Getting and Keeping Volunteers
THE PERENNIAL PROBLEM AND A SURPRISING SOLUTION
I feel like I’ve read a million articles on the topic of “getting and keeping volunteers.” If you’re like me, working in a ministry that relies on a small army of volunteers, you’re probably interested in this topic, too.
I’m an analytical, task-driven person, so I’d love to give you a formula you can follow to guarantee you a steady stream of competent, enthusiastic volunteer ministry partners.
There’s so much great advice out there on creating a good culture, leading with vision, communicating gratitude and encouragement, and providing excellent equipping opportunities.
But I’ve learned that although strategies are great—relationships are more important. (That’s a hard pill to swallow, since so much of my job involves completing a ridiculous number of tasks.)
I also wish I could say that I arrived at this discovery quickly and have adopted it perfectly!
Reality is, this is a truth I’ve come to realize slowly. And I still have so much to learn. Here is some of the evidence I’ve seen to lead me to the conclusion about relationship importance:
• A college math major gave the most successful “ask” from the church stage for our kids’ ministry volunteers. He described how he hadn’t thought kids’ ministry would be for him, before turning to a section of the sanctuary where college students were sitting and challenged them to invest in kids.
• The volunteers who offer the most hours outside of Sunday and have served the longest are the ones I regularly check in on, take to coffee, and consider my friends.
• A mother and daughter were serving together, and the mother was concerned about her daughter’s resistance to church attendance and spiritual conversations. Much to her surprise and delight, her daughter asked her grandmother to serve with her the weeks she did. Now three generations of women are serving a future generation and are strengthening their relationships with one another.
• We hired a young man to our team who has invested in some neighborhood teens; without prompting, these youth signed up to serve in kids’ ministry.
• One of our volunteers now has almost everyone in her small-group Bible study working with her in our kids’ ministry.
It may seem obvious, but the common denominator in these examples is relationships.
When people say “yes” to serving kids and families, they aren’t just saying “yes” to the ministry, but to relationships with the others serving!
High school boys aren’t necessarily signing up because they’re passionate about serving kids, but because they love and respect a young man who is modeling that for them. Grandmas, mothers, and daughters are serving together as a means of bonding, but not because each of them is equally passionate about holding babies.
When I ask a stay-at-home mom to help me once a week in the office, she is saying “yes” to relationship with me more than to cutting out craft materials.
RELATIONSHIP VS. MINISTRY, OR RELATIONSHIP = MINISTRY?
But shouldn’t every volunteer be passionate about serving kids and families? Shouldn’t they do it simply because they have spiritual gifts that need to be put to work? I believe the answers to these questions relate to our relational God, who created us to be in relationship with Himself—and with others.
Genesis 1:1–2 and John 1:1 tell us how God has been in relationship from the beginning of time. In these passages we have a picture of perfect unity between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When God creates Adam, He stated “It is not good for the man to be alone,” before creating a companion for him in Eve.
In the Garden, God is in perfect relationship with Adam and Eve; their rebellion is fractured that intimate communion.
But, in Exodus we see a God who decides to provide a way for Himself to tabernacle—or dwell—with His chosen people.
Then Jesus came to dwell—to tabernacle—with us and to give up His life to reconcile us to the Father. After His ascension, God promised reconciliation through the intimate presence of the Holy Spirit.
As much as our ministries are about the relationships to the kids we’re ministering to, they are also a ministry to those with whom we’re serving!
THE STRATEGY IS PRESENCE AND PROXIMITY
When we lead with relationships rather than tasks, we reflect our God who did everything to remove barriers to our relationship with Him. The most strategic thing we can do to staff our teams is to simply create spaces for relationships to flourish and be willing to enter into them sacrificially as well.
As Jesus is recorded as saying in Matthew 22:37–40: “‘. . . Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Everything we do—including, our work in ministry—is to be done in the context of love toward God and toward each other.
So, the soundest strategy for “getting and keeping volunteers” isn’t to create a flowchart of wonderfully organized tasks (as much joy as that may bring someone like me), but to build loving relationship with every opportunity we have. I’m praying that as we minister to children, we’re filled with the presence and love of the Holy Spirit to offer it to everyone around us!
Is this a theme in your ministry or sphere of influence as well? I’d love to hear stories of how relationships have impacted your life and ministry.