Were We Ready? Covid’s Impact on Church Volunteerism

Were we ready? Of course not. We had no time. In early January 2020, most of us hadn’t heard of covid. Less than 3 months later, it had disrupted our lives and our churches. But we adapted. By Easter, most churches had found a way to live stream worship; by summer, our groups were gathering virtually.

Up to 80% of volunteer positions have been disrupted by covid.

How has covid affected our volunteers? Some have adapted–communion assistants are helping with drive-up communion and small groups are meeting virtually. New opportunities have opened up–weekly phone calls to those most affected by the pandemic; techs to help with live and recorded worship elements. But the picture is different when we look at long term effects of covid. It has greatly affected our older generations, often our most faithful, long-term volunteers. Who will take their place? How will we manage? How can we prepare for the next disruption?

Changes in volunteerism

Formal volunteering is declining but informal volunteering is on the rise.

We’re not the only ones wondering. “We Weren’t Ready; We Still Aren’t Ready,” an article* by Adam Janes in Engage, a journal for leaders in volunteer engagement, cites statistics from Canada, the US and the UK indicating up to 80% of volunteer positions have been disrupted by covid. “Decimated” is the term he uses to describe the voluntary sector in the pandemic’s first months.

But he makes some interesting points. “[F]ormal volunteering is declining but informal volunteering is on the rise. In other words, people are doing more good in the world, but it is mostly on their own terms. It would appear COVID-19 is speeding up that trend, but the reason why is what hurts.” “Organizations have become their own worst enemies because they have not integrated volunteers and volunteerism into their mission and the vision of accomplishing their goals. The system to withstand change and respond to new challenges is simply not in place.”

As these observations accurate in our churches? I would say yes. While our boomers and millenials definitely are not flocking to our traditional and ongoing volunteer opportunities, they do actively volunteer (within and beyond the church) to opportunities that coincide with their lifestyles and causes that touch their hearts. And if our members feel our church’s purpose is, at best, to keep doing what we’ve always done or, at worst, simply to survive, we certainly aren’t positioned to respond to change and new challenges, or to motivate volunteers.

How to respond

Embrace it

My parents were part of a generation that centered all its volunteering and socializing around the church. Today, most church members are more active outside, rather than inside, the church. That is certainly a challenge. But, with a certain emphasis, it can also be as a good thing, something to embrace and encourage.

It’s loving God and loving our neighbor.

Volunteering, for followers of Jesus, is just one part of the bigger picture of serving. Serving covers all that we do, 365 days a year. It’s loving God and loving our neighbor, part of our everyday discipleship. It’s also a new way of thinking and doing for most of us and, to serve well everywhere, we need training and encouragement and support. But it’s certainly where God wants us to be, joining him in bringing help and healing, his peace and joy, everywhere we live, work and play.

Yet there will still be times when we volunteer under our church’s ministry umbrella — as we help with functions of the church family, such as worship; and as we work as a group in our community, such as tutoring at a nearby school or offering programs at a residential care facility. To engage volunteers effectively in ministries like these, in a way that positions us to adapt to change and disruptions, Janes points to three key areas that apply equally well to the church.

1. Leadership

Volulnteers vote with their feet.

Every church needs an active volunteer point person who is heard by those at the leadership table. By boning up on best practices, by listening to current volunteers and supporting those who lead volunteers, any staff or volunteer can serve in this capacity. But it only is effective if this person is part of the conversation when decisions are made that affect volunteers.

2. Resources

Few churches are using any of the wealth of resources in the broader volunteerism world–books, websites, local networks, conferences, journals and more. Yes, there are differences between the volunteer program at the local library and the volunteer world at your church. Our understanding of serving a Lord who gave his life for us is certainly much deeper, broader and richer. But many of the practicalities are the same: the techniques of good position descriptions, healthy recruitment, effective retension, etc. There’s a lot we can learn from each other.

3. Trust

Volunteers vote with their feet and trust is a big factor in keeping or losing them. Good communication, clear expectations, honesty and helpful feedback, are essential in developing trust. A clear and compelling vision and seeing the impact of their contribution are two other factors that are important to volunteers.

In the midst of much suffering, covid is having some silver linings, such as more family time and getting the closets cleaned out. If it also prompts us to progress in our volunteerism practices, that would be a blessing indeed. And we’d be more prepared for the inevitable disruptions of the future.

*The article, at this link, is only accessible to subscribers.

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