How to get (and keep) volunteers

11-04-2019
Trace Jackson

“Volunteers are your new job.”

That’s what my boss told me when I unsuspectingly went into her office to complain that I had more work on my plate than I could handle.

She agreed. She knew I was taxed. And yet, here she was giving me more work! Volunteers? Who has time for volunteers? I’m already behind, I don’t have time to recruit, train, deploy, and care for volunteers!

But my boss wouldn't budge.

And so my new job became volunteers. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me (salvation and marriage, excepting, of course).

Here’s what I learned:

Pray for them

God plants into people’s hearts a desire to serve, skills them to do so, and then kerplops them into our church families. They’re prepped and ready. God does the hard part! All we have to do is ask him to send these workers our way. And then prepare, because he’s going to answer that request. In abundance, as is his way.

I cannot stress this “asking” part enough. Get on your knees and pray for volunteers. The work belongs to the Lord. The workers belong to the Lord. What makes us think that any other way except going to the Lord is going to result in workers to do the work?

Make a way for them to “raise their hand”

Ya gotta get the opportunities out there, and ya gotta have a way for people to sign up for them.

  • Volunteer Expo – We would usually do this once a year during our regular worship time. People have already planned to be worshipping during that time, anyway, so it’s no bigger time commitment for them. And let’s face it, when you try to do it after or between services, they’ll bail. But they are yours until the collection plate starts making its way around! This means everyone has to be on board: sing one less song, shorten the sermon, leave out some announcements, and don’t release the kids early!
  • Serve Tour – Take potential volunteers through the building while others are serving so they can see it in action. And then let them talk to “real live volunteers” to see what it’s like.
  • Weekend Cards with an “I want to serve” checkbox that can be dropped in the offering bag
  • Preach a Sermon on how “everyone in the family does the dishes”
  • Job Board posted in the lobby
  • Create a Serve Book with all volunteer opportunities listed; include details, expectations, or requirements
  • All the Communications methods your church uses: Announcements, program notes, digital slides, website, app

Prepare for God to provide

You don’t invite someone over for dinner and then scramble to find them a chair and place settings when they show up! If you advertise a volunteer opening, be ready for someone to step up and fill it.

  • Make a list of all the things you think you need help with. Then make a list of all the other things you would like help with, if the right person came along to do them. Then make a list of all the things you feel someone could do better than you. Now parse these into roles based on when and where they need to be accomplished, skillset, tools required, etc. 
  • Create expectations – What do their skillsets need to be? What about character traits? What time do they need to be at their post? I created job position descriptions and would email them or hand them out whenever someone even hinted at being interested.
  • Create onboarding plan – Will they need a background check? Training? Assemble whatever steps you need to walk them through. I'm a big fan of punch lists so I don't forget a step along the way.
  • Prepare training materials, name tag labels, T-shirts, database security roles.

Follow up with them

Respond quickly. If they were moved by the Spirit to sign up and you give them time to reason themselves out of it, you both lose.

Vary your follow up method. If you emailed them Monday, call them on Thursday. If you don't reach them in the morning, try them later in the evening. I've gotten a pretty decent response rate through texting!

Pursue them. Have you ever gotten an email and thought, ‘I’ll come back to that’ only to find it again months later, pages deep in your inbox, and you end up deleting it because it’s too old to do anything with now anyway? You’re not the only one! Keep reaching out. Once isn’t enough. Don’t stop until you have an answer. Sometimes that answer will end up being no. Sometimes it’ll be yes. But not pursuing an answer is a guaranteed no and makes you look like you cried wolf. Pursue them the way Christ would pursue them.

Equip them

All those things you prepared a few steps before this; the things you've set aside waiting for the volunteers to start showing up? Yah, now is the time to start providing them.

Don't just drop them into the work zone and let them fend for themselves. Let them shadow someone (you?). Some people just want to know what to do. Others need to know how. Others: why. Give them the answers they need to understand what they are doing and how to carry it out.

Set the expectation at the outset that there will be a learning curve, and that there will always be checkpoints along the way to see how they are doing and to look for ways to improve. That way they don't experience their first challenges and want to quit; they were prepared for this and know that it's a normal part of the journey.

Have a few gatherings so they can get to know the others they are serving with, get some training, and feel valued that you are expending a little time and money on them.

Use them!

This is the moment you've been waiting for. Now is not the time to hold back on all the things you want to do yourself because you think you can do it right or better or faster.

  • Empower them.
  • Give them room to make mistakes. And then, show them how to do it better next time.
  • Let them be part of the solution. Let them suggest tools and resources and, unless it’s truly a hill to die on, let them run with it!
  • Don’t be stingy with “permissions” or giving them authority. There’s nothing worse than being in a position where you have all the responsibility but none of the authority. So don’t put them in that position.

Recruit a recruiter

You’ll notice that there’s that one team member who invites their cousin, their neighbor, or the latest new guest who walked through to door to come and serve with them. Give them a “promotion” by making them the official recruiter for their team. You’ll have more volunteers than you know what to do with.

And then… pray. Yes, again.

Pray for them.
Pray with them.
Pray over them.

They are now your new job. And I cannot imagine a ministry any sweeter.