Solving the Volunteer Crisis


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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  • High-Needs Kids — 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
  • Background Checks — 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.
  • Competition — 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.

The Good News
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

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.)

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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, 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.


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