Make your church volunteer-friendly

How the pastor can engage and nurture effective volunteers in the congregation

Teena M. Stewart is a ministry consultant and speaker with Ministry in Motion from Benicia, California.

Someone has said that 90 percent of the work of a church is done by ten percent of the members. No matter how hard you try, you'll never get everyone to commit to serving. Some are simply more interested in taking than giving, but you can increase the percentage of those who serve by being more proactive.

In Mark Twain's book Tom Sawyer, young Tom is given the chore of whitewashing his Aunt Polly's fence. Tom grudgingly sets to work. As he paints, several acquaintances stop by. Each friend invites Tom to come and play, which certainly sounds like a lot more fun than painting a fence. Tom formulates a plan. If he can recruit some of his friends to help, the work will get done in half the time.

"Boy, your plans sound tempting," says Tom, "but I'm having way too much fun painting this fence." The idea that fence painting could be fun never occurred to Tom's friends until he made it look like an adventure.

If you know the story you'll remember that Tom ended up with a whole row of fence painters while he simply stood by and watched.

Tom figured out something that lots of church leaders haven't. It takes one person a lot longer to complete a task than when many people pitch in. If we want to recruit help, we must make the task look so appealing that people can't refuse helping. It also shows the value of fellowship. Working alone can be rather lonely. Working with others can actually be enjoyable.

Radiating a contagious vision

How do we get people to see lay ministry as an exciting service opportunity rather than an unwelcome chore? It all depends on how we present it.

We can start by offering engaging ministry discovery courses that help people identify their gifts and abilities. There are many resources available. A good ministry discovery class explains spiritual gifts, and helps individuals identify theirs. In addition, it should offer some sort of self-assessment where people have the opportunity to evaluate their own abilities and experiences and look at where they are best suited for ministry.

At the end of the class, it's wise to have information available on ministry opportunities within your church. Our church even has ministry consultants who are specially trained to meet with individuals and help them find where they are best suited to serve.

Educate attendees so they catch the vision. Many church attendees today are newcomers; people who either haven't previously been exposed to church on a regular basis, or who haven't attended at all. These young believers often have a misconception of church operations. It never occurs to them that they should be involved. We must educate members to see staff as trainers and equippers rather than those hired to do all the work. "[God has given pastors and teachers], to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up" (Eph. 4:11, 12, NIV).

Helping members catch the vision involves instilling within them a new belief system that includes the conviction that every believer is uniquely gifted and is expected to serve. "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms" (1 Peter 4:10, NIV).


Motivating people to serve in ministry is an ongoing challenge. Just as people walk away from a sermon and forget what they've learned, if you want people to acquire a concept, you have to put the idea before them in as many ways as possible.

Once people begin to get the idea that every member is a minister, remind them, every chance you get. The idea of service through volunteering should be an ongoing campaign. Preach it from the pulpit, teach it in classes, mention it in printed media and through other venues.

Sell the congregation on the benefits of volunteering. What are those benefits?

First, when you volunteer, you step outside of your world and learn to touch the lives of others. People often complain of feeling unconnected despite the fact that they are attending church. Remind them that volunteering provides an opportunity to fellowship and socialize.

Another significant benefit of volunteer service is that it encourages a person to develop his or her gifts and skills; a very valuable asset that may be adapted in other settings, such as careers. Volunteering also performs a badly needed service in the life of someone in need. Show potential volunteers that when they get involved, they become a part of a larger picture.

Make them aware of the needs. A key reason people fail to get involved in ministry is because they don't know there's a need.

Think of your church as a target. Inside the inner circle are a few select staff members and leaders who know what's happening and the direction your church ministry is taking. There's another circle outside of that, most often composed of leaders and additional staff, who are somewhat in the know. The further away you move from the core, the fewer people in the crowd who know about the actual ministry opportunities and openings.

Too often those who know the needs don't get the word out past the first ring of leaders. If you don't tell someone your needs, or the needs around them, how will they know?

Not only do you need to get the word out, you need to be specific. For instance, rather than saying, "We have openings in the children's department," you might say, "We have openings for a greeter—someone to meet parents and children at the door once a month" or "We need someone to help lay out arts and crafts for the five-year-olds during the second service."

You can run ads in your printed programs, publish them in newsletters, make announcements, and more. However, the most effective way to get people to step up and agree to serve is to issue a personal invitation. When you talk with them personally, it makes the needs seem more important, and it gives the person the opportunity to ask questions. Plus, the personal invitation makes them feel special, that they really matter.

Provide opportunities and training

Give them permission to try and fail. People are often reluctant to volunteer because they are afraid they either won't know how to do the job or they might fail completely. One of the best ways to dispel their fears is to allow them to try short-term volunteer opportunities. This helps them gain confidence.

Most people find that when they actually do step into a ministry position, it's not as scary as they had imagined, and most stick with it once they've decided to try it.

Provide coaching and training. Potential volunteers want the reassurance that they won't be abandoned when they get involved.

Don't put someone into a new position, hand him or her a book, and close the door. Do a talk through/walk through. First talk to them about what is expected and how the job is to be done. Then, if possible, have them observe someone doing the job so they can see how it is currently being managed.

Follow up periodically to see how they are doing.

Avoid volunteer burnout

Get rid of sacred cows. Long-established churches often have programs that are being run simply because they have always been there . . . and are most likely sacred to someone! The more programs you have, the more volunteers you need to run them. No program should be so precious that it cannot be eliminated.

What might have been a highly effective ministry five or ten years ago, can end up being a draining maintenance ministry today. Needs change. Churches grow and shrink. Demographics change. People and their needs alter. This means ministry needs are always in flux.

Make it a habit to periodically evaluate programs and their purposes to see if they are still effective. If not, consider implementing something else that would be more effective and utilize fewer volunteers.

In addition to obsolete programs that stretch churches beyond their volunteer capacity, churches might consider setting limits to lengths of service tenure, so dedicated volunteers don't burn out from doing the same thing year after year.

Show appreciation

Show volunteers they are appreciated. Many people function in their roles, wondering how effective their work is, or how well they are, in fact, doing it. Besides this, volunteers may enjoy serving, but no one wants their work to go unnoticed. There are many ways to show volunteer appreciation. It can be as simple as saying "Thank you," or as formal as a recognition ceremony for outstanding service. The important thing is that you show you appreciate them. By respecting your volunteers, you'll increase the likelihood of retaining them.

To get more people involved in ministry, we need to make our churches more volunteer friendly. What barriers are preventing people from volunteering in your church? Is it time you began working to remove those barriers?

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Teena M. Stewart is a ministry consultant and speaker with Ministry in Motion from Benicia, California.

May 2003

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