Can’t recruit volunteers or keep the ones you have? You’re not alone. Here’s how to avoid 6 common mistakes that cost you volunteers.
In defense of the church, it must be said that many ministries have hurdles that other volunteer organizations don’t have. Circumstances in our church world can make it tougher to find volunteers, especially those who work with children. Consider this sampling of obstacles.
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Potential children’s ministry volunteers may feel insecure about or unequipped to minister to the rising numbers of children with special needs, whether those needs are perceived or real. The idea of working with children with autism or learning disabilities may discourage people who feel intimidated by what they perceive as greater or specialized demands. Similarly, the headline-making statistics on bullying and behavior problems can be off-putting for people who don’t feel prepared to deal with discipline issues on a broader level.
Most churches require background checks for anyone working with children—and they should. Most people don’t have a problem undergoing a background check, but some feel offended that they’re expected to do so. And background checks require time and money (sometimes the potential volunteer’s), which may feel too intrusive or like too much of a hassle to potential volunteers.
Because volunteering is so widespread, people have an array of choices. Sometimes the competition happens within the same church as staff compete for a potential volunteer’s time and talent.
In researching our book The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer, my son Jonathan McKee and I uncovered several common mistakes that ministries make. The good news? We also found solutions that healthy churches use not only to correct these mistakes, but also to take advantage of the current tide of volunteer enthusiasm. Here are those mistakes—and solutions you can implement today in your own search for volunteers.
Mistake 1: False Motivation We seek to motivate by guilt rather than passion.
How many times have you heard this announcement: “We need you to volunteer for the children’s ministry, or we’re going to have to cancel this program”? Then out of guilt, people volunteer.
When leaders motivate by guilt, we miss one of the most effective volunteer recruitment factors: passion. Most volunteers are passionate about their cause—whether it’s conserving wetlands (Ducks Unlimited) or driving BMWs (the BMW Car Club). Recruiting begins with tapping into volunteers’ passion. (A great example of this is how Lakeside Church in Folsom, California, promotes volunteerism on its Web site—see “Motivating Through Passion” below.)
Lakeside’s request for service appeals to what “jazzes” me (my passion) to make a difference. It doesn’t feel like a request at all. And it certainly doesn’t make me feel guilty.
Motivating Through Passion
Here’s how Lakeside Church in Folsom, California, presents volunteerism on its Web site.
The moment you come onto our campus, there are volunteers serving you. From friendly greeters outside to the musicians on the stage; from teachers in Kidsfest to the greeters on the First Impressions team, Lakeside is totally dependent on volunteers using their gifts and abilities. The Lakesiders who serve each weekend are just a tip of the iceberg. We have teams who assist in the office, plan and serve at special events, operate our bookstore, and so much more.
Volunteering is a great way to serve God and get plugged in at Lakeside. It allows you to develop new friends and make an impact in the community.
In all areas of service, you can try out serving without making a commitment up front. Browse the service areas and find one that interests you. Let us know of your interest and someone from that team will contact you with more details. If, after trying it, you feel energized about serving in that capacity, you can be officially added to the team. But if you decide that particular area is not what jazzes you, feel free to try something else until you find what excites you to serve!
Mistake 2: Asking Too Much We ask for marriage, not a date.
Typical volunteer recruiting is similar to the woman who stands up in a church service and announces, “I’m looking for a husband — anyone interested in marrying me tomorrow meet me after the service in the lobby.” That’s just what we do when we announce in church, “Anyone who’d like to make a lifetime commitment to our third-grade department, please fill out the insert in the bulletin and drop it in the offering plate.”
Recruiting should be like dating. This technique of recruiting doesn’t ask for a commitment; you’re just getting permission to ask someone out on a date — a date to talk about your passion to make a difference in kids’ lives. Each subsequent date is filled with opportunities for exchange, questions, feedback, and stories of your ministry. By the time you “pop the question” and ask the person to join your volunteer team, you’re confident you’ll get a yes.
Here’s how it works. Start by asking your pre-volunteer to serve ice cream, work the registration table, or perform some other small activity. When Jonathan was in youth ministry, he asked Alex, who happens to be over six feet tall and huge, to stand guard at a door for a Campus Life event. During the evening, Jonathan stood by Alex and told him stories about some of the kids. Alex was interested, but he’s a computer programmer — not your typical youth volunteer. Jonathan took Alex to Starbucks, and they talked about the kids. As Jonathan listened, he discovered that Alex had technology skills Jonathan was looking for in his ministry. That was 10 years ago, and Alex is still using those skills in Jonathan’s ministry today.
Some impatient leaders question, “How can I possibly find the time to meet with volunteers multiple times each to recruit them?” It does sound overwhelming; however, when effective leaders evaluate the time they spend recruiting and retraining the high percentage of volunteers who quit, the dating method of recruiting is much more time efficient and effective in the long run.
Mistake 3: Low Standards Leaders lower the bar to get people to volunteer.
You don’t have to lower your safety stand-ard. Jill Vogel, children’s director at SunHills Community Church in Eldorado Hills, California, values the safety and spiritual development of the children so much that she’s picky and has created a culture of privilege when it comes to serving in the children’s ministry.
Jill uses the challenge of background checks as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. Jill tells her pre-volunteers and parents, “To provide a safe environment for your children, we do background checks on all our volunteers.” She asks each volunteer to fill out a volunteer application and uses Group’s Shepherd’s Watch to check backgrounds. This is a critical safety issue.
Mistake 4: OBTWs Leaders use four words that every volunteer hates: “Oh, by the way…”
The fastest way to lose a volunteer is to utter those words: “Oh, by the way…” Classic OBTWs are, “Oh, by the way, you have to be fingerprinted.” “Oh, by the way, you have to pay for it.” “Oh, by the way, you have to attend a five-day training session — and you have to pay for it.”
There’s nothing wrong with these expectations, but put them in your job descriptions. On the second or third date, be up front and lay out the entire commitment. No OBTWs after a person has made the commitment to serve.
Mistake 5: Overlooking Life Stages Children’s ministers assume that parents are the only target for their ministries and fail to go for people who have the time to volunteer.
We found that the greatest potential pools for volunteers come from two life stages: the retiring Boomers and the young twentysomething professionals. Many young people aren’t getting married until their late 20s, and they have the passion and time to make a difference. The older group is what I call the 64-year-olds — if you remember the song Paul McCartney wrote when he was a teenager — “When I’m Sixty-Four.” This group, and I know because I am one, isn’t sitting by the fireplace knitting. The passion that we had in the 1960s when we signed up for the Peace Corps and wanted to change the world is still alive in our hearts. The parents of young children and teens are swamped. They’re running to music lessons, youth sports, and church activities. Give them a break — recruit Gen Y and retiring Boomers.
Mistake 6: No Givebacks Christians believe their reward is in heaven; therefore, ministry volunteers don’t need any earthly giveback for their service.
Several years ago I was serving on the search team for a pastor. The process was taking much longer than I’d hoped. The weekly committee meetings and denominational roadblocks were discouraging, and I was beginning to doubt my contributions to the committee. After one year, I had to miss a meeting because of business. While flying home, I drafted a letter of resignation to the committee chair. But when I arrived home, I found the following thank you note in my mailbox.
Dear Tom, We missed you at our last meeting. I appreciate your input in our discussion. We all depend on your expertise. Thanks. Stephen (Chairman)
Stephen, the chair of our committee, is also the chief curator for the California State Railroad Museum. He told me that each staff member at the museum has 50 thank you cards on their desks. Each week they write very specific thank you notes to their volunteers. That’s because all volunteers need to know that what they’re doing without pay is making a difference. Stephen used a volunteer management technique from his professional life in the church with great success. I didn’t quit and instead served another year until we called our new pastor.
Taking your volunteers to lunch, sending them to conferences, recognizing them in front of your congregation — all of these and other givebacks help volunteers know the value of their contributions.
Healthy churches aren’t only taking advantage of the “hot trend” of volunteerism — they’re awakening passion in the hearts of Christians to make a difference on behalf of Jesus. Finding volunteers is a matter of finding God’s person for a specific ministry. We can try all types of approaches to enlist and retain volunteers — and we certainly should use these techniques — but in addition we need to, in the words of Francis Cardinal Spellman, “Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on man.”
Thomas W. McKee is owner of volunteerpower.com, which specializes in volunteer recruitment and management. He’s a speaker, trainer, and facilitator on volunteerism and co-authored The New Breed, from Group Publishing.