You cast the vision, and they still didn’t commit? This might be why.

Church leaders can think it’s possible to cast so compelling a vision that people will just say yes and then figure out how to rearrange their lives to make it happen. The truth? That’s not realistic.

Failing to cast a compelling vision for why people should volunteer is probably the number one reason people never jump in, but from what I’ve seen lately, there’s another key reason that’s less obvious.

Church leaders can think it’s possible to cast so compelling a vision that people will just say yes and then figure out how to rearrange their lives to make it happen. The truth? That’s not realistic. Click To Tweet

Church leaders have been telling us they’re seeing a significant shift in one of the first next steps people take when connecting to the church: Many people are choosing to give before they start serving

ministry volunteers

It’s surprising on the surface, but not so much if you dig a little deeper. Most people are living fast-paced lives. You probably are, too. Everybody in their world is making a time-related ask—from work, to the kids’ school, to the local nonprofit, to Netflix, to travel sports, to just making dinner at the end of the day in a two-working-parents household.

If time is the most precious commodity in a fast-paced culture, we need to take a fresh look at how we’re communicating about serving in our churches.

Church leaders have been telling us they’re seeing a significant shift in one of the first next steps people take when connecting to the church: Many people are choosing to give before they start serving. Click To Tweet

The “Why Should I Serve?” Test

Most of the time we talk about how important it is to cast a compelling vision for why people should volunteer at your church. Connect serving to the mission and vision. Help people understand how volunteering fits into their own discipleship journey. It’s critical.

And if you offer many different ways to volunteer, make sure you’re connecting each opportunity to the vision. You may think it’s obvious how volunteering for a service in the nursery, or helping park cars, or making coffee, connects to the vision. I can guarantee you most people in your congregation don’t—especially if they aren’t from a church background.

But even if you assess your vision-casting and feel pretty good about how you fair with the “Why Should I Serve Test?” I think I can make a case that another key to engaging more volunteers may not be on your radar.

The “How Does Serving Fit Into My Life?” Test

When you get the chance to invite people to volunteer, make it clear how serving could fit into their lives.

Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, I’ve found myself a member of three different church families in the last six years. I’m from a church background, so when I engage at a new church, opportunities to serve is one of the first things I seek out (Keep in mind: I’m an exception, not the rule). 

When you get the chance to invite people to volunteer, make it clear how serving could fit into their lives. Click To Tweet

These three churches ranged in average attendance from 200 to 10,000+… so what I’m going to share is not a “small church thing” or a “large church thing.” It’s just a blindspot any church can have.

When getting the volunteer “pitch,” I heard lots of vision for why I should serve followed by a request to commit. But most of the time I was just sitting there thinking, “I don’t even know what roles are available. I don’t know what the time commitment expectations are. How can I even pick a direction when I can’t process what fits into my schedule?”

Getting people to commit without really processing what it will mean to be involved is not the goal. It’s probably not even desirable. People who go all-in quickly tend to be ok jumping back out quickly. 

Getting people to commit without really processing what it will mean to be involved is not the goal. It’s probably not even desirable. People who go all-in quickly tend to be ok jumping back out quickly. Click To Tweet

We want reliable people serving in ways that align to their gifts in pursuit of a deeper relationship with God and others. That’s what ultimately builds a church volunteer team that sees a vision through. To get there, you may need to make some adjustments to how you’re “serving up” serving opportunities.

Some Practical Next Steps

Review your process for recruiting new volunteers with a lens for “churchy language skills required.”

People need you to tell them why they should serve, what the opportunities are and how those roles could fit into their lives. Is anything about the way you’re recruiting volunteers assuming people understand how the different roles you need filled connect to the mission and vision?

If you’re not sure, ask an unchurched person to attend your environment for potential volunteers. Ask them which roles stood out to them as most important and why.

Review your process for recruiting new volunteers with a lens for time-commitment.

New potential volunteers (especially people new to the faith) don’t have any way to estimate how much time it takes to be, say, a greeter for two services, or a twice-a-month nursery volunteer. They don’t know your systems for scheduling, or if you’d rather they not serve at all if they can only commit to be there once a month.

How could you make it simpler for them to see what the options are and your corresponding expectations? Two quick ideas:

  • Don’t make people sign up for a training or a shadow day in every ministry area that sounded interesting to them just to find out the basics of what roles are available and how much time they will need to commit to.
  • Have a handout and a webpage that lists the volunteer positions in each ministry and how much time a volunteer is committing to. If it’s flexible, make that clear.
Have a handout and a webpage that lists the volunteer positions in each ministry and how much time a volunteer is committing to. If it’s flexible, make that clear. Click To Tweet

Along the same lines, whenever possible, don’t ask people to commit indefinitely.

People are less likely to opt in if they feel like they’ll get stuck, or that if they change their mind they’ll be a disappointment.

For example, can you start people out in a new role asking for just a three-month commitment, and then promising to check in at that point to see how things are going? You may find you start uncovering issues that were causing people to bail before they do, and giving yourself opportunities to fix them and keep people engaged.

Don’t make the ask only once.

Give people time to process. If you’re asking for volunteers out of a new members class, for example, ask people to pick three areas they’re interested in before they leave, and have a follow-up plan in place to share the roles available and ways to take a next step.  Use email and texting.

Give them time to think (and hopefully pray) about the options and compare against their calendar. Aim to get a clear yes or no before crossing them off your list.

Serving is a crucial part of the discipleship path at just about every church we serve. We have to get this right! Cast a compelling vision. Showcase how each volunteer role connects to the ministry of the church.

And when you make your ask, lead with time.

Interested in learning more about how to get more volunteers?

Each week on The Unstuck Church Podcast, we’re exploring common challenges, like volunteers, in ministry and practical steps for tackling them.

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