Where Did All The Volunteers Go?

Written by Bill Whitt
November 6, 2023

Volunteer engagement in churches is continuing to decline. Here are six strategies I've seen work in vibrant churches.

Healthy churches are filled with excited, thriving teams of volunteer leaders. These highly involved laypeople get to experience God working through them. They push the mission and vision of the church forward. And they develop deep relationships as they work together, moving them toward the core of a growing church.

  • However, in a recent report, The Unstuck Group said volunteer engagement in churches is continuing to decline. Before the pandemic, 45 to 50 percent of adults and students served at least monthly. Last year, that number was 37 percent. This year, it is only 34 percent.

The work of church renewal must focus on reversing this trend. Here are six strategies I’ve seen work in vibrant churches with thriving volunteer engagement.

Six Strategies to find and keep volunteers.
Strategy 1: Share Stories
  • When announcing the need for volunteers, many churches lean on guilt and obligation as motivators.
  • We’ve found an inspirational message is much more effective — particularly when it’s in the form of a personal testimony. These stories allow potential volunteers to catch a glimpse of how fulfilling and fun ministry can be!
Strategy 2: Each One Reach One
  • The easiest way to make an announcement is to place a paragraph in the bulletin, read something from the platform, or send out an email newsletter. All these are forms of “cattle calls,” and all are rarely effective.
  • Personal appeals are typically the most effective way to grow a team. If you currently have a team of five volunteers, those five people are ideally equipped to invite their friends to join them, answer their questions, and help with onboarding.
Strategy 3: Give Clear Expectations
  • Most people will want to look before they leap into a volunteer opportunity. They will want to know exactly what will be expected of them — what they will do and how often they will be doing it.
  • If you do not communicate clear, simple expectations to your current volunteers, you may deal with attrition and low morale. This makes recruiting new team members even harder, and for good reason!
Strategy 4: Offer “Term Limits” and “Trials”
  • No one wants to sign up for a life-long commitment to serve in a particular role. Churches that offer volunteer positions for a limited time (e.g., the spring season) will generally have a better response rate. You might call this a “term limit.”
  • It can also help to offer “trials.” What if the volunteer serves in a particular role for four weeks and determines it is not the right fit? Branding that time as a trial gives them an easy out to try something different without feeling guilty.
Strategy 5: Don’t forget to say Thank you!
  • Simple words and acts of appreciation are crucial for healthy teams. Team leaders who build time into their routine to express thanks to their volunteers will find they have a more stable team that is fully bought-in.
  • Team leaders who do not take time to personally express gratitude may find they have trouble maintaining and building teams.
Strategy 6: Make Disciples, Not free staff members
  • Finally, the words we use matter. It may be time to move away from the term “volunteer.” The word makes people think we want something from them — free labor.
  • In reality, we want something for people. We want to help them find their calling and experience the joy of serving God with their gifts. In this sense, our main task is discipleship more than volunteer management.

I hope these six strategies are helpful in your context. Lastly, here is one that I do not recommend: increasing staffing beyond recommended levels.

  • The Unstuck Group’s report says overstaffing can lead to a downward spiral: “Churches are more likely to be over-staffed right now. Are churches hiring more people because fewer people are volunteering? If churches hire more people, will people be less likely to volunteer?”
  • Instead of getting stuck in this trap, let’s commit ourselves to the vision of Scripture. We exist to equip the saints (all Christ-followers) for works of ministry!

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