Four Reasons You Might Have A Volunteer Shortage And How To Stop It

The church is a volunteer-driven organization. Which means that nothing happens without volunteers. Additionally, this means church leaders and staff are constantly in recruiting mode to supply what is often a ministry with vacant team members. As a staff member, the never-ending need of volunteers might have been my greatest frustration. So I made it my priority to get ahead of the game, seeking to always enjoy a deep bench. I recruited, trained, and developed in advance of future needs or ministry expansion opportunities.

Here are some challenges you may be facing and the remedies needed to enjoy a future where volunteers are measured in surplus amounts.

You might be experiencing an ongoing volunteer need because:

  1. You have a culture of paying for work instead of volunteering. Most churches begin with far more volunteer leaders than paid staff. As a matter of fact, the weekly staff meeting could have been the pastor sitting by himself. As the church began, everyone chipped in with all the ministries being led 100% by volunteers. Paying to have a worship leader or children’s ministry leader was not an option, so we engaged people and trusted them to lead. Over time, the work may have become too much for a volunteer, or the volunteer leader had reached his/her limits, so we started paying for staff-level positions. Unknowingly, a volunteer-driven organization has now become a staff-driven organization. The most meaningful jobs are for hire. A certain level of expectation occurs that a volunteer can not meet. The leadership mindset grows so that when you need something done right, you have to hire staff. Sometimes, laypeople can even express a sense of expectation, thinking the staff should do the work of ministry. After all, that is why they are paid.

Application Exercise: Your church is filled with highly competent people who run businesses and volunteer at significant levels in local community groups. They lead their families well having tremendous skill and experience. Create a list of ten people from your church and name the skills you see them displaying at work, home, and in the community. Is your church offering too little of an impact role or expecting too little of them?

  1. You have too many events and activities. Churches can be very good at adding new ministries and events that hold great promise. Then, maybe a ministry is not quite fulfilling the mission as planned, showing a hole in a specific area. So we create yet another new event to solve the problem of the hole. Or, one of your most faithful members has a tremendous missions idea they are passionate about. Who could say “no?” So a new missions venture is created. As time goes on, layer after layer of events takes place without the sunsetting of old events. Adding is easy, subtracting is really hard. Over time, it is very common to have a church calendar that is quite busy.  This creates two major issues. One, you are conducting events and ministries that should have been discontinued because they were not fulfilling the mission well. Maybe they did in the past, but not the present. So a group of volunteers has been enlisted to continue to serve these older opportunities. However, because this ministry is less productive, it is not replenishing the resource of people to carry it forward. It is just expending people’s energies. Then, we layer new activities on top of old which need their own set of volunteers. However, our pool of leaders are saddled by old responsibilities. We are weakening the bench, not deepening it.

Application Exercise: Measure your ministries and activities to discern which ones reach and disciple the highest volume of people every year. Decide what you will do about the ministries or events that do not make this list. If you do not selectively reduce your ministry calendar you will always produce less fruit with fewer people.

  1. You do not have a leadership pipeline. We tend to recruit volunteers via sign up lists, bulletin ads, or personal phone calls. The staff can feel the pressure, so they want the preacher to push it from the stage. The people feel the pressure because they do not want to let their church down. So the few that feel the most guilty are obligated to step up. Volunteers are like rows of trees. You have to plant, cultivate, and then let God unleash the entire grove for the harvest season. It is hard work creating the necessary items to succeed at developing a leadership pipeline. You need to possess a clearly defined mission for the ministry, an accurate job description, proper training, team dynamics, and inspiring support. It can just be easier to get the job done right by yourself. Recruiting volunteers is adding new help. Creating a leadership pipeline is multiplying your people resources. It does take a different kind of work to create a pipeline, but it is definitely not more work than continually filling volunteer holes.

Application Exercise: Make a list of the steps involved in moving someone from a new guest at the church to becoming a new member. Then provide a path onto the Greeter Team, merely standing at a door. Next, you can grow them to run a Greeter Team for your 9:30 worship service. Finally, develop them to lead your entire Hospitality Ministry on Sunday morning. Do you have these steps of growth clearly defined? Do you have a development path easily identifiable to your people? Help people release their God-given best, by creating an easy to follow road map of development. 

  1. You are underutilizing your best people. This one is personal for me. I spent the first 15 years of ministry on local church staff and the last 15 years as a layperson. While on staff I noticed the most productive executive leaders struggled to find their place on the team. They may travel a lot, have a distant persona, or simply are never asked to do something in their wheelhouse. Then as a volunteer, I have always been asked to serve in ways that do not leverage my true gifts and passions. I feel way underutilized at church. In both situations, it is very easy for high capacity volunteers to search out meaningful ways to serve in organizations outside the local church. Here are a few items other groups offer. First, there is a clearly defined vision of people impact. The vision isn’t to keep the doors open or fulfill the budget need. The story is told through the eyes of one person being impacted with needed food, water, or spiritual help. Second, there is a challenge presented based on personal strengths and passion. High capacity leaders need a clear expectation and bold challenge. If the job seems easy or small, then someone else may be better suited. Finally, do not waste time or slow down the process with multiple approvals needed or limited freedom of action. Leaders want to lead. 

Application Exercise: Have a discussion with your team regarding your vision. Is it clear and powerful? Can a high capacity leader find himself or herself in it? Does it cause a person to dream about ways they can serve at the highest level alongside the staff?

One day you can stand before your people and make this statement. “Our church does not need you to volunteer. We actually have a surplus of volunteers because many of you have discovered your life purpose and passion, unleashing it in our church. However, if you have not discovered this joy then you too can find a place to serve for your personal growth and benefit. God designed you with a purpose, passion, and gifts to be put fully into play through His church. We are here to help you with that life mission. Enjoy this teaching series we are launching today and participate in the training class we are offering to help you unleash your life mission.” The alternative is to pass around a sign-up list and put on the pressure from the stage to keep filling the volunteer holes. Creating a belief, process, and plan which results in a deep leadership bench costs nothing but time while reaping results that multiply.