The two most common complaints from children’s ministers everywhere are along the lines of either “I need more volunteers” or “How will I ever get my existing volunteers to stick around and do what they’ve committed to do?”
The short answer to both is: Do your advance work upfront.
You may be dealing with pressing needs right now. But the simple act of taking the necessary time to get good people in the correct positions for the best reasons will make the difference between perpetually trying to deal with volunteer emergencies and putting those urgencies to rest. The converse is true, too—if you don’t make the effort up front, you’ll pay for it in attrition, conflicting expectations, and harder than ever recruiting next time around.
Here’s a recruiting plan that’ll help you engage a reliable and committed team.
1. Pursue Passion
Stop thinking about what you need. Instead, ask yourself why people would want to serve in children’s ministry at your church.
Here’s the truth: Connecting people with their interests and passions is the key to getting and keeping them. Passion is an important motivator, and it will sustain individuals through a tough season in ministry if what they’re doing is connected to a purpose or group of people that inspire them. Do you have someone serving fifth-graders who’d really rather be with 5-year-olds? Does someone gravitate toward connecting one-on-one with the kids on the margins, yet right now he or she is leading songs up front? The more you know what makes volunteers’ hearts beat faster and help that happen, the more they’ll commit, stay, and love it.
2. Pin Down Details
You may have heard this before, but so many children’s ministry leaders opt to skip the vital step of developing a job description detailing clear expectations. You and your volunteers need to understand what the volunteer is committing to. No one wants to think he’s signed up for once-per-month Sundays only to discover he’s signed up for an eternity of Sundays. Very few people like to be told they’ll just be a helper and find out later they’re expected to prepare the lesson and teach every week.
It’s also tempting to do the reverse and make it sound like children’s ministry is really no big deal, kind of a “just show up” approach. But people want to know they’re significant and what they’re doing is significant—no matter how small or minimal the task is. Tell volunteers how vital their involvement is. If you see people just fade away without explanation, it may be because you weren’t clear on expectations upfront.
3. Open Up Dialogue
It’s essential to have an intentional conversation with each person you think might be interested in serving in your ministry area. This is where you listen intently to their words and the meaning behind them. This is where, if you’re frantic or distracted, you might miss the young mother saying that she doesn’t want to help in her own child’s class but would be willing to make phone calls from home. That non-fit may be a huge reason she’s now no longer showing up. These conversations are also where you might go in thinking a schoolteacher is a perfect fit for Sunday school, but you instead discover that he’d rather coach at your summer sports camp.
Open dialogue can provide clarity, help you both find the best fit, and give you the opportunity to express your vision and enthusiasm. Yes, this takes time. But the time you spend on the front end pays off significantly the rest of the year, ultimately saving you time in lost recruits. Never forget: Lack of clarity and mismatched placements are two of the biggest reasons volunteers may stick with your ministry a while but eventually quit.
4. Seek Strengths
How intentional are you when it comes to finding out about potential volunteers’ other interests, spiritual gifts, and behavioral styles? If volunteers you’ve previously recruited now seem to be less reliable, they may not be serving in their area of strength.
Take a moment and consider volunteers who call you to cancel the morning they’re due to serve or who show up late or inconsistently. You can probably think of a few. Now ask: Are those people placed in the right position? Do you have a person who’s gifted in hospitality doing paperwork rather than greeting families? Or do you have someone who’s strong in administration leading games rather than organizing? Sometimes a simple shift in duties will re-energize those who are on the brink of quitting—especially if you intentionally recognize their God-given strengths.
5. Outline Expectations Regularly
For your volunteers to know what you expect, you must communicate. A lot. Be generous with your communication and clear regarding what orientation, training, support, and resources you’ll provide them—at the front end and along the way. Recall your own first day on any job—it was likely overwhelming with much to learn, logistics, people to know, and the anxiety of wanting to do well. Your ministry’s orientation needs to increase your volunteers’ comfort, decrease discomfort, and grow the probability that they’ll stay because they feel warmly welcomed, set up for success, and genuinely valued. Answer basic questions: Do they know where everything they need is? Do they know whom to ask to get resources? People can be so frustrated by the lack of orientation and information provided that they simply never come back.
By the same token, if you’ve failed to set your expectations clearly and early, don’t despair. It’s not too late to do so now. You can clear the slate with your existing team by setting up a team meeting that covers the same information you’d give at orientation, geared for a team that knows the basics but needs clarity on expectations.
6. Let People Reflect
By far, the best way to invite potential volunteers to serve is to personally ask them to be involved. But when you ask, don’t act or sound desperate. Even if you are. Honestly give people the freedom to say no to you. Plan far enough ahead of your busiest season to allow potential volunteers time to reflect and pray about the commitment. Here’s why: If people aren’t pushed into something, but are invited and allowed processing time, they’ll stay longer and go deeper into their ministry role. If they feel coerced or “guilted” into saying yes, they’ll typically do the minimum and spend the rest of the time thinking of ways to quit as soon as possible.
7. Choose Your Words
I can’t emphasize enough that your language matters. People volunteer for lots of things outside of the church, and they carry with them a definition of what “volunteer” means. Usually, that characterization has a less-than connotation. If we truly believe that instead of getting volunteers we are inviting people to live their faith as Jesus’ disciples by serving, then we need to use the kind of language Scripture uses. When we call them “royal priests” and say that their involvement is a practical way to “equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church,” it rightly elevates their perspective on volunteering and, ultimately, themselves. (See Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Corinthians 12; 1 Peter 2:9; and 1 Peter 4:10.) Like The Message says in 1 Corinthians 12: “Each person is given something to do that shows who God is.” Doesn’t that sound immeasurably better than just “volunteering”?
Once people are on board, ongoing training is critical. Sometimes we get so busy in ministry, we forget to continue to teach and connect with the people serving on our teams. Training provides everyone with the confidence to be successful in individual and collective roles. Are your training events fun and interesting? Do you schedule continuing education at the most convenient time for people? Consider doing a team huddle every other week or once a month, just prior to when children arrive instead of a two-hour evening meeting. A 15-minute teaching or group exercise can go a long way toward keeping people interested, invigorated, connected, and tied to the vision. Sometimes people leave because they feel inexperienced or disconnected—and they won’t tell you this. They’ll just go. Excellent training for newbies and veterans alike and ongoing support can remedy that.
9. Encourage Connections
People often volunteer because they’re hoping for a community, for a sense of belonging, and to make friends. Again, think of the people who are inconsistent in their commitment or who’ve left your team. How has serving in your children’s ministry helped them connect with others? In what ways do you build a team that feels like a family and offers a strong sense of belonging? Are you actively encouraging your team members to care for one another? Do they have fun together? Do you resolve conflict in healthy, biblical ways? Once people get attached to others on your team, it’s much harder for them to quit or just stop showing up.
10. Lead Like You Mean It
According to various sources, the volunteering rate in the United States has remained fairly steady in recent years. (For more data on U.S. volunteering trends, check out the Corporation for National & Community Service at volunteeringinamerica.gov.) Here’s something to really think about: If we in the church are seeing a significant drop-off in commitment, it doesn’t mean people aren’t volunteering; it means they’re choosing to serve elsewhere.
It’s worth asking ourselves some tough questions about why people might be rejecting church involvement. Is it leadership (or lack thereof) that’s turned them off? Are we taking time to slow down enough to thank and appreciate our teams? Is our recognition of them specific and tied to why what they’ve done matters? Can we “commission” them in a worship service—not only to applaud them but also as a way of encouraging others to step up? Lead well by connecting all your volunteers to their role in the bigger vision of growing God’s kingdom.
11. Think Creatively
A shortage of volunteers is the most common complaint of ministry leaders. So look for outside-the-box ways to boost your teams.
Are you near a university or college? Can a student get credit for doing an internship with you? (Don’t overlook students involved in your own youth ministry.) Cassandra McClaugherty, director of children’s ministry at Evangelical Free Church of Cañon City, Colorado, started a program where high-school interns run children’s church (preschool through first grade). Each youth intern goes through an interview with a panel of adults, has to give two letters of reference, fills out an application, and signs a contract adhering to the rules and a one-year commitment, says McClaugherty. Interns go through training and then, “I sit in the first month to watch each of them and give pointers.” These students each get paid $20 per Sunday for working two services.
And the program doesn’t stop there. McClaugherty schedules middle-school students to be aides, and third- through fifth-graders assist in distributing snacks, playing with children, or helping with crafts. Not only does this mean that her children’s church is covered, but it creates a self-perpetuating system of having enough volunteers and instilling the value of service in kids.
“This brings the younger ones up wanting to serve and apply for the program when they’re old enough,” says McClaugherty. For more good ideas, reach out to your children’s ministry colleagues locally, regionally, and nationally.
One Final Tip
I do have one final tip—and it’s the most important one of all: PRAY. Pray before you ask people. Pray as you ask. Then pray after you’ve had the conversation. Pray after you’ve made a match. Pray as you train. Don’t forget to pray as you evaluate and elevate. Pray as you shine the spotlight on your dynamic, loyal team. Don’t forget that “the God of peace,” “the great Shepherd of the sheep” will “equip you with all you need for doing his will” (Hebrews 13:20-21).
If you want your hard-won volunteers to stick, follow these tips. When you incorporate all these questions and ideas, your “I need more volunteers” will become “I’m inviting people into the adventure of what God is doing here.” When you’re intentional as you prepare, invite, train, support, encourage and affirm people, you’ll engage and keep more ministers in your children’s ministry.
Shirely Giles Davis is director of equipping at First Presbyterian of Boulder in Boulder, CO. In addition, she’s a life coach and leadership coach.