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4 Monster Recruiting Mistakes for Children’s Ministry

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Take a deep breath and slay those monster recruiting mistakes in your children’s ministry recruiting closet.

I cracked an egg to create an omelette. As if the yolk were trying to escape, it fled the shell much quicker than I’d anticipated. Splat!

A wet paper towel cleaned up the mess. I grabbed another egg and virtually erased the mistake from my memory. Some mistakes — such as my dropped egg — are easily remedied. Other errors, however, have a more lasting impact.

Take, for instance, the time I failed to heed the warning of the sulfur-like aroma that surrounded our car as we traveled across Nebraska. I surmised that the smell had emanated from the nearby stockyards. Entrenched in denial, I finally awakened when the car died, leaving us stranded miles from any town. We were forced to cram into a filthy tow truck. My wife, Wendy, waited in a near-deserted restaurant with our three whiny, hungry children while I visited the mechanic, who assured me that we wouldn’t be leaving town anytime soon. The five of us stayed in “the” hotel. Did I mention that one of my children had a high fever and that they all were under 3? As I said, some mistakes are easily remedied and forgotten, while other mistakes become bloated and downright scary.

So it is with recruiting children’s ministry volunteers. Some recruiting mistakes aren’t too costly, while others become monstrous. We may innocently repeat errors, but like unchecked smoke, these monster mistakes create a nasty atmosphere in which recruiting becomes more difficult — even next to impossible. Let’s look at the four most common monster mistakes in volunteer recruiting for children’s ministry.

MONSTER #1: The Painless Position

Research shows that most volunteers are willing to serve three hours per week. In Volunteer Management, Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch point to the trend of volunteers opting for short terms of service. With that understanding in mind, many well-intentioned leaders design positions accordingly. They make the children’s volunteer position easier to attract more volunteers. Five short of the desired 30 volunteers, a children’s ministry director reasons that because she has trouble recruiting the necessary volunteers to serve in the children’s ministry each week, she makes the position less painful by requiring volunteers to serve only once every four weeks.

This solution and others like it are typically welcomed because they provide temporary relief; however, a closer look shows that making the position easier actually creates a monster of a recruiting environment for several reasons. First, by opting for the painless position, you quadruple your recruiting problem. Instead of 30 volunteers per month, you now need 120 from a recruitment pool that hasn’t grown. Second, requiring less commitment cheapens the ministry position itself, making it difficult for volunteers to see their role as anything more than a once-every-four-weeks-baby-sitting-duty. This has the unintentional result of chasing away passionate volunteers who were hoping to change lives but who don’t want to play with the junior varsity. Third, many volunteers will now interpret this once-a-month commitment as their entire service to the church, creating a drain on overall human resources. Last, by easing the requirement, you’ve placed a burden on your children, requiring them to adapt to a new teacher every week.

Slaying Recruiting Monster #1

How do we solve the common recruitment problem of the painless position? To begin, realize that creating easy jobs is never the long-term solution. Can you imagine ministry positions in the New Testament being offered in such a way? “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men in less than three hours a week.” If you ask for a noble commitment, you’ll get a noble commitment; if you ask for a mediocre commitment, you’ll get no commitment. Look for fewer volunteers with greater commitment. Strangely, setting the standards higher will eventually create greater interest.

Marine recruiters understand this perfectly. When they stand in front of high school classes, they say, “I’m not talking to everyone here, but to the one person who might have the makeup to be a Marine.” A former Marine boasted that recruits would wait in line. This 1860 ad for pony express riders in a San Francisco newspaper similarly makes the point:

“WANTED: Young…fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”

Despite the challenge, or maybe because of it, a lack of riders was never a problem. Today’s Christians need a challenge, not an easy way out.

MONSTER #2: The Desperation Dilemma

My mother, who lived alone for years, received countless ministry appeal letters. She’d ask me to evaluate their credibility. One such envelope arrived with an “Urgent” stamp on the outside. A ministry wrote that unless she responded quickly and generously, it would have to close its doors. I noticed that over the years, the same ministry had sent her many such letters, each proclaiming a dire prediction of the ministry’s imminent demise. Unfortunately, they survived, and the letters kept coming. One problem with these desperate approaches, as marketing experts know, is that donors who are recruited through emotion-laden appeals are unlikely to stay very long. Similarly, arm-twisting recruiting methods attract volunteers whose commitments are short-lived.

Faced with the lack of Sunday school teachers, a pastor may resort to a similar tactic: “We’ll have to shut down classes if no one responds.” Another desperation method may be to parade all the third-graders in front of the congregation. Don’t get me wrong; desperation messages do work. They almost always garner some new prospects, but once a leader has succeeded by using desperation or manipulation, he or she will likely rely on that technique whenever a need arises. The temporary fix will keep a leader from addressing real issues, such as the lack of an ongoing recruitment strategy or poor selection and training practices — problems that may’ve caused the desperation in the first place.

Besides reducing volunteer retention and covering up deeper problems, desperation messages also withdraw from our leadership credibility bank. Years ago when I was playing basketball at the YMCA, the fire alarm sounded four or five times in a two-month period. The first time, everyone proceeded out of the building in a hushed, orderly fashion. The second time, we stopped playing basketball for a minute, looked around, and restarted our game. Only newcomers responded the third time the alarm went off, and we continued right on playing. Think about it — an alarm sounded, indicating that our lives might be in danger, yet the false alarms had so deadened our sensitivity that we didn’t even stop playing. Even if rarely used, desperation messages empty our credibility banks, rendering our recruitment attempts dull.

Slaying Recruiting Monster #2

How do we solve the desperation dilemma? Resolve never to use desperation messages in the first place. Realize that these appeals bring only short-term relief at best. In addition, adopt a long-term approach that anticipates recruitment needs long before they arise. Many leaders struggle to recruit because they focus on recruiting only once a year, but recruiting is a year-round ministry activity. Be prepared to select and train volunteers throughout the year. Finally, realize that desperation appeals may be symptomatic of deeper problems. A person on the verge of bankruptcy may seek a quick cure-all, but good financial advisers will tell him, “You didn’t amass this debt in one day’s time; you can’t get out of it in one day’s time either.”

If you already use desperation messages, reduce your reliance on them one step at a time. If you right the boat’s path in one big turn, passengers may end up in the water.

MONSTER #3: Fishing With the Wrong Bait

While desperation messages deaden prospective volunteers’ sensitivity, other messages scarcely get a bite. Imagine you’ve come with me on an unusual fishing trip to land some trout. Trying to get a lead about effective bait, we approach a couple fishing from shore. “Whacha fishin’ with?” we inquire.

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“Peanut butter,” they respond. “Catch anything?” “Not a bite.”

Concluding that they might be a little strange, we walk a little further. Two teenage boys are fishing. We again ask, “Whacha fishin’ with?” One boy responds, “Pizza.” “Pizza!” we shout in disbelief. “Why pizza?” “Well,” the boy responds, “we like pizza. We figure if we like pizza, the fish ought to like it. Right?” “Catch anything?” we ask. “Not a bite.”

Fishing with the wrong bait is another monster recruiting problem. A trout’s keen sense of smell would render a hook baited with peanut butter or pizza worthless. Most of us, even if we don’t fish, know that most fish haven’t acquired human tastes and therefore don’t eat what humans eat. We often approach volunteers with the wrong bait. It might be a bait that we understand and enjoy, but it doesn’t contain a message volunteers relate to or even understand.

As a consultant, I’m frequently asked to review recruitment brochures. One bulletin insert championed the need for children’s workers. A large picture of a bunny sat in the bottom corner of the ad. I have nothing against bunnies, but we’re trying to attract adults, not small children. While the use of bunnies might be fun for children, it’s “peanut butter” to a volunteer prospect. Another brochure to lure tutors sported three cartoon-like children on the front. Also fishing with the wrong bait, the brochure unintentionally appeals to children and not to the prospective adults.

When a wild and wacky children’s staff comes dressed in crazy garb to recruit volunteers for an upcoming children’s event, it’s the wrong bait. Immediately those of us in the audience — even those who might otherwise be interested — turn a deaf ear, assuming the message isn’t for us. Or we think, “I’m thankful I don’t have to act like that in front of adults.” While the “wild and wacky” approach is just what kids need in their classes, the approach may kill the interest of the prospective adults in a sanctuary. At the same time, it’s not the creativity that needs shelving. We desperately need creativity, fun, and humor in our recruitment, but the kind of fun and humor we use should connect with adults who are uncertain about becoming children’s workers.

Slaying Recruiting Monster #3

To avoid the wrong bait technique, think like a fish. That is, think like volunteer prospects, not like those already on the team. Make a list of potential objections volunteer prospects might have to serving in your children’s ministry. Now list the potential benefits the position offers, again from the perspective of the prospects. Then take the list and turn it into a recruitment ad. Better yet, invite a passionate volunteer to talk about the benefits of his or her involvement in your ministry.

A bank executive’s office sign reads, “We are not our customers.” Similarly, we are not our volunteer prospects, but if we hope to attract them, we must connect with them on their turf, just as Jesus did in his compelling recruitment message. Here’s my paraphrase of Matthew 4:19, “Hey, you know the joy of fishing, the thrill of the catch; come with me and I’ll make you successful at catching people and changing their lives.” Using the right bait will at least get the attention of many who otherwise may never have even come close to your line.

MONSTER #4: “Workers Wanted” Message

I collect ineffective volunteer recruitment messages like this one: “Looking for a place to utilize your talents? We are looking for people interested in writing, drama, choir, orchestra, praise band, children’s music, ushers, dance, communion, props and costumes, multimedia, deaf ministry.”

Here’s another: “PLEA FOR HELP! We need people to make copies of tapes for the message each Sunday.”

Perhaps no recruitment ads bother me more than the workers wanted message that depicts exciting ministry as a boring task: “Third-grade teacher needed. Four people needed to tutor. Big brother needed. In need of VBS helpers.” Task-oriented ads like these appear in organizational newsletters or church bulletins. The authors of such ads have good intentions but fail to realize the far-reaching implications these messages have.

Often as a recruiter, I neglected to grasp that the way I presented my recruitment message spoke volumes about the ministry itself. What do unimaginative or stilted ads communicate about the jobs listed? For a moment try to imagine you’re a potential volunteer reading the following ad:

Two nursery helpers needed.

Write a list of thoughts or internal responses you would or actually do have when you read that ad. Personally, I’d hardly glance at the ad because I’d never imagine it was talking to me. I don’t see myself as a helper. I want to do something significant! Now let’s imagine that somehow the pastor has drawn attention to the ad and I’m obligated to take a look. Now what would I think? The nursery — dirty diapers, screaming babies. Work. No fun. The thought of ministry would never cross my mind — solely based on the way the ad was presented. The workers wanted error of recruiting to a task denies any possibility that the ministry itself might be compelling or interesting in the slightest way.

Slaying Recruiting Monster #4

The workers wanted tactic can be corrected. Simply determine never to recruit to a task and instead recruit to a ministry. Take a look at recruitment messages throughout your ministry. Do the messages attempt to recruit volunteers to a task, or do they describe a compelling ministry opportunity?

Rather than writing “Four tutors wanted,” perhaps you might write “If you can read this, God can use you dramatically in the life of a child who can’t read.” Think about that message for a moment, and compare it with the former message. How are the messages different? The second message surpasses the first because it calls people to the vision rather than the opening. It paints a picture of how a yes response will change a volunteer’s life through making an eternal impact.

Al Newell, a volunteer management consultant, has over 22 years experience developing volunteer ministries in churches and Christian organizations. 

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