Why Churches Can't Get (and Keep) Volunteers

September 3rd, 2013

Once again I have had cause to marvel that churches rely so completely on volunteers ... and yet don't seem to know how to multiple and care for them. Other non-profit organizations (social service, hospitals, etc.) have all mastered the art of empowering volunteers. The church only seems to know how to use them like disposable tissues. One sneeze (i.e. committee or program), and throw them away! Back in the old Christendom days, the church might have gotten away with that, because there were always more where they came from. Not today.

First of all, churches need to understand the three biggest reasons why potential volunteers do not choose the church. They may go to the United Way, or the Salvation Army, or the Cancer Society ... but they avoid churches like the plague.

  1. Volunteers abhor waste. Churches spend way too much money on overhead (sacred property, old technology, useless programs, and boring worship). Volunteers wonder why they are working so hard to help an organization that is so unproductive. 
  2. Volunteers only work for leaders whose lifestyles they respect. Clergy spend way too much time protecting days off, catering to trivial demands from members, and attending obligatory meetings ... and too often fail to actually model the core values of an organization. Compare that to many CEO's of non-profit organizations who are mission driven, excellent time managers, and only attend meetings that matter to the success of the vision. 
  3. Volunteers expect to celebrate success. Churches spend much of their time explaining failure. They have all kinds of excuses why ministries or missions don't succeed (usually blaming it on circumstances beyond their control). They rarely throw a party for exceeding the mission goal. 

Second, churches need to understand that volunteers need to get something out of their service. It's not all about sacrifice. The four things that volunteers want to "get out" of their unpaid service are:

  • The joy of being part of a big, bold, powerful, exciting vision 
  • New and deeper friendships that enhance their entire life 
  • Sincere appreciation for not only their work, but for their personal gifts and individual qualities
  • Training that is so useful that they can apply it to their careers, families, and personal pursuits

Churches often do not often meet any of these expectations. The vision is small or vague. New friendships are surprising coincidences, because the task is all that matters. Appreciation is lukewarm and stingy. Mediocrity is encouraged because churches only accept what volunteers bring, and don't try to help them improve.

Finally, churches need to learn the absolute number one reason why volunteers give up, walk out, and never come back. They simply will not allow themselves to suffer abuse. All it takes is one bullying, mean, critical, offensive church matriarch or patriarch to treat a volunteer disgracefully. Not only will that volunteer quit, but the word will quickly spread that a church is not able, or unwilling, to protect their volunteers. Unfortunately, lack of culture of accountability is the biggest reason churches cannot attract more volunteers. 

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