than asking “us” to help “you,” welcome each member to play a part in living as the body of Christ that we all form.
9. Connection with the rest of the church and with God
Some areas of service disconnect volunteers from the rest of the church. Someone who teaches children may miss sermons and communion. Greeters may say hello to visitors but miss congregational singing. So, invest in us spiritually, pray with and for us, and give us breaks where we can plug back into what the rest of the church is doing. Also foster community among volunteers so that serving connects us rather than isolates us.
10. Help in succeeding
A good question is, “Can you think of anything else that would help you in this role?” Then, continue to touch base without micromanaging. Let me know you’re there to support me. And take concerns seriously. Provide a path to resolve differences, even differences between a worker and a supervisor. Ask what could improve our role, area, or processes. Also ask those who have stopped volunteering—you may be surprised by what you learn.
Alison Dellenbaugh (M.A. in Christian Leadership, Dallas Theological Seminary) is the Spiritual Formation Resource Manager at Central Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and editor of the Next Step Disciple website.