June 26, 2023

The Ultimate Guide to Healthy Volunteer Engagement

ultimate guide to healthy volunteer engagement

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If we’re not helping people engage the mission as part of the body of Christ, we’re not helping them become more like Jesus.

Helping people use their spiritual gifts and their wiring to serve others should be a core part of every discipleship path—just like Bible teaching and connecting with other believers in a group or class. After all, 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. However, many churches still struggle to engage their church in this key area.

In this guide, we’ll outline several common barriers to volunteer engagement, offer tips for increasing volunteer engagement, and explain how to build healthy volunteer teams. 

Common Barriers to Volunteer Engagement

There is so much more to serving than just the serving, and there are many unexpected benefits of a healthy volunteer culture. But it will take more than blurbs in the bulletin and pleas from the pulpit to successfully move people into volunteer positions in your church. Here are 5 of the common barriers and mistakes we see when it comes to volunteer engagement:

1. We don’t take time to explain why we are asking people to serve.

Just asking someone to watch a crying baby, park cars, or stand at a door while holding a sign isn’t enough. People want to be a part of something big! They want to know their time and energy and commitment is advancing the Kingdom. 

Volunteers need to constantly be reminded how what they are doing is helping lead people to Christ. Yet church leaders are often so overwhelmed with tasks and ministry responsibilities that they forget to teach people why they are doing what they are doing.

2. We don’t provide volunteers opportunities to build community. 

People are longing for community more today than ever before. Despite social media and busy personal and ministry calendars, people want more than a like or a thumbs up emoji. 

Everything should be done in teams—that’s the way God designed it. We are the body of Christ, and we need each other’s wiring, experiences, wisdom and giftedness. Giving someone a role to fill will keep them showing up for a month or two. Engage the same person with a real community and they will serve for the long haul.

3. We make it hard to get started. 

We recommend having a go-to place, be it on your website or at a prominent spot where people congregate in your building (or both!), that is always up-to-date on volunteer opportunities. This should include current needs and ongoing opportunities, along with a breakdown of roles, responsibilities, time commitment and ministry leader contacts.

If this spot has a person staffing a table, that person needs to be a passionate ambassador for the church’s mission, vision and values and able to easily communicate to potential volunteers how each opportunity to serve connects to the church’s purpose. If it’s on your website, make the vision front and center—and consider including videos from volunteers in different ministries that provide potential volunteers with an idea of what it’s like to serve in that area.

Overall, make signing up easy and guarantee every inquiry into a volunteer role will receive a prompt response.

4. We don’t clearly communicate the details.

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 being there once a month.

If you want people to do a job, they need to clearly understand the expectations and requirements. Pull back the veil and show people what it’s like before you ask them to get involved.

5. We don’t value our volunteers. 

The Church is the Body of Christ, and it takes all of us with all of our gifts, time and passion to spread His message. Do your volunteers understand that you appreciate their decision to serve alongside you? 

The Church is the Body of Christ, and it takes all of us with all of our gifts, time and passion to spread His message. Do your volunteers understand that you appreciate their decision to serve alongside you?  Click To Tweet

Of course, no church can afford to pay their volunteer teams what they are worth—but valuing volunteers isn’t as costly as we may think. Communication of thanks to volunteers should be frequent and thoughtful—not just a “thank you” email every month. Helping people remember how special they are and that God is using their lives to accomplish an amazing purpose may be more valuable than a paycheck.

There is one more key barrier to consider when it comes to volunteering—the culture of your church as a whole. In many cases, churches have traded a culture of service for a culture of status.

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. 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 (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.

How to Encourage More Volunteer Engagement

When we talk about volunteer engagement, we are referring to serving both inside and outside the church… because we are on mission both inside and outside the church. If we routinely celebrate and share stories of people who serve in the community and downplay the people who serve on Sunday morning, people in our congregations pick up on that whether we say it out loud or not. Now that we’ve established that, here are some key tips for recruiting more volunteers and volunteer leaders.

Tips for Recruiting More Volunteers

It’s easier to get a new person to serve than it is to engage people who have been around for years.

So if you’re seeing an influx of new people attending your church, NOW is the time to invite them to join a team. Strike while the iron is hot. Don’t wait for them to settle in and become consumers of ministry—because the longer you wait, the harder it will become to engage them in a serving role. This connection for new people needs to begin on Sunday morning. Here are some specific ideas:

  • Most new people want to make new friends, so help them see how serving is a great way to meet new people at the church.
  • Avoid promotion competitions between ministries for new volunteers. 
  • Create one obvious place for people to connect to serving. 
  • Make the “I’m interested” process simple.
  • Help your staff and your congregation learn the art of connection.

Streamline your calendar to create space for people to serve. 

If your calendar is full with worship services, ministry programs, Bible classes, groups and special events that you are asking people to attend, you crowd out the time people might be willing to serve. In other words, less really is more.

Some of you may have influence to streamline the entire church’s calendar. If that’s not you, begin with the calendar that you can control—yours. In your sphere of influence, evaluate everything you’re doing. Keep the programs and events on the calendar that have the biggest opportunity for producing life change. 

Men are more likely to join a team before they join a small group.

Should we continue to encourage men to engage in home groups and Bible studies? Absolutely! However, the research shows that while women tend to develop relationships through talking with each other, men tend to develop relationships by doing things together. (No, not all men and all women develop relationships in this way, but the research shows this is generally how men and women engage with each other.)

Most churches we work with encourage all newcomers to move from services, to groups, to serving. Yet our research has shown that in general, people are more likely to move from a serving team to a group than they are to move from a group to a serving team. 

>> Still having trouble? These 10 questions for increasing volunteer engagement might help.

Tips for Recruiting High-Level Volunteer Leaders

Engaging leaders requires a slightly different approach. For example, you can’t ask people to lead through a platform announcement, an email message, or a text message—It requires a face-to-face conversation. 

In that conversation, you need to prepare ahead of time to explain the role, the win, the time commitment, what your support will look like, etc. Maybe the most important question you have to be prepared to answer is “Why?” Why is their leadership needed and how will their leadership impact the overall mission of the church?

Don’t say no for people before you give them a chance to say yes.

You have to ask busy people to engage in the church’s mission. The people we need to serve and lead are already busy people, so our tendency is to say no for them before we even ask. But 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 the Gospel mission. Make the ask and then let them wrestle with God about how to best prioritize their time investment.

Leaders will say yes to helping you tackle a problem before they’ll say yes to helping you fill a position.

People with leadership gifting typically serve in leadership positions already. They are already leading and they aren’t looking for another leadership position. However, leaders all share a common attribute: They gravitate to a big challenge. They are attracted to big problems to solve and conquer. So, if you want someone to step up into leadership, you need to offer them a problem to solve before you give them a position to fill. 

Leaders also want to make an impact with their leadership. So if you want to get someone to volunteer their leadership capacity, you need to cast the vision for how their leadership will help you overcome that challenge and move the mission forward.

If you want someone to volunteer their leadership capacity, you need to cast the vision for how their leadership will help you overcome a specific challenge and move the mission forward. Click To Tweet

How to Build Healthy Volunteer Teams

Every leader wants healthy volunteers who are reaching their full potential. So how can church staff members build up volunteers and volunteer teams?

Teach shoulder-tapping. In the church, we tend to rely on promotions to recruit volunteers. We use platform announcements and bulletin ads and pleas for help. But volunteer recruitment is relational. It’s one friend inviting another friend to join them in serving. Four out of five people show up to church for the first time through an invitation from a friend… That same principle works for every next step people take at your church.

Stay focused. This is a simple math problem: The more ministry programs and events your church offers, the more volunteers you’ll need. Focused ministry means less competition for people’s time and attention. People are already busy—their church shouldn’t be compounding the problem. We should be helping people prioritize their time rather than making their lives more complicated.

The more ministry programs and events your church offers, the more volunteers you’ll need. Focused ministry means less competition for people’s time and attention. Click To Tweet

Identify leaders, not doers. The church needs doers, or servants, too. But, as Jethro pointed out to Moses, we also need capable leaders. We need leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands. And, this may surprise you, but you don’t have to be on paid staff to be a leader in the church. Volunteers have leadership gifts too. If you feel stuck, you probably don’t need another person to get tasks done—you need another person to lead.

Empower people to use their gifts. We need to remember it’s about the body of Christ using their gifts to fulfill God’s mission. It’s more about helping people be who God created them to be than it is about us finding people to get tasks done. 

There is nothing worse than losing a great volunteer. Many people simply disappear when they are struggling rather than reaching out for help. Fortunately, great leaders can notice symptoms and make positive changes that lead to healthy teams.

There is another angle to developing a healthy volunteer culture that is often overlooked: our staffing strategies. There’s a tendency to believe that the more staff a church has, the more ministry they can get accomplished. However, our experience with hundreds of churches has shown that 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. So how can we begin to fix this problem?

  1. Challenge your staff members to draw out an org chart that includes volunteer leaders and volunteers. Instruct them to “Pretend you have a 12-week sabbatical coming up. What type of roles need to be designed to keep the ministry running in your absence? No staff positions allowed.” When these leaders think about how they would get the ministry done if they weren’t there, it would help them design a team structure.
  2. Lead pastors need to regularly cast vision around what it means to be the body of Christ and the importance for every person to recognize they are a part of this body and have a role to play. 
  3. During the staff recruitment, selection and onboarding process, clearly communicate this: ”Your number one job responsibility, over everything else, is to equip God’s people to do the work of God.” Regardless of the role you’re hiring, you want your new staff to clearly understand that their job is to equip lay leaders and build teams to engage the mission and make disciples of Jesus. Or, to put it another way, your ministry is to get ministry done through other people.

And pastors, if you do have one of those staff leaders who excels at volunteer engagement, celebrate that leader, promote them to expanded leadership roles, and give them a raise. Make heroes of those staff leaders.

Still Not Enough Volunteers?

If you have a high percentage of people serving at your church (more than half of your students and adults) and you still have 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

Many churches who claim to have a volunteer problem actually have a complexity problem: They have too many competing ministry programs and events searching for more volunteer help. That’s not just a calendar or scheduling problem; that becomes a spiritual formation problem. 

Because keeping people busy isn’t the goal—helping them become more like Jesus is. 

And if we’re not helping people engage the mission as part of the body of Christ, then we’re not helping them become more like Jesus.

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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