How to Improve Volunteerism

Do you agree?

  1. Virtually all church leaders want to improve volunteerism at their church.
  2. Virtually all church leaders do little or nothing to improve volunteerism at their church.

Perhaps those statements are a bit strong, but they are true in my experience. I’d be interested to see if readers agree, and, if so, their thoughts as to why both are true.

Improving volunteerism is not easy; it’s hard work with many challenges. But lack of ideas for how to go about it is perhaps the greatest hurdle. Once there is knowledge, with a vision for a preferred future and strategies for getting there, the hard work is rewarded and the challenges made easier by the progress that is experienced.

The first and most important step is determining where you are headed. What will volunteerism look like when it is improved? Of course there will be more people volunteering, but what will be different that brings about that desired result? For many, the goal is no more than finding new ways to get people to do what “needs to be done” around church–more warm bodies to fill those slots. They’re thinking that change needs to be focused on others-those people who aren’t volunteering-so they’ll do what I think they should do!

But increased or sugar-coated pressure, pleading, and guilting just doesn’t work. And it’s far from the picture of the church as the body of Christ. It is the head, Jesus Christ–not another part of the body–who orchestrates the intricate dance of all the parts working together, according to the way He designed them. But certain changes within all of us members of the body–pastors and lay, involved and uninvolved–can and will help and encourage others to serve as God has called them.

Some Steps to Take

Here’s some specific steps that improve volunteerism:

  • Who wants to volunteer for the unknown? Gather written job descriptions for all volunteer positions.
  • It’s hard being new in a group. Recruit someone in each ministry group to intentionally welcome new people joining that group, see that they’re trained, and help them out while they’re new.
  • Many people don’t know what they’re good at. Make spiritual gift inventories available. Offer a class that helps people count their many abilities, discover their passion, examine their experiences, and consider their personality as they consider various ways to serve.
  • Personal help is often best. Recruit and train certain people willing to meet with and assist those who want help in finding a place to serve.
  • Use a fun, all-church event, such as a ministry fair, to publicize opportunities.
  • Celebrate volunteers, individually and in groups. Make a point of pointing out how someone’s work makes a difference.

The above items all will help. However, ‘volunteerism’ covers a whole lot of territory. It’s everything that’s done at church by everyone who’s not paid to do it. So when you talk about improving volunteerism, you’re really talking about changing ‘the way we’ve always done it’ and that, we all know, is no small thing.

So although improving some things here and there is good, a broader approach is more likely to bring lasting, long term results. Changing something this comprehensive involves both building a comprehensive system to cover the many aspects of volunteering, while also intentionally working to change the culture-the way things are done. The journey will be different in each congregation, but here’s a general roadmap.

For Long-term Change

  1. Gather a team. Talk it up, pass around articles on the topic, and see who responds with passion. Take the pulse of your pastor and other leaders. Their support and involvement is crucial for success.
  2. Check out resources available: websites, books, etc. (The categories and topics on this site can get you started.) Purchase the most helpful. Talk to people at other churches who are where you want to be. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel or go it alone.
  3. Assess where you are at. Most every church is doing some things well. Newer members, and uninvolved members, might well have differing opinions about what’s working well and what’s not. Listen, listen, listen. (The article “How to Assess Volunteerism” has more thoughts on this step.)
  4. When things seem to be coming together for the team, and you’re comfortable with your resources, write a mission statement to keep you on track over the long haul. Develop a vision–what you picture things looking like in 3 or 5 years. Then you’re prepared to write goals (for example, “We will provide a class to help people get involved in ministry.”) and specific, measurable strategies to reach those goals. (“Abby will collect samples of spiritual gift inventories by June 1. By June 15, Alex will talk to Joe and Julie about being teachers. . . .”) This step takes time, but pays big dividends in keeping the team focused, accountable, and on track. Revising goals and strategies, and creating new ones, will be the ongoing work of the team.
  5. Involve others at every opportunity as you carry out the strategies. Invite people to help with specific tasks that match their gifts and interests. Keep leaders informed.
  6. Celebrate the wins, even the small ones. Look back often to see how far you’ve come. Have fun!
  7. At some point in the process, consider a congregation-wide ‘launch’-a time to inform, and involve, everyone in the new way of doing things. Bringing many people into the planning of the launch builds enthusiasm early.
  8. Hang in there. Changing the way we’ve always done it will upset some apple carts, and open some wounds that were tacitly ignored before. Whenever people work together, some conflict is inevitable. Keep your vision continually in front; the goal is always Christ’s people working together serving him.

Yeah, but . . .

If you’re just one person in your congregation and feel you have no influence, or if you’re an already-overloaded staff member or mega-volunteer, don’t give up. Look for simple things you can do. Recruit thoughtfully, not frantically. Ask a volunteer “How’s it going?” and really listen. Say “thank you” often and mean it. Pick up a resource and read it. Share it, or some articles, with others in your church. Talk about improving volunteerism and see who responds. Connect with others outside your church for ideas and support. Above all, first, last and always, pray, pray, pray. The Lord of the church has called us all to serve him. If your desire is to help others serve him, to help service be joyful rather than drudgery, he will use you.

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