During a recent workshop on Soulful Planning, my co-presenter asked participants to share a current ministry challenge in the chat box. About 20 seconds went by, during which I thought, “Oh no! No one wants to speak up!” and then the chat box was flooded with comments. The first read simply, “Volunteer shortage/ disengagement.” Of the nearly forty comments that followed, 38% related to volunteers. I counted. Why? Because I want you to know that if you are struggling with volunteer recruitment, management, retention, or engagement… you are not alone.
Note: In my own ministry setting I prefer to use the term “leader” to refer to unpaid, non-staff church members who share their time and talent with our formation ministries. In this article, I’ll use the term “volunteer” for clarity and because this is the term that was used by participants in the Soulful Planning workshop.
Where have all the volunteers gone?
After reading through the ministry challenges described in the chat box during our workshop, my co-presenter and I asked for one person to share a little more about their particular volunteer situation. That brave soul shared that, before the pandemic, their children’s ministry had a solid group of 20 volunteers who led Sunday school on a rotating basis. This spring, they have only been able to recruit 7 volunteers. So what happened to the other 13 folks? A global pandemic…
- Many parent volunteers are exhausted from virtual schooling, family risk management, and/or the uncertainty of when a child will be sent home for Covid exposure.
- Often volunteers at high-risk for Covid-19 are hesitant to lead formation on-site, even with precautions.
- Some older adult volunteers are unable/unwilling to use the technology necessary for online Christian formation.
- Many volunteers, like all humans, are currently experiencing a sense of deep exhaustion from living with the uncertainty of a global pandemic for two years.
The reality is that, in order to survive under the current circumstances of daily life, many people have limited their commitments and/or become uncomfortable with committing to anything long-term.
Sometimes Not Everything Is Possible
If volunteer recruitment, management, retention, and/or engagement is currently a challenge in your context, it is highly likely that you’ve done all the “right” things. You are not the problem. You are running up against circumstances outside of your control.
I wish I could offer you a five-step process for “fixing” the volunteer shortage. But after talking with dozens of church leaders experiencing this challenge over the last few weeks, I’m convinced there’s no “easy button” for this one. Working harder or working smarter will not solve this problem.
One of my favorite authors, Kate Bowler, often talks about the idea of limited agency – that space that exists between EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE and NOTHING IS POSSIBLE AT ALL. As I contemplated this challenge of “volunteer shortage/ disengagement,” searching for a magical “fix,” I realized that in most contexts it is likely true that it will not be possible to recruit the desired number of volunteers at this time. Right now, not everything is possible. And, that does not mean that nothing is possible.
Side Note: For an episode of Kate’s podcast that discusses limited agency, check out Can We Be A Tiny Bit Happier? with Gretchen Rubin.
So What Is Possible?
So if it is not possible to recruit the same number of Sunday School volunteers as last year, what is possible?
Maybe you can essentialize by naming what really matters and letting go of things that do not matter as much. For example, if what really matters about the Confirmation retreat is building community among the youth preparing for Confirmation, you might imagine ways of doing that community building that do not require volunteers to travel out of town for an overnight. If what really matters about Sunday School is making sure children know they are loved by God and the faith community, you might imagine ways of conveying that message in an intergenerational Sunday School class or outside of Sunday School altogether.
Maybe you can schedule rest for yourself and the current volunteers. This might look like scheduling Sunday School for eight weeks in the fall and twelve weeks in the spring instead of every week from Labor Day to Memorial Day, or taking a year off from Vacation Bible School, the pancake supper, or the Lenten book study.
Maybe you can do something now to make volunteer recruitment easier later. For example, you might make a list of folks who could help with recruitment in the future (a parent who cannot serve the ministry on a regular basis, a vestry member, a long-time parishioner with lots of connections, etc.). Or you might keep a list of the folks who were not able to volunteer at this time, but might be willing to volunteer in the future.
Maybe you can start small in rebuilding your volunteer team. For example, you might recruit just one new volunteer this spring. Or you might spend some extra time and energy this season caring for the volunteers you do have. This could look like taking each volunteer to coffee or offering a regular (optional) Bible study to feed the volunteers’ souls. It could look like sharing handwritten notes or local book store gift cards. It could be a monthly (optional) check-in via Zoom or a few training events to help volunteers gain confidence in leading small groups, responding to tough questions, and using the curriculum.
I hope you can be kind to yourself. It is highly likely that you’ve done all the “right” things. You are not the problem. You are running up against circumstances outside of your control. What do you need to sustain yourself through this season?
Note: The bolded principles above come from the work of author Kendra Adachi. For more wisdom from Kendra, check out her book, The Lazy Genius Way, and her podcast, The Lazy Genius podcast, where she invites us to embrace what matters and be lazy about what doesn’t.
Special thanks to my Soulful Planning co-presenter and thought-partner, Elizabeth Henry-McKeever!