Governance Change . . . Volunteerism Change?

Many churches these days are changing their governance, moving from a structure of boards and committees to a policy-based governance related to John Carver’s model. Before such a momentous change, leaders carefully consider its ramifications. But one ramification often is overlooked.

Rev. Peter Larsen worked on governance issues with many large churches in the Michigan District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). He often found that, after abolishing their standing committees, many churches realize they have just destroyed the system through which they obtained virtually all their volunteers. “Now what?!” they cry in panic.

“The number one frustration of these large churches is volunteerism,” according to Larsen.

But the solution is not found in the old structure of boards and committees. They probably weren’t contributing to a healthy volunteerism system and climate. Fewer and fewer people enjoy lengthy meetings or multi-year commitments, and fewer yet appreciate how, as needs arise, additional tasks are often ‘dumped’ onto the committee members’ regular tasks.

A change in governance is an opportunity for a church to examine their volunteerism culture and system. How do we find volunteers? What percentage of our regular attendees are involved in ministry? How many of our volunteers are enjoying their work? What are their needs and challenges?

Too often, the sole focus of volunteerism is recruitment. We have so many needs . . . bulletin announcements reflect our increasing desperation . . . finally someone steps forward . . . and our focus immediately shifts to our next desperate need.

Instead of producing the healthy body of Christ which Paul describes in Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, this recruitment pattern produces a body in which a few parts of the body wear themselves out doing too many tasks, many of which they weren’t designed to do. Imagine Mr. Potato Head with all his parts in the wrong places. That body is ill-prepared for the work God has called us as the church to do.

Recruitment can be done in more healthful ways, especially if it is part of a much larger and more healthful focus on helping everyone serve as God has equipped and called them.

How can a church move to healthy pattern of helping people serve, even in the midst of governance changes?

  1. Start talking, congregation-wide, about the relationship of volunteerism to governance. (One tool: the accompanying PowerPoint presentation Church Governance Change . . . Volunteerism Change?)  Ask people who respond to the vision of healthy volunteerism to check out resources and learn more. The resources of this website are one place to start.
  2. Assess your current volunteerism climate and practices. Use a simple “what’s working? not working?” survey or a more detailed one (sample). Or conduct interviews with staff, key lay leaders, ‘average’ volunteers, and a good sample of non-volunteers and ex-volunteers.
  3. Form a team to address volunteerism, focusing on helping people serve (see “What is Equipping?”) rather than recruitment. Writing out goals and measurable strategies to meet those goals will sustain the effort over the long run.
  4. Many steps can begin right away to start positive change while they also expand the circle of people working on volunteerism health.
    1. Gather written job descriptions for all volunteer tasks. Such descriptions give potential volunteers a clear picture of the task.
    2. Train a small group of people to be “ministry guides” who can meet with individuals who would like help finding a ministry that matches their needs and interest.
    3. Train the people who coordinate your various ministries. Encourage them and give them resources so they can welcome and train new participants to their ministry, support and affirm them, and deal appropriately with conflict when it arises.

The people working directly with governance change do not have time to deal with volunteerism issues. But if the church’s senior leaders see the benefit of working on both issues, and build a separate volunteerism team, the two groups can mutually support the important changes taking place in the congregation.

Neither governance nor volunteerism is an end in itself. Both are valuable only as they aid the church in sharing God’s great love in Jesus Christ with a world that so desperately needs it. Such a mission demands our best.

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