By Helen Gibson
Do you struggle to find volunteers to serve in your church?
If you’re like most leaders, the answer is probably yes. Just over 70 percent of church leaders say they find recruiting volunteers challenging or often impossible, according to the 2015 National Survey of Congregations.
Leaders lament the “80/20 rule”—a theory that suggests 20 percent of church members do 80 percent of the work while the other members do very little.
Still, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Engaging the other 80 percent may be challenging, but it’s not impossible. Here are six practical ways to address the problem and encourage volunteers to step up and serve in your church.
1. Listen to what the uninvolved members of your congregation have to say.
Church leaders often misunderstand the majority of church members who don’t engage in the work of the church, says Scott Thumma, co-author of The Other 80 Percent: Turning Your Church’s Spectators into Active Participants.
“We assume they don’t show up because of spiritual reasons—they’re not as fervent, they’re not as committed to God, they’re lax,” Thumma says.
“But in fact, oftentimes, we found it might be a squabble over the choir, or it might be that they’ve always wanted to serve in a particular ministry and the people already serving in that ministry haven’t ever rotated off, so there’s no space for them.”
Instead, those in the 80 percent need to be pursued, engaged, and seen as a “mission field,” Thumma says. The best way to start is by listening to their stories and trying to understand them.
“If you don’t know the backstory, then your efforts to reach out to them are misguided because those efforts are uninformed,” Thumma says.
2. Make sure your church knows the importance of volunteers.
Once you’ve heard from uninvolved church members, it will be easier to meet them where they are and show them the importance of serving in the local church.
“Churches need to understand using volunteers is a theological thing,” says Jill Fox, author of Volunteering and The Volunteer Church. “It’s biblical. God has called everyone to do ministry—not just pastors. It’s everybody.”
Sometimes, church members—particularly in larger churches—don’t see the importance of their participation. According to a Leadership Network report released last year, those who attend a church with 500 or more members are less likely to volunteer.
“The logic is that when you look around a group of 50 you say, ‘They really need me to jump in here; if I don’t, who else will?’” the report says.
“However, if you look around a group of 500, it’s easier to conclude, ‘Probably many people here are far more talented or available than I am.’”
It’s important for leaders to stress to their members that their participation is vital—for the congregation and the individual.
Volunteers make ministry possible. The disciples appointed volunteers to care for the widows and orphans (Acts 6:1-7). Moses, following his father-in-law’s advice, gave certain responsibilities to the Israelites (Exodus 18).
We’re reminded today that we can accomplish more when we share the responsibilities of day-to-day ministry with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
3. Teach your entire staff how to best engage volunteers.
Fox realized the importance of training church staff and leaders on working with volunteers after spending a year researching best practices.
“I read every book there ever was on volunteering and realized you needed to teach your entire staff and your top lay leaders how to work with volunteers –– how to recruit them, how to appreciate them, how to train them,” Fox says. “That would change a whole church.”
She suggests setting up a system for recruiting, developing, and encouraging volunteers that is easy for everyone involved to understand. Then, she says, train the church staff on that system.
“If you don’t create a system that’s sustainable, it will collapse,” Fox says. “You’ll only be as strong as that leader is in that ministry area.”
A sustainable system, Fox says, creates consistency and clarity throughout a church’s programs.
4. Provide specific training for all volunteers.
Training shouldn’t be provided just for staff members. Every volunteer in your church can benefit from more training and development.
One way this can be accomplished is through online modules that provide flexibility for volunteers who can’t always gather at one time in a single location.
An example of this is Ministry Grid, a subscription-based online resource maintained by LifeWay Leadership with more than 3,000 training and development sessions for parking team members, small group leaders, greeters, deacons, and more.
5. Celebrate volunteers and their work.
Recognition will show volunteers their work is being noticed and appreciated, and you can provide it in simple ways.
Fox remembers constructing a tunnel out of Dixie cups for church volunteers to run through as music played. At the end of the tunnel, people gave each volunteer a king-sized candy bar.
“They go through the tunnel, get candy, and then over on the side we shared the number of volunteers in the different ministry areas to celebrate the total numbers,” Fox says.
“It was something so small, but it made everyone stand higher and be like, ‘Yeah! Let’s work with volunteers! Let’s do this.’”
She also suggests writing a card or note of appreciation to each volunteer on a regular basis.
“When someone gets a postcard or a handwritten note in the mail that says, ‘You’re doing a great job of volunteering. I noticed this in you,’ they love it,” Fox says.
6. Tell their stories.
Sharing success stories can be a powerful way to encourage current and future volunteers. Often, stories open people’s imaginations and help them see themselves in circumstances beyond their own.
“There needs to be a strategic plan for how you are telling the stories of volunteers and celebrating them for both your church staff and your church body,” Fox says. “You have to hold up the stories of volunteers because stories inspire people to get engaged.”
Fox easily recalls specific stories that have encouraged her as a volunteer. There was the time a young girl arrived at a food bank, saw shelves stocked with canned goods, and realized she was going to be able to eat dinner that night.
Then there was the time a group of volunteers in Fox’s church got down on their knees, prayed for a young college ministry, and later watched it thrive.
“As a volunteer, I have personally grown the most in my faith in Jesus Christ because it stretches you,” Fox says. “It pushes you.”
HELEN GIBSON is a freelance writer and senior at Western Kentucky University.