February 7, 2017

Need Volunteers? Your Church’s Culture May Be the Issue.


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“People at our church just won’t volunteer.”

It’s a response we get often to our research on volunteer involvement. We recently found that the average church engages 45% of adults and students in volunteer roles. Many even engage upwards of 71%! However, for many churches, those numbers sound like an impossible dream.

What is the difference among churches with a high volunteer rate? In many cases, these churches have traded a culture of status for a culture of service.


A Culture of Status

In a culture of status, only those with a certain rank or title can do ministry. If you want something done well and consistently, you have to pay for it. After all, titles typically come with a salary. Attendees with initiative reach out to volunteer but rarely get connected. Staff members say they “need” more volunteers but are also “too busy” to follow-up with recruits. Those same staff also feel threatened by high-capacity volunteers, fearing their job security may erode. Ultimately, the church ends up overextending its staff budget and reinforcing the idea that ministry is based on status, not gifting.

A Culture of Service

Churches with high volunteer rates have developed an opposite culture. Everyone is invited to serve based on their gifts and passions. (And I mean everyone. Even those outside the faith.) Volunteer engagement is valued more than perfection while systems are put in place to ensure excellence and consistency. Staff members see their work as “equipping the saints,” recognizing that their ultimate value is in the teams they build, not the tasks they complete. Volunteering is promoted as a spiritual next step for all alongside small groups and classes. And volunteers are publicly celebrated as often as possible.

Eventually, pastors don’t have to beg people to serve. They simply have to ask.

What About Your Church?

Is it time to intentionally foster a Culture of Service within your church? The following steps can help you get started:

1) Reduce Your Dependence On Staff

Not surprisingly, churches with low levels of volunteer engagement are also often overstaffed. They’ve trained themselves to pay for ministry. It’s hard to address a volunteer issue without addressing a staffing issue. Until you reduce your reliance on staff, you’ll never need to build strong teams.

2) Reward Team-Building over Ministry-Doing

Do your staff meetings and evaluations focus on the quality of the team being built? Or do you focus only on ministry outputs? If you want team members to value volunteer development, integrate that priority throughout all your interactions.

3) Budget Heavily for Volunteer Development and Appreciation

Your volunteers are the backbone for ministry operations. Though they aren’t compensated financially, they should be heavily developed and appreciated. Both of these require intentional relational investments. With that, staff should be resourced to invest in team members over meals. Additionally, large appreciations and trainings should be well-budgeted for. This is not a place to skimp. Anything short of your best undervalues your best people.

4) Regularly Ask, “How Can We Engage a Volunteer?”

Often, churches don’t have volunteers because they haven’t created opportunities for them. Train your team to keep their eyes open for aspects of ministry they can give away. One church we know recently recognized much of their mid-week administrative work (i.e. mailings, folding, etc.) as an opportunity to build a new volunteer team. Now 15-20 more people serve there every Wednesday.

5) Move Volunteering from an Exception to an Expectation

Many churches are refreshing their approach to church membership, recognizing it as a commitment to engage next steps rather than simply a roster of names. Shift the way you talk about membership from the stage to include true involvement in the body of Christ.

6) Stop Apologizing for People’s Service

We often look at tasks we don’t enjoy as a chore. That mindset leads us to feel sorry for whoever ends up doing them. However, there are people in your church who absolutely love doing the things you hate. When you apologize to them, you actually de-value their gifts in the body of Christ. Instead, appreciate the variety of gifts God has placed in your church.


If you recognize the need to shift your culture, begin the conversation with your leadership team. Invite their input on what needs to change. Then consider these six steps as you shift from a culture of status to a culture of service.


Interested in finding out if over-staffing is affecting your church’s volunteer engagement?

Check out the eBook, Vital Signs: Why Church Health Matters and 14 Ways to Measure ItNew subscribers get a copy for free!

Looking for more volunteer insight? Read the other posts in the series:
How to Energize Volunteerism at Your Church
The Best Spiritual Gifts Test
4 Best Practices for Scheduling Volunteers at Your Church

Ryan Stigile

Ryan Stigile serves as the Co-Founder and Executive Pastor of Nuvo Church. Prior to that, he served as the Executive Pastor of Ministry at Rock Bridge Community Church and Director of Expansion for NewPointe Community Church. Ryan has a Master of Business Administration from Kennesaw State University and degrees in business administration and discipleship ministry from Lee University. He lives in Columbus, OH with his wife Emily and their daughter, Addison.


  • I am the Safety and Security Leader for a small church in Sedona, Arizona. I am recruiting for an armed volunteer security team. Our elders and pastor feel those who volunteer for this ministry should be church members (called partners) rather than folks that just regularly attend church. I find it a bit difficult to recruit for this ministry if I have only those who are partners to choose from. I found your article thought-provoking. What are your thoughts about requiring church membership for security volunteers?

    • Hi Gene, Thanks for your question. These teams are not uncommon and often don’t require membership, but rather focus heavily on appropriate background checks, training, screening, and psychological evaluation. There is no one right answer, but adding membership to that list of requirements would certainly make it more difficult to staff.


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