…and what you can do about it.
Volunteers are a church program’s lifeblood and biggest challenge. I’ve seen it from all sides, -as a minister on staff, a program leader & recruiter, and as a volunteer in the pew, -in big churches, middle-sized and small. I’ve also experienced it vicariously through the thousands of churches I’ve been in contact with over the years who are using my software or doing the rotation model in their Sunday schools. In fact, after tech support, it’s one of the TOP things people mention in their conversations with me.
Here are some observations and advice….
1. It isn’t just you or your church. Every church faces the challenge of getting and keeping volunteers. This is also comforting, because many of those churches have found the keys to success. No matter your situation -somebody has been there before.
2. It MAY be you! There are many gifts… and one of yours may not be recruiting. And there are many churches, but some of them have dug a DEEP HOLE with regard to volunteer recruitment and management. And the deeper the hole, the longer it usually takes to fill in. This may be the toughest thing to take, especially if you’re the “cause” of some of the “ebbing.” But the sooner you get over it and get around it, -the better off your ministry will be. The best managers surround themselves with people who are good at things the leader can’t or doesn’t want to do.
3. There is a time and a season for every purpose…
Don’t panic (yet). -Some churches are in a volunteer lull. This can happen when a pastor or key leader leaves, or when people have been burnt out by some recent big push. Or it can happen because a program or the leaders have run out of steam. Like everything else in the church, recruiting success ebbs and flows.
4. Some churches’ “carrying capacity” is much less than their “caring capacity.” One of the reasons volunteers can get hard to find is that the church is trying to do too much. In my experience, the smaller your congregation, the worse the disparity between what you want to do, and what you can do. Time for some reality and prioritizing.
5. And just maybe….recruiting should be hard for some positions. Take “teaching children” for example. Why SHOULD it be easy to find the right people for something important?
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Now for some harsh truth about “the reason for your season”…
- You need to discover whether you’re in a LULL, or RUT. A dip, or a deep hole. (and why)
- You need to confess whether your past practices have created the current conditions.
- You need to confess whether or not your personality and reputation is part of the problem or solution. Enthusiastic recruiters can only correct the situation for so long. If you don’t break the bad habits, practices and perceptions about your program, committee (or about you), then recruiting gets harder. Not all CE staff/leaders are good at recruiting (any more than good preachers are also good pastors, or good CEOs are good at hiring people). Find someone who will tell you the truth. Then find someone who is GOOD AT the things you are not and ask them to help.
Here are some ways to change things:
1. Change who does the recruiting. Involve other people who know different people and can tap their friends in the congregation. In some programs, the same-old recruiter keeps getting the same-old results.
2. Invite families to teach together: Fathers and sons, Mothers and their mother. This gives them the added bonus of doing something together.
3. Avoid general appeals. They usually don’t work, and their sound of desperation makes people wonder if “something’s wrong.” Instead, have volunteers tell their story, and recruit in a personal way behind the scenes.
4. Don’t limit yourself to a limited recruiting window. Some people are not ready to volunteer right when you ask them. I see this particularly in August and September when parents are being assailed from the schools and other church committees, soccer practices, and things to do around the house to get ready for the Winter (up north). Yet most church PERSIST in the fantasy of “Fall Kickoff” and recruitment.
5. Train teens to help. In many cases, you’ll also be able to get their parent to help the teen when the time comes to teach.
6. Involve the pastor in teaching. This sends a signal to other adults, and it helps the pastor feel connected and aware. They are more likely to talk about something they are INVOLVED in. And they become part of your recruiting team. (And if your pastor isn’t involved in teaching, what are you paying them for?)
7. Churches and programs “with issues” often have a difficult time getting volunteers. I frequently hear from leaders and teachers in churches where turmoil is affecting recruiting. People naturally sit on their hands during these times. What often needs to happen is for a couple of truly passionate volunteers to take hold of the program during these difficult times, and commit themselves to seeing it through for the kids. Often, they make personal appeals for help to their friends in the congregation. Most people will respond to their friends’ pleas, if they know the reality of the situation.
When recruiting for the computer lab…. invite newbies to come teach with you. Don’t throw them unprepared into the Lion’s Den. The Mentor-Apprentice model for teaching training is the best ever invented. SHOW THEM.
The Year of Jubilee…
Sometimes the best thing to help a program get out of it rut is to take a hiatus from “the way you’ve always done it.” That’s the concept behind “the Year of Jubilee” …to “set the prisoners free” and “forgive debts” as the Old Testament describes it. See my blog post about that here: http://sundayresources.net/neil/2008/04/20/the-jubilee-solution-to-your-churchs-rut/
The Care and Keeping of Volunteers…
A lot has been written on this subject. Here’s my emphasis…
The quickest way to make recruiting hard is to not support the volunteers you already have.
Word travels. People remember.
Many volunteer teachers who contact me for help say they feel “thrown to the wolves” with regard to materials, schedules, and equipment. I’ve experienced it too as a volunteer. Sometimes you just feel like you’re out there on your own. And it doesn’t want to make you say ‘yes’ the next time. It wears on you.
The annual “thank you note” and recognition Sunday is not what’s needed. Recruiting and managing people requires an understanding of what motivates them…what their needs are.
Most volunteers ‘volunteer’ because:
1. They are personally asked.
2. They feel needed.
3. They are looking for a way to bolster and work out their faith.
4. They feel like it is “their turn.”
5. They are looking for fellowship.
6. They like to do what you’re asking them to do, or are at least intrigued by it.
7. And last but not least, …because they are regularly appreciated in person by YOU and others.
Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it! But in many churches, the volunteers get treated like worker bee’s. They get told what to do, or periodically neglected. Their leaders deal with them in a workman like manner, rather than tending to them as persons. Staff interact with them for a few minutes on Sunday morning and through emails. In a former church where I volunteered, the only interaction outside the program with other teachers was during the ‘training’ session they held twice in the 10 years I was there. Some teachers enjoy being in a group of like minded fellow adults. Others need a more personal touch. All need some sort of regular care. Yet ‘care’ is an after-thought in some churches. (There are so many easy solutions… one of the best being an annual barbecue at the pastor’s home. It’s more than fellowship: people want to be acknowledged by the Big Kahuna.)
Few of your volunteers actually have “free time” to give you (who has “free” time!?!). Yet that’s the excuse they give you if their other needs are not met, or if the program or leader has a smell about them.
How the rotation model tries to address volunteer issues….
The rotation model (www.rotation.org) is one HUGE response to the volunteer issue that works for many churches. The Rotation Model creates a reasonable schedule for volunteers to come in and out of all year long. It also lets them teach with methods they prefer, not the ones they don’t like. It allows them to repeat their lessons, thus cutting down VASTLY on their preparation time. And it brings them HAPPY students, …not students bored out of their skulls. However, it can’t overcome crappy leaders, poor implementation, and churches with serious “other” problems.
The “T” Word: Training is dreaded by volunteers and often handled poorly by leaders. Yes, you probably need a “training event” for some fellowship, overview, and Q & A. But the Mentor-Apprentice method of teacher training is still the best one ever invented. “Come teach with me” is the best training you can offer, and it offers the adult-to-adult interaction which many volunteers seek. To be more blunt: If your program leader(s) is NOT in the classroom teaching with the teachers, they are not real leaders or trainers. And program leaders/pastors must see this as a GREAT opportunity to “mentor the mentors.” More work? Yes. But better results all around.
There are some decent books about church volunteers. Some even worth reading.
I hope this blog post has been worth reading, and has given you some good ideas and food for thought.