Recruiting volunteers is an active activity. Let me say that again. Recruitment is an active activity. Actually, let me restate that another way: Successful volunteer recruitment practices in your church and ministry will never be a passive activity. Additionally, volunteer systems like recruiting and equipping volunteers are never complete. There is always something to do throughout the year that will help sustain the volunteers in your ministry and encourage other potential volunteers to join the team as well.
When churches treat volunteer recruitment as passive or as finished once ministry teams are assembled in the fall, they often end up in several common pitfalls that send counterproductive messages and make it harder for them to fill their teams of volunteers. However, when ministry leaders take an active, year-round approach to recruitment, they are more likely to avoid the hurry-up plan of attack, find that volunteer systems are more manageable, and set their ministries up to thrive in ways unexpected.
In this article, I want to talk about five common mistakes that churches make in recruiting volunteers and then share some successful alternative practices to help you build and equip your ministry teams.
5 Common Mistakes
1. Expecting announcements about the opportunity to be enough
Although most people don’t believe this, a lot of churches practice it. The volunteer opportunities are announced in worship, placed in the newsletter, sent in an email, and posted with a bunch of other materials on a corkboard. They become one more note in a sea of messages. This rarely results in any ministry filling their team of volunteers, and many churches don’t recruit a single volunteer this way. Instead, the ministry or program is left in need of more volunteers.
All of these communications are important and necessary, but in reality, they are the marketing of the program or ministry. They’re telling a story (remember the climate conversation?), and often it’s the story that people don’t volunteer in this program or ministry. It is important to announce these opportunities to serve; is it important enough to do more about?
2. Expecting people simply to volunteer
Again, successful recruitment has never been a passive activity. It’s always active. Most people won’t just call you and ask to be placed in a volunteer role. Some might, but it’s rare. Although you might have the occasional person who says, “I just want to serve; put me in a spot,” most people assume you’ve got your volunteers already covered if they haven’t been asked.
Yet churches sometimes take this approach. They may make an assumption like this: We’ve talked about serving, there’s been a sermon series, and it’s been mentioned in the new member class, so the congregation is primed to call and sign themselves up. However, many leaders can count on one hand the number of times this has occurred.
But here’s the message that this approach might send: There are more important things to do than to recruit volunteers.
3. Keeping the tasks minimal for volunteers
Some people might have a different experience, but here’s the mindset behind this method: If I keep the volunteer job description to a minimum or don’t have one at all, it will make it easy for anyone in the church to serve in that role.
The problem is that most people want to serve in a way that is meaningful to them, has value, and will make a difference. Their time is important and precious, and they may feel like they’re not being utilized if the job could be performed by a labradoodle. And more often than not, you actually need more than just another warm body in the room. Most ministry opportunities require people with specific skills, abilities, and qualities that match with the volunteer position. Avoid this mistake, and you can avoid communicating that there is nothing meaningful for volunteers to do.
4. Expecting volunteers to figure it out themselves
Every church has been guilty of this in some form. Youth ministry leaders sometimes say things like “They either get youth ministry or they don’t.” Essentially, this expectation sends this kind of message: If you’re unable to figure out how to lead a group of middle school youth in a deep theological discussion with zero training or experience, then you’re not serving in the right position.
The reality, however, is that a volunteer’s failure is potentially the leader’s responsibility. God calls God’s people to serve. Part of our role, then, is to help them explore what that means, equip them with the right tools, and problem-solve their areas of struggle so that each volunteer is equipped to serve with excellence. Otherwise, we might send the message that we don’t care or don’t have the time to teach others how to serve with excellence.
5. Concluding that we’ve asked everyone, or we just don’t have the right people
These are two mistakes that have a similar result. Although leaders often say, “I’ve asked everyone,” most haven’t actually asked everyone. What we mean is that we’ve asked everyone we know, everyone who’s served in this ministry before, or everyone within our circle. (As an aside, if you have asked everyone and have come up short, it might be time to sunset a ministry for a season. But that’s another blog post.) Or we say, “We just don’t have the right people for this ministry.” Then we carry on lone-ranger style with the ministry.
The end result sends the same message in both cases: It’s easier to lead this ministry alone. However, “easier” and “better” are not the same. It won’t take long for the expectation to be for you to lead the ministry alone. Not only is this counterproductive for recruiting volunteers, it’s also the first step toward burnout.
5 Alternative Practices for Volunteer Recruitment
What to do with the mistakes? Set them aside. Avoid allowing these approaches to take root. They can be excuses that get in the way of taking a more productive route.
Instead, consider these five alternative practices in order to develop more effective volunteer systems in your church and ministry.
1. Consider volunteer processes a core component of your work
Schedule about five hours a week that is focused on volunteers and volunteer processes. You might make a plan for recruitment, review volunteer opportunities, meet a volunteer for lunch, or plan a training event. For volunteer systems to truly thrive, it takes about five hours a week, regardless of your employment status as a ministry leader. For part-time leaders, it is even more crucial to be strategic and intentional about protecting that time. Dedicated time on your schedule will ensure the time is available to avoid the hurry-up offense of recruitment.
2. Consider the tasks for each volunteer role
Write job descriptions for each role and be specific with the tasks. Not only will the job description create clarity for the volunteer, but it will also ensure that the leader of the ministry is crystal clear on what it takes to be successful in each role. For example, if you’d like children’s Sunday School teachers to arrive early, it can be helpful to add something like this to the description: “Arrives 15 minutes prior to the start of class to greet each person by name as they arrive.” When the tasks are specific, it is easier for volunteers to thrive.
3. Create three lists
Build one list of all of your current volunteers and the various ways they have been involved in the ministry. Build another list of all the volunteer opportunities that need to be filled. This includes annual programs, committees, and events throughout the church. It’s a big list for sure. Third is a list of all of the people you think might be great members of your volunteer crew. Include the position in which you’d like them to serve and be specific. It may take up to a month to build these lists the first time.
4. Begin recruiting
Set aside about three months for actively recruiting your team, and plan for about five hours a week to make contact. That seems like a long time. However, you’re creating space to avoid any rushed process, and you’re giving your potential volunteers time to consider and respond.
In the first month, begin with current volunteers and ask if they’d consider serving again. In month two, begin filling the holes that still exist with new recruits. Start with an email or a brief phone call that says, “We’re recruiting for [position name] for the fall, and I wonder if you might consider such a thing?” If the answer is yes, follow up with another call to discuss the details. If it’s a no, then continue down the list. In month three? Keep calling.
5. Continue making contacts
This might feel daunting. Remember that volunteer systems always need attention to thrive. The faithful commitment to fill the ministry with all the people needed also helps the church to achieve its mission and long-term goals. Envision calling as an opportunity to connect the gifts of each person with the ministries where they might be best equipped to serve. Through each call that is made, volunteers are set up to serve out of their giftedness, and they will be better set up to succeed and to accomplish ministry goals in ways for which others are not equipped.
The Difference Volunteer Recruitment Makes
Recruiting volunteers is difficult, challenging work. It’s also extremely fruitful and valuable work. When others serve in our churches and ministries, they reach people and have an impact that each of us alone would not. We expand the capacity of our churches to be in ministry and help others see the joy in serving.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles on recruiting volunteers by Bryant Johnson. You can read his first article here: “Creating a Healthy Climate for Ministry Volunteers.”