Close your eyes and imagine this: a Sunday morning church service without your volunteers.
If that idea gives you the chills, makes your spine tingle, or causes shortness of breath, there’s a good reason. You don’t have the flu; you’re just missing the most important part of your church.
Depending on the size of your community, your volunteers might be responsible for any one of the following:
- Sunday morning worship team
- External ministries
- Even pastoral care and teaching
Without volunteers, you don’t have much of a Sunday morning (or Saturday evening, or Wednesday night).
At best, you’ve probably got a pastor upfront teaching, kids running amok, visitors wandering in lost, and offering plates and communion in chaos.
Volunteers are often the backbone of a church, which is a good thing. Volunteering for a church gives people a sense of purpose, a practical way of serving others and serving God, and a part to play in the Body of Christ.
But a healthy culture of volunteerism–along with healthy volunteer management–don’t happen by accident. To build and manage a community of volunteers, you need tools and strategies to help you achieve long-term success….and avoid your Sunday morning nightmare.
Creating a Culture of Volunteerism
Organizational culture is powerful. A 2021 article from Forbes called culture a “company’s single most powerful advantage.” That’s because culture influences the way people think, behave, and make decisions–even in a church.
But church culture doesn’t just influence the way your congregants dress on Sunday morning, or how likely they are to pray out loud. It also determines if and how they volunteer their time.
When it comes to volunteering, churches sometimes rely on a handful of “servants”–bighearted individuals who gladly give up their time and energy to run kid’s church, set up and tear down, and greet at the entrance.
But relying on a handful of volunteers is only sustainable for so long. It can place an unfair burden or expectation on your best volunteers. And at worst, it can cause burnout and resentment.
Your church will benefit far more from encouraging everyone to volunteer in some way. Though most of your congregants know that volunteering is a good thing to do, however, they’re unlikely to surrender their time without a strong culture of volunteerism in place.
The reality is, many of your church members may view church as a consumer experience, and volunteerism is definitively anti-consumer. Asking people to give up their time and energy for free doesn’t just require clear communication. It has to start with helping people to shift their mindset around volunteering itself.
“Serving the church is beneficial for your faith,” says Natalie Bunch, Children's Ministry Director at All People’s Church in San Diego, California. “Ultimately, you’re serving the Lord when you volunteer. That’s a shift in mindset for most people.”
Natalie continues, “The most important thing for volunteering is that your heart posture is in the right place.”
Volunteering isn’t just an act of faith and time given to God, however. It’s also a way to get connected to others. When volunteering is seen as a core way to get integrated into community at your church, it ceases to become an optional extra. Instead, it becomes a way to get connected to others, to serve God, and to grow.
Strong leadership + buy-in
When your staff is excited about building a community of volunteers, that excitement will spread to other staff, and even to church members. Remember that volunteering isn’t just about getting things done, or making sure that the church doesn’t crash and burn; it’s about building a stronger, more vibrant, and more lifegiving community. That kind of belief will influence buy-in more than compulsion or obligation ever will.
To sustain a culture of volunteerism, look at the internal processes and activities of your church. Do you have tools to support volunteer management? Does your staff have the bandwidth to communicate with and train volunteers? Do your leaders know how to empower church members to lead ministries? More importantly, do they trust them to lead ministries?
To transform attitudes about volunteering, you need to make sure that your organization can support that cultural shift. Here are some practical strategies for creating change:
- Create documentation and processes for volunteer recruiting and communication;
- Give your staff members verbiage to help them recruit and train volunteers;
- Use tools and technology to make volunteer management easy and efficient (such as Tithe.ly’s ChMS)
In the long run, a culture of volunteerism can help you survive and succeed through the ups and downs of running a church–such as turnover, conflict, and even global pandemics. Volunteerism simply starts with the right mentality about service, a positive attitude, and a desire to grow community.
Smart businesses and organizations know that retaining existing customers or clients is better than acquiring new ones. People who have already said “yes” are already more valuable partners. They see your value, and they’re willing to surrender time, money, and energy in exchange for something else.
The same goes for churches. In the book, The Volunteer Project: Stop Recruiting, Start Retaining authors Christine Kreisher, Darren Kizer, and Steph Whitacre propose a “zero recruitment” strategy that relies on your existing volunteers to do the recruiting for you.
Focus on your existing volunteers.
A culture of internal recruitment means that volunteers are so excited by what they’re doing that they invite friends to participate. Again, culture is key. If you make volunteering fun, your volunteers will spread the excitement.
Make it personal, practical, and meaningful.
In The Volunteer Project, Kreisher names four specific strategies for making volunteering an attractive prospect: “celebrate significance,” provide “first class support,” “fuel meaningful connections,” and “empower passions.”
First, volunteers need to feel known and seen. When you make an effort to engage them as friends and church members, they know that they’re not just free labor; they’re individually valued. You know their stories, their passions, their talents, even their personality quirks. And you value those things.
Next, you need to give volunteers the support they need to do their jobs well. That may include budgets, hands-on tools, technology, or specific training. When volunteers are equipped to succeed, they’re far more likely to keep volunteering and to invite others to do the same.
To build a community that thrives, volunteers need to make what Kreisher calls “meaningful connections” with one another. Encourage friendships, camaraderie, and relationships within your volunteer community.
Finally, if a volunteer has a specific passion or idea for a ministry, empower them to take initiative. Your volunteers are likely forward-thinking, generous people who want to use their time and talents to make a difference. Give them the encouragement, tools, and training they need to do so.
Tips for “zero recruitment”
Here are some practical strategies for focusing on your existing volunteers:
- Keep giving vision for what volunteers are doing, and keep communicating that vision during weekly huddle ups, check-ins, team nights, and more.
- Connect personally with your volunteers. Call them, and ask them how they’re doing, and how you can pray for them.
- Host dinners and get-togethers that give your volunteers a chance to have fun and get to know each other.
- Host a recruitment challenge, with a prize for the volunteer with the most recruits. Build momentum and don’t be afraid to incentivize recruiting.
When your existing community is thriving, growth becomes organic. And, when your volunteers have a sense of ownership for what they’re doing, you won’t have to constantly fill in vacancies or no-shows.
Managing Your Volunteers Well
You might have plenty of volunteers that are excited about getting involved and giving time and energy to helping others. But if you’re not managing them well, your community of amped-up volunteers is going to fizzle out fast.
To create a sustainable community that’s easy and efficient to manage, you’ll need strategic volunteer management. This includes using the right tools and tactics for communicating with volunteers, empowering them to be self-sufficient, and organizing their activity and contact info.
Ultimately, great volunteer management is a win for both staff and volunteers.
Volunteer Sign Up
It should be easy to sign up to volunteer. Give people clear steps on how to fill out a form or contact a coordinator, and use a church management system to store their contact info once they’re signed up. You can use this system later on to manage activity, send communications, and more.
You can also use a church management software to keep track of background checks.
Volunteer check-in should be quick, easy, and simple for everybody. Instead of doing manual check-in at every event or training–draining additional time and energy–give volunteers a simple tool to register on their own mobile devices.
Tithe.ly ChMS includes a church app that volunteers can use to check in once they arrive at an event. The results? Events can get started quickly and smoothly, church staff can focus on other tasks or activities, and there’s trackable data on attendance.
Finally, create protocol for regular communication with your volunteers. Consider sending a weekly email newsletter, regular text updates, and even making monthly or quarterly phone calls (as mentioned above). Here are some tips for effective communication with volunteers:
- Make volunteer communication regular and established, e.g. “Send out weekly newsletter every Tuesday at 9 a.m.” This sets a clear expectation for both volunteers and administrative staff.
- Be clear and straightforward in all communication. You can be warm and friendly, but get to the point and provide clear details. Your volunteers have a lot to think about outside of volunteering; they need to be able to skim information quickly.
- Use a single, streamlined platform to manage communication and keep everyone on the same page. This helps staff manage details and activity with minimal errors (and minimal labor).
Finally, regular communication helps establish relationships with volunteers and creates consistency. Frequent touchpoints help volunteers to remember their commitments and scheduling and keep volunteering at the forefront of their mind.
Starting from Scratch with Volunteers
It may be the case that you’re starting from scratch with your volunteer community. Maybe you just planted a church, and you have zero volunteers. Or maybe you run a small but growing church, and you’ve only relied on staff members or a handful of generous church members to run ministries.
Whatever the case, you’re now in the process of building a community of volunteers for the first time. Starting at ground zero will require:
- A digital platform to organize contact info, allow sign-up and check-in, and provide a single point of contact from the get-go.
- Clear messaging on what volunteers can do to serve, and why volunteering is fun and fulfilling.
- A strategy for recruitment–when will you ask church members to volunteer? How will you ask them to do it? What steps will you give them to follow through?
- A leader who can empower others, get people excited about volunteering, and assume responsibility for volunteer management.
Once you’ve got these pillars in place, you’re ready to start recruiting. Remember, it only takes a few committed, passionate volunteers to help build a community. Help your “all star volunteers” to thrive, and you’ll see more of your church members get excited about giving their time and energy to serving.
Finally, Make it Fun
Finally, volunteering should be fun.
Your volunteers most likely have regular day jobs and plenty of personal responsibilities and obligations. Volunteering for your church shouldn’t feel like an extra “To Do” list item to check off. It should be a rewarding, fulfilling experience that brings people closer to Jesus and closer to others.
As mentioned above, you can host regular team nights or even recruiting challenges to add some fun into volunteering. But more than anything, have fun yourself. Enthusiasm and joy are contagious, and when volunteers see staff playing around, laughing, and taking joy in what they’re doing, they’ll follow suit.
When you’ve got a solid foundation of strategy and volunteer management in place, you create space to sit back, breathe easy, and have fun with volunteering. To try Tithe.ly’s ChMS, click here.