Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect this nation’s compassion, unselfish caring, patience, and just plain loving one another. ~ Erma Bombeck
Church volunteers. The very phrase calls to mind a sweet senior citizen who makes coffee for fellowship hour helps out in the nursery and sends cards to shut-ins. They are familiar, welcoming faces for congregation members and a blessing for busy clergy and church staff. Change, however, is all around us these days. Church volunteers and the churches they serve are changing. More organizations are relying on volunteers and asking them to do more challenging tasks; highly skilled volunteers are at a premium. Recognizing the important role volunteers play and nurturing that relationship are more important than ever.
According to US census data, more than one-quarter of the population volunteers in some capacity. People volunteer for a variety of reasons; they feel passionate about a cause, they want to be of service, they want to meet people, they want to learn new skills, it gives them a sense of being “close to the action.” In religious organizations, where the majority of volunteers are found, volunteers serve in many ways; they make up the decision-making bodies of the church, they lead service organizations within the church, they increase the church’s ability to reach out to the community and they help scarce budget dollars go farther.
Understanding a volunteer’s motivations is an important step in attracting and retaining those valuable people. An effective pastor, along with church staff, will have a clear understanding of what leads a volunteer to give time and what the person seeks to get out of the relationship. Church staffs, in particular, need to make a conscious effort to connect with volunteers as they often have more contact with volunteers than do the clergy.
Best Methods for Attracting and Keeping Church Volunteers
Make it easy to volunteer
Don’t put up a volunteer notice on some obscure bulletin board. Set up a table during fellowship time with an outgoing person willing to engage people who walk by. Put a sign-up link on your website. Use online tools like Sign-Up Genius, VolunteerSpot, Meal Train or Lotsa Helping Hands to make it easy for volunteers to sign up for specific time slots and jobs. People want to help, but unless they are highly motivated, won’t spend much time searching for a sign-up.
Recruit for specific purposes
In your online post, newsletter or at the recruiting table, give a brief description of what the volunteer will be asked to do, and when. Recruiting volunteers for daytime tasks yields different results than for projects that can be done in the evenings, weekends or at home. If the task requires specific skills, state that. It’s frustrating for the volunteer and staff alike to learn that a task is beyond the skill set of the volunteer. Ask congregation members to complete a simple skills inventory. It’s a good way to find potential volunteers and helps you better know your congregation.
Know your congregation
One church had a difficult time finding volunteers to help create set pieces for vacation Bible school. Call parents whose children are signed up for VBS and ask if they would be willing to help out. Everyone said he/she would gladly have volunteered if the scheduled times had not been during the weekday. The church had a large population of working parents, and few could take time off during the day. When the church moved the work sessions to one evening and a Saturday, they had abundant volunteers.
Match people according to their abilities, not your needs
In a large suburban church in the Midwest, two weekdays are especially hectic, bulletins printed and stuffed and the building crowded with different activities. On those busy mornings, a church volunteer was scheduled who could not work any office machinery, was flustered by the new phone system and was often absent. This volunteer is a loved and respected member of the church, but scheduling her during a high-stress day was unfair to her and not productive for the church. A tactful staff member spoke with the volunteer, asking if she could take on the task of sending bulletins and announcements to shut-ins on a quiet day in the office. The volunteer willingly made the switch. She was glad to be able to make a contribution more in line with what she wanted to do for the church, and perfectly suited her.
Provide training and show volunteers that what they do matters
Successful church volunteer programs offer comprehensive training in church programs and procedures. In one church, all volunteers go through an orientation session, where they receive general church information, along with information specific to their post. A volunteer manual, where volunteers can find information on church programs and staff, current events and FAQs, is an important tool. Cross-training is important, too. If one volunteer is unable to help on a scheduled day, another volunteer can easily step in. At every possible opportunity, staff members relate volunteer tasks to the overall goals of the church and illustrate how something as seemingly simple as serving on a hospitality committee has a big impact on the experience of a first-time church visitor.
Protect the church and the volunteer
As in any organization, safety, and security of the organization and its people is critical, physical safety and data security. In a church, the emphasis is on inclusion and open access. But people and their information still need to be secure.
Increasingly, knowledgeable volunteers help churches with websites and social media. In some cases, they enter personal and financial data into a database. Committee members often have access to sensitive information on staff and finances. Staff and volunteers should sign a Code of Conduct or Ethics contract. This reinforces the expectation that everyone should be honest, and that agreement renewed annually. Passwords to databases and websites must be tightly controlled and monitored for abuse. Establish guidelines about who can make changes to a website, what kinds of changes can be made and with what approval. Set a social media policy and publish it.
Are volunteers ever alone in the building? Who locks the doors when they leave? Do you lock the doors? Who has access to the building? Keep track of keys. Keys held by volunteers aren’t always turned in and the number of keys proliferates. The safety of your church and your volunteers is vital. It’s a further sign that you care about the people who do so much for your church.
What’s in it for the volunteer?
Make sure you know why a person volunteers. This question could be part of the skills inventory, or could be part of the volunteer orientation process. Create a matrix listing possible volunteer motivators (e.g., learning, meeting people, personal mission) and how you will satisfy that particular need. For example, if a volunteer indicates a desire to meet new people, don’t assign that person a solitary task like putting up and taking down bulletin boards. Make that person part of the welcome team, and give him or her the opportunity to meet not only existing members but visitors, as well.
Remember the buddy system
In one church, most of the staff work part-time. One long-time member, a very social and active senior, was assigned a morning in the office when few of the staff were present. She sat alone at the office reception desk with little to do. It wasn’t long before she stopped coming in. Not long after she stopped volunteering, she began attending a different church. Here, she soon initiated and led a fellowship group for senior women interested in the arts. Assign a “buddy” to a new volunteer, and wherever possible, allow volunteers to work with other volunteers or staff members. Of course, there will be those who prefer to work alone, so offer them more solitary projects.
Be good role models
One church volunteer complained to the pastor. “What exactly does the staff do? I proofread, copy and stuff the bulletins while they talk about what they watched on television the night before.” Another, who attended a church where a changeover in ministers caused a rift in the congregation, heard staff taking sides with certain members of the congregation and mocking those with different opinions. The person stopped volunteering and left the church over what he felt was hypocritical behavior on the part of the staff. It is imperative that church staff and clergy serve as positive examples that reflect the ideals of the church. Jim Wideman, an internationally recognized expert in children and family ministries says, “The starting place for any leader is to give themselves a check-up from the neck up and examine their integrity.” That’s true for anyone in church leadership, no matter the role.
Say thank you early and often
It is impossible to thank volunteers too much. One financially strained church was forced to stop its annual volunteer luncheon. The senior pastor explained that to the volunteers, then clergy and staff wrote personal thank you notes to each volunteer. Another church had personalized name tags made for volunteers; another has interchangeable nameplates at the volunteer desk, so each person can be readily identified. Many churches recognize volunteers during services annually. A group of volunteers asked how they like to be acknowledged agreed that, while formal recognition is nice, a sincere, direct thank you from a clergy member, along with an acknowledgment that their work is valued, was sufficient thanks.
However you recruit and nurture volunteers, just remember that they are your church’s most far-reaching advocates. Volunteers who feel valued will create enormous goodwill inside and outside your church help recruit and keep members and volunteers.
US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Volunteering in the United States, 2014”
Non-Profit Risk Management Center, FAQs