15 Random Thoughts on Church Volunteer Engagement

thoughts on church volunteer engagement

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It’s hard to believe, but I wrote Simply Strategic Volunteers with my friend Tim Stevens about 20 years ago. I was flipping through the book the other day, and it made me pause to reflect on the principles I would share today if I were rewriting that book.

Needless to say, there are two primary challenges I’m hearing from pastors on this side of the pandemic. First, every pastor wants to see their Sunday services as full as they were before Covid. I understand and can appreciate that desire. And, fortunately, more and more people are returning to our physical gatherings including Sunday services.

Secondly, and right behind that, almost every pastor is talking about the challenge of getting people to serve. Many people who used to attend and serve probably enjoyed the time off from their volunteer roles. But now, as people are returning back to church and new people are showing up, finding volunteers to support our mission has become that much more important.

Given that challenge, I hope you find these nuggets helpful.

These are my 15 random thoughts on volunteer engagement:

  1. It’s easier to get a new person to serve than it is to engage people who have been around for years. I’m hearing from almost every pastor I talk with about all the new people showing up to church. Just this week a pastor told me, “We probably are back to 85% of our pre-Covid attendance, but it seems like it is primarily all new people.” Strike while the iron is hot. NOW is the time to invite all those new people to join the mission. Don’t wait for them to settle in and become consumers of your ministry. The longer you wait, the harder it will become to engage them in a serving role. 
  2. Don’t outsource serving roles by hiring more staff to do the ministry. We don’t outsource Bible engagement by hiring staff to read and study the Bible for people in our churches. We don’t outsource prayer by hiring staff to talk and listen to God for people in our churches. We shouldn’t outsource serving opportunities by hiring more staff to do the ministry that God designed for everyone who is part of the body of Christ.
  3. Men are probably more likely to join a team than they are to join a small group. Should we still encourage men to engage in home groups? Absolutely! The research shows, however, that while women develop relationships through talking with each other, men develop relationships by doing things together. If we want men to connect with the church and other men, we probably should prioritize helping them join a team.
  4. People who serve tend to complain less. It’s probably because they’re more invested in the mission of the church. If you are frustrated by the volume of the complainers in your church, encourage them to serve. If they’re unwilling to do that…honestly…you probably need to help them find another church. Just don’t send them to my church. 🙂
  5. People who serve also give more. I have done this research several times in the past. Church attenders tend to financially contribute at the lowest level. Church members give a little bit more. People who connect to a small group tend to contribute more than people who become members but don’t engage in a group or serving. And people who volunteer are also more likely to contribute financially at the highest levels. If your finances are tight, you may want to invite people to serve before you invite them to give.
  6. The number one job responsibility of every staff person at a church should be team building…no matter what their role. I would make this the first responsibility listed on every position’s job description. Every staff person should share in the responsibility of equipping God’s people to do the work of God. I may be a student pastor, but I’m primarily a team builder. I may be a groups director, but I’m primarily a team builder. I may be a worship pastor, but I’m primarily a team builder.
  7. Though everyone is responsible for building volunteer teams, one person needs to champion volunteer engagement. There needs to be one person who is thinking about how to engage more volunteers across every ministry team. You need one person thinking about strategies for recruiting, onboarding, training, and celebrating volunteers. You need someone who works closely with every key ministry leader to move as many people as possible into serving opportunities. That person also needs to monitor the serving metrics to help every team know whether or not they are winning when it comes to volunteer engagement.
  8. Serving should be a key step in the spiritual formation journey. Helping people use their spiritual gifts and their wiring should be a core part of your discipleship path just like Bible teaching and connecting with other believers in a group or class. If we’re not helping people engage the mission as part of the body of Christ, we’re not helping people become more like Jesus.
  9. You don’t need a spiritual gifts assessment to help people identify their spiritual gifts. Instead, we just need to help people be more sensitive to the needs of other people in their lives. When we see a need, we respond to the need. And what I’ve noticed is that people tend to respond to needs using their spiritual gifts. Some pray. Some rally a team. Some provide counsel and so on. By the way, this tends to be a healthier approach too because the emphasis is more on the person we are helping and less on us and our specific spiritual gifts. (Don’t get me started on the people who believe they have the spiritual gift of teaching and think it’s the church’s responsibility to find them a place to teach.)
  10. Overstaffing tends to lead to under-volunteering. When paid staff are doing much of the ministry, they aren’t as motivated to raise up other lay leaders and build volunteer teams. Frankly, some of that is because of job security. They may sense that if they give ministry to volunteers, they may not have a job. That’s all the more reason to celebrate, promote and give raises to the staff leaders on your team who win when it comes to building volunteer teams. Make those staff leaders your heroes. (And remember that declining churches have significantly bigger staff teams than growing churches. Our research has confirmed that declining churches employ 56% more full-time equivalent employees than growing churches.)
  11. Don’t say no for people before you give them a chance to say yes. In other words, you have to ask busy people to engage in the mission. The people we need to serve in our mission are already busy people, so our tendency is to say no for them before we even ask. Stop that! We have the greatest mission in the world. We need those busy people to re-prioritize their time so they’re investing their gifts into our mission. Make the ask and then let them wrestle with God about how to best prioritize their time.
  12. Leaders will say yes to helping you tackle a problem before they’ll say yes to helping you fill a position. Or another way to say this is that leaders won’t respond to a platform announcement. If you need someone to volunteer to lead a team or tackle a significant challenge, you need to ask them individually rather than corporately. And here’s a little secret… Leaders want to make an impact with their leadership. They gravitate toward challenges. Big challenges. The bigger the better. If you want to get someone to volunteer their leadership capacity, you need to cast the vision for how their leadership will help you move the mission forward.
  13. If you don’t have enough volunteers for kids ministry, it may be because you have too many ministries. Often it seems like kids ministry is one of the more challenging ministry areas to recruit volunteers. However, if you have a high percentage of people serving at your churches (I would say more than half of your students and adults) and you still are having challenges filling volunteer roles for key ministry areas, then you may want to evaluate whether or not you are trying to do too many things. We’ve worked with many churches who claim to have a volunteer problem when in reality they have a complexity problem. They have too many competing ministry programs and events searching for volunteer help.
  14. You don’t want 100% volunteer engagement in your church. That’s actually a sign that the church is declining because you aren’t reaching any new people. Same thing with small group engagement. You don’t want 100% small group engagement in your church either. The hope is that you always have a steady stream of new people who are still spiritually curious and considering the claims of Christ. Yes, we want to move new people into groups and serving opportunities as soon as possible. However, if everyone is serving, that’s an indication that your church has a “front door” problem.
  15. Don’t let anyone serve alone. That includes both staff and volunteers. Everything should be done in teams. That’s the way God designed it. Remember, we are the body of Christ. We need each other’s wiring, experiences, wisdom and giftedness. That’s probably why Jesus sent out the original disciples in teams of at least two. If you catch anyone doing ministry alone whether it’s a staff person or a volunteer, you should give them some appropriate encouragement to raise up another volunteer to join them in that ministry.

I get it. It’s easier for me to write this than it is for you to actually do it. However, this is one of those priorities that every church of any size needs to embrace. In fact, for some churches, this priority may need your full focus. There are way too many benefits to building a healthy volunteer culture for churches to ignore or push aside the current challenges you might be facing in this area.

If you want your church to experience health and growth in the future, we need to equip people to do the work of God and empower people to engage in our mission.

We help pastors clarify where God's called the church to go in the future, and how you'll get there—and then we coach you as you lead change.

Interested in learning more?

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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