Home > For NAD Pastors > Articles >
Attract them. Grow them. Keep them.
By Roger Hernandez
One of the toughest jobs any pastor or leader can have is to recruit and keep volunteers. It sure was for me when I started out and I made my share of mistakes along the way. Here are two:
John and Martha (not their real name) were my Family Life leaders in a church plant. As with most church plants, volunteers were not easy to come by, so we ignored a past that was littered with red flags. Everything was going great, until John came home one day and found Martha had packed her bags and left. No bueno.
Maria was my Sabbath school director. She was excited when she received the position, and said yes immediately. The year that followed wasn’t so great. It seemed that she would quit every week only to be talked back into the position by me. She got hurt easily when someone disagreed with her, or when her program did not turn out the way she wanted.

These are maybe extreme cases but they show how imprecise the art of volunteer recruitment is at the local church. I want to share with you some practical advice, taken from years of learning the hard way, good literature and leadership experts.  
I. How to attract them
There are five things you can do:

   1. Limit time of service.
No one likes to hear “until Jesus comes” as a response to the question “how long will this assignment last?”  In his book Connect: How to Double Your Number of Volunteers Nelson Searcy a pastor in New York says it this way: “Encourage the involvement of new people by always putting a time limit on serving. In other words, never allow anyone to step into a ministry position without putting time boundaries on his service. If you provide no time limits, two things will happen: Your volunteers will burn out. You will lose invaluable opportunities to mobilize new servers.” He adds (interesting angle!) “God was putting this principle to work when he mandated that we observe the Sabbath. We would do well to embrace its power in every area.”
I remember small group leaders asking me if we could meet three weeks a month instead of four and me rejecting the idea of doing it every week. My fear was that if people stopped coming for a week, or took a break in the summer they would not be inclined to return. The exact opposite is true. A Sabbath restores, refreshes, recharges.
  2. Shadow service.
Your best recruiters are the people that are already serving and love it! Searcy states: “Plan a shadow day. Put a shadow day on your calendar, and invite every person who is currently serving to bring a friend to shadow them that day.” The best way of knowing what your gifts are is not taking a 40 question test, is actually serving for a short time to see if it’s a good fit. Give people an opportunity to try our multiple positions until one sticks.

  3. Ministry fair.
Hold a ministry/volunteer fair.  This will, according to Searcy, “make people aware of all of the serving opportunities available to them.” This works best if you advertise it well in advance, have specific and clear instructions as well as guidelines on what the jobs entail. Make it easier for them to follow through after the event by having a sign up and flyer. Don’t put all your eggs in a ministry fair, but it can be very helpful. Don’t hold these in times of the year where people are out like summer or Easter. Early fall, or spring are the best times.

  4. Multiple teams.
This might be a challenge to smaller churches, but if I have seen over and over God honoring the faith of pastors that decided to trust Him for an increase. Searcy encourages us to dream bigger. “Let me challenge you to let go of that scarcity mentality. God has droves of people whom he wants to plug into your ministries— for your church’s benefit and for their own. Let’s not let our limited thinking limit his plans. The principle of spiritual readiness says we must prepare and plan for the harvest before God will send it to us.”

  5. Special Occasions.
Mother’s day. Father’s day. Christmas. Education day. Youth day. Women’s ministry day. The possibilities are endless. Never waste a special day.
II. How to grow them
One of the greatest temptations of a leader is to do the work yourself and neglect empowering your volunteers. An old saying describes many leaders: If you want it done right, do it yourself.  One of the best known examples in the Bible is Moses. After a morning of observation, his father in law had a talk with him about his work habits. (I’m sure he loved that!) He tells Moses:
Exodus 18:17 “This is not good!” Moses’ father-in-law exclaimed. 18 “You’re going to wear yourself out—and the people, too. This job is too heavy a burden for you to handle all by yourself.
If you are going to grow the volunteers you attract, you must empower them. Here are three principles on the benefits of empowering volunteers:

  1. Empowerment, not delegation. One of the most frustrating feelings a volunteer can have, is to have responsibility without authority.  Delegation merely says, “here, do this”. Empowerment gives the assignment, the instructions and the power to change, adapt and improve it. It takes longer, but in the end, its results are better.  I once sat in a church, waiting for the service to start. The pastor was sitting next to me in a back room. Volunteers would continually stream in, and ask the pastor a myriad of questions, from water level in the baptistery, parking arrangements, to service participants. It was obvious the pastor felt good about everything having to run through him. I only wondered what would happen if the pastor had to be out for an extended period of time.

  2. Empowerment creates ownership. The easiest way, one that both leaders and many followers prefer, is for the leader to give a list of assignments. We love to-do lists. What should I do? What decision should I make?  What would you do in my place? An important part of empowerment is to ask good questions. When we ask questions instead of just giving advice, we teach people to think for themselves, empowering them. Pastors especially, find it very tempting to spend their lives giving advice, which is faster, than to let people reflect on the choices, and process information for themselves.

  3. Empowerment leaves a legacy. Because our ego is involved in most everything we do, it feels good when we are absent from our responsibility and people tell us how terrible it was when we were gone. An empowering leader is one that will leave a post and things won’t fall apart. This means, that sometimes things have to go terribly wrong, in order for people to step up and rectify. When a leader continually steps in and takes upon himself/herself the responsibilities, instead of empowering volunteers, it produces mediocre results. If you are the leader, and continually step in, your people will never grow. I see pastors opening the doors of the church, getting the heat going, working the sound system, etc. Nothing wrong with doing that, but I am pretty sure other people can be a part of the team and grow into their assignment, instead of you doing everything yourself. 
III. How to keep them
One word: Gratitude. Be thankful. Show your thanks. Say how thankful you are.  Find a million ways to declare those two words volunteers love to hear:  Thank you. Patrick Lencioni points this out in his book “The Advantage”. I want to share with you three quotes that are golden:

“What leaders need to understand is that the vast majority of employees, at all levels of an organization, see financial rewards as a satisfier, not a driver.”  (pp. 167-168)

“In fact, gratitude, recognition, increased responsibilities, and other forms of genuine appreciation are drivers. That means an employee can never really get enough of those and will always welcome more.” (p. 168)

“The lesson for leaders is…the healthiest organizations in the world are not necessarily the highest-paying ones and that throwing money at a problem that would be better solved through improved management is a true waste of resources. What is more, unsatisfied employees who receive greater financial compensation as an incentive to stay in an unhealthy organization feel cheapened by the gesture.” (p. 169)
In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with something to think about:  The way you treat volunteers will depend on how intertwined your ego is in what you are trying to accomplish.

Ask yourself three questions and filter your attitudes and actions towards volunteers through them:
  1. Am I building my kingdom or God’s? The less pride you have, the less it will bother you when a volunteer fails. Remember, whatever God builds, he sustains.
  2. Am I sacrificing my family by forcing them to volunteer just to make me look good? (See question #1)
  3. Am I interested every day when I wake up in adding value to my volunteers, or are they just disposable peons that I’m using to achieve my goals?

Whatever God produces, he provides for. May you join God in what He already is doing in your community.
Roger Hernandez is the Ministerial Director for Southern Union Conference.