God created us to serve and grow within community, and no local church can run without volunteers—that is, members of the body playing their parts. Recruiting and retaining volunteers can be challenging, but it’s absolutely possible when people feel connected to the church and to a larger purpose, find value in what they are doing, and feel valued for doing it.
Pray for God’s leading as you determine volunteer roles and seek people to fill them. Then, consider things from their perspective: what pulls volunteers in and keeps them thriving?
1. We need a compelling why.
Are you mainly trying to fill a slot? Why should we care? Connect us to the bigger picture. Tie our service in with the mission and values of the church, and show us how we’re building the kingdom of God. You don’t need to stretch this or overplay it—don’t just feed us a line. But show us how the things the church is doing are growing its people and helping the world to flourish, and how we can play a part in that
(1 Peter 4:10).
2. Make it easy to get involved.
Don’t make us do all the legwork, such as finding the right contact person or knowing which ministries need what. While recruiting personally can be ideal—assuming the role you’re offering fits—it also helps to have information about opportunities easily findable in the church building, on the website, on social media, etc. Can we sign up in the lobby? Can someone sign us up while we wait? When we have to expend extra effort to figure out how to serve, we may not get around to it or may run into obstacles and give up.
3. Clear communication is key.
Give us the context we need for what we’re being asked to do: who, what, when, where, why, how, how often. What is expected? What is the goal? How much leeway do we have? Where do we put our stuff? What if we have questions? What if the people we’re serving have questions? Think: if someone asked you to do this, what would you want to know?
Offer various paths for ongoing communication, such as texting, emails, or face-to-face conversation. If we ask questions, answer in a timely manner. Don’t assume anything or schedule us without asking. Give us plenty of notice—but if you tell us six weeks early, follow up later to remind us. And don’t avoid difficult conversations. If we request a role you don’t think is a fit, say so and don’t leave us hanging. If you’re replacing us, don’t let us know by simply not scheduling us. Transparency builds trust.
4. We want to use our gifts.
Some tasks need to be done whether anyone enjoys them or not. Chairs need to be stacked. Toddlers’ faces need to be wiped. As servant leaders, we know it’s important to do those things, out of love, and to stretch us as believers. (And those with gifts of service and mercy may especially enjoy them!) But when possible, give us a chance to discover our gifts, or to exercise the gifts we know we have. God builds us and the whole church through them. He placed the gifts He wants in the church (Ephesians 4:11-12; Romans 12:4-8), and the gifts He has provided can inform the church on how to deploy its people.
Additionally, don’t assume you know our gifts by what you see. An extrovert may be a good teacher, but may bloom even more in administration, or in leading outreach efforts. A keyboard player may love leading prayer. Someone may be gifted in both hospitality and graphic design. Consider letting us experiment, or possibly shadow someone in a ministry we’re interested in.
5. We want to grow.
We may not want to do the same task forever, even if we’re good at it. Just because we’ve led small groups for five years doesn’t mean we won’t burn out in the sixth. Give us regular chances to re-up our service and consider different avenues. If we feel stagnant or pigeonholed, we may drop out entirely. Offer extra training or mentoring, share inspiration, or simply engage us in conversation that sharpens us both. By growing and developing us, you help the church reach beyond its doors and into the world. Give us something on Sunday or Wednesday that we can use the rest of the week and in the rest of life.
6. We need to be empowered.
Research has shown that volunteer leaders are far more engaged in their service when they feel empowered. Introduce us around. Let us make decisions for our own area, or train other volunteers. Praying over and commissioning us can show us you’re on our side and you trust us to steward our roles. It’s even empowering when you have high expectations for us. When we prove faithful with little, entrust us with more (Matthew 25:23). But, don’t overload the same faithful few with every task. Also, don’t dump tasks on us and leave us to fend for ourselves; abandonment is not empowerment. Make sure we have what we need to carry out our responsibilities—including information, access to where we need to be, and buy-in from leaders.
7. We need feedback.
Thank us for serving—but better yet, let us know what we did well! Feedback goes further than simple appreciation and helps us know what to repeat and focus on. Also let us know, gently, when you have suggestions for improvement. (It’s been shown that people often prefer even negative constructive feedback to being ignored or overlooked.) Say goodbye when you see us leaving, and a warm hello when we return. We thrive when we know that someone, besides God, sees what we do, and that we’ve made a difference.
8. We are the church.
We are not just helping an organization called the church. The church does not exist as an entity apart from its people. Rather than asking “us” to help “you,” welcome us to play our parts in living as the body of Christ that we all form.
9. We need to stay connected to the rest of the church and to God.
Some areas of service actually disconnect us from what we got involved with the church for. We may be teaching children but missing sermons and communion, or greeting visitors but missing congregational singing. Be sure to invest in us spiritually, pray with and for us, and give us breaks where we can plug back into what the rest of the church is doing. Also foster community among volunteers, so that serving connects us rather than isolating us.
10. Ask what we need to succeed.
A good question is, “Can you think of anything else that would help you in this role?” Then, continue to touch base without micromanaging. Let us know you’re there to support us. And take our concerns seriously. Provide a path to resolve differences, even differences with our supervisor. Ask what could improve our role, area, or processes. Also ask those who have stopped volunteering—you may be surprised by what you learn!