5 tips for motivating and maintaining church volunteers

Image by Mangostock, iStockphoto.com.
Image by Mangostock, iStockphoto.com.

If we weren’t paid for our work, would we still give our all? Would we even show up? Money is a strong motivator to determine how we spend our time and where we invest our hearts. If this is true, a non-profit entity, like the church, needs to pay attention to how volunteers, some of whom function as unpaid staff, are treated and retained. 

No church can function unless members give their time. As Christians we are called to serve no matter the cost. However, that does not mean the church should treat people with disrespect or disregard. In fact, quite the opposite. We must be more sensitive to and considerate of those who are giving of their time and talent to help the church advance its mission and to serve others. Here are some new ways to look at the ministry of volunteers.

1. Don’t take anyone for granted. Some pastors lament a lack of devoted followers willing to give more time to the church and cite the “20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work” statistic. But what about the 80 percent of the people who do 20 percent of the work? Too many churches take those people for granted.  What would happen if the ushers didn’t show up or if the choir stopped rehearsing?  The reality is they don’t have to serve. Every chance you get, thank volunteers, let them know their work matters and tell them how much they bring to the body of Christ.

2. Always have a Plan B. Children get sick, cars break down and sometimes, people simply forget.  Pastors and paid staff need to consider what would happen if volunteers did not show up. For example: It’s Sunday, and one of your nursery workers isn’t there. Are you prepared? Do you have a “go-to” list of trained people for whom you have background checks? These people may not want a regular rotation in the nursery, yet may be willing to help when a need arises.   

Another strategy is to over-recruit and under-anticipate. If I think I need eight people to complete a task, I recruit nine. Chances are, one person will not be there. If all nine volunteers show up, all the better. (Just make sure you have enough work to go around if everyone does show up.)

Ask: What would I do if my volunteers could not be present?  Doing this will limit the frustration and anger that sometimes accompany working with unpaid servants. It allows us to extend grace and compassion when people don’t show.

3. Remember: better together. An important part of the ethos of the church is community. Bring this into your philosophy of supporting volunteers, particularly if they do mundane tasks such as folding bulletins or mowing grass. It’s more fun to work with a partner. Even the most boring task can become fun when you also build authentic relationships.

4. Don't force your passion. Every pastor has a passion for at least one cause. Clergy often want the congregation also to volunteer for that cause. If you cannot recruit tutors for the local school, it may be that is your passion, but not one your faith community shares. Don’t force a vision that is not catching on. Find creative ways to encourage the congregation to understand the needs of the community, why tutoring is important and how they can make a difference by considering this vision. Before you begin thinking about new ministries, work with your congregation to explore your community's needs. Discover your church’s calling and enhance outreach efforts by creating a church marketing plan.

5. Lead by example. Pastors need to discover their personal passion and give of themselves.  Service to others is part of our United Methodist heritage. John Wesley spent his time ministering to those on the margins of society (prisoners, debtors in poorhouses, widows and those who frequented soup kitchens) and he called upon those who followed him to commit to serving the poor, a particularly important invitation since they were among the poor themselves. When pastors volunteer, we become servants.  Pastors who serve in the community regularly are more understanding of and less judgmental toward those who serve as volunteers in their congregations. They go out of their way to say “thank you” and speak personally about how fulfilling it is to follow a passion and serve.

Appreciate  volunteers, plan for the inevitable and remember, even when you are paid for your ministry, you are still a servant. 

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