“We have too many volunteers!” – said no church ever

By Ken Willard

One of the many trends I have encountered from working with churches is the need for more people to serve in the ministries of the church. While I do not think there is any “quick fix” for this challenge, I would like to propose twelve keys to changing the serving paradigm in your church.

I’m sure you have heard, and maybe even said it yourself, the often quoted statistic that 20% of the people in the church are doing 80% of the work. Let’s say for the sake of argument that this statistic is true in your church. Would you like to improve that this year? Would you like to move a few more people from the sidelines to serving? My guess is that every church, of all sizes and types, would like to change this situation.

First, a few words about what I’m seeing as the current situation in many churches.

Have you ever heard a pastor or ministry leader “beg” for more people to volunteer? (I’m guilty of this myself in past ministries.) I’ve even heard people say things like, “If we don’t get more volunteers in the nursery we will not be able to have that ministry anymore.” I see this communicated in newsletters, bulletins, websites and even during worship services.

I have a theory that when we communicate this type of desperate need (or threat) we tend to only reach those who are already serving in some capacity. There are those committed people who are already serving in many areas who will jump in and help out whenever they hear of a need. We all love, and need, these servants. But having them serve more is not really improving anything. [In some cases it may even hurt. See my note at the end. *]

Here are twelve steps I’d like to offer up as a way to change your results:

  1. What we are doing now is not working. This may sound silly, but I think it is important for us to realize that the results we are currently getting is based on our actions and behaviors of the past. In other words, the system we are using now is producing the results we unhappy with right now. For us to get different results we must change our actions and behaviors. Stop begging. Stop threating. Stop communicating desperation. It does not work.
  2. Talk to those who are currently serving. Ask them how they first got involved in serving in some capacity at a church. (I’ve done this several times with churches. The results are always eye opening.) Chances are you are going to hear a lot of people say that they were personally asked by someone to serve. Someone thought they were gifted in some area and asked them to help out. I was in my mid 20’s before anyone ever asked me to serve in church. Not because I did not want to, it just was never on my radar. It took someone asking me.
  3. Change your language from “volunteers” to “servants.” Words matter. As Christians we are called to serve – not volunteer. Church is not a club. There is a higher level of commitment with servants than volunteers. See Matthew 20:26-28
  4. Know who is serving and who is not. Every church, no matter the size, needs to have some type of system to keep track of who is serving in each ministry of the church and who is not. Many small churches do not make this investment and I believe it is causing us to miss people. If you wait until you have more people, it will be too late. Start now.
  5. Teach a class on Spiritual Gifts. People love to learn more about themselves. While there are many great resources available, I’d like to recommend a book by Erik Rees called H.A.P.E.: Finding & Fulfilling Your Unique Purpose for Life. Your target audience for this class should be those who are not currently serving in any capacity. You will of course get other people and that is cool too. You just need to avoid “preaching to the choir” too much if possible.
  6. Change your mentality from “filling needs” to matching people to their gifts. Too often our only focus is where we have openings to fill. Avoid the desire to start with your openings. Instead, start with people. Imagine matching up every person in your church based on the way God has uniquely gifted them to serving opportunities. It will not feel like work.
  7. Raise the importance of all serving opportunities. Too often in our desperation we end up lowering the bar for many serving positions. Have you heard any of these? “Anyone can do this.” or “I’m just a ______________.” or maybe “We just need a warm body.” All serving opportunities are important. We are all part of the Body of Christ. People like to feel like they are making a difference, not just filling a slot.
  8. Pick out a few serving areas where people can do a “First-Serve.” In other words, they can try it out alongside an experienced person once where they can ask questions without any commitment. It is better to have someone say “no” to one serving opportunity and for us to match them up where they are gifted then to have someone miserable.
  9. Create a master list of where people can serve. In most cases we are so focused on the crisis openings that we lose sight of all the other serving opportunities. You may need to update this list at least annually. Share the list with your staff and/or ministry leaders. Encourage them to help out the other ministry areas when they meet someone who may be gifted to serve there.
  10. Provide meaningful opportunities for youth to serve. Make what could be someone’s first serving in the church count. Too often the youth in our churches are limited to only serving in the nursery/kids areas or maybe doing stuff like stacking chairs or cleaning up after an event. While these are of course important tasks, challenge ministry leaders to open up more chances for our youth to serve. This investment might change someone’s whole life of service.
  11. Personally invite people to serve. Move from some type of mass communication to one-on-one conversations. Talk to people who attend your church. What are their Spiritual gifts? What experiences have they had in life? Where do they feel God calling them to serve? Then ask. Here is the best way I have ever heard to ask—“Kelley, I see the gift of hospitality in you. I’d like you to pray about serving on our team. Can we talk more about this next week?”
  12. Thank people for serving. Find some way to intentionally thank and recognize those who serve in your ministry. In my past experience as a church consultant, I unfortunately heard stories of people who have served for years and never received a simple “thanks.” While the annual parties for all who volunteer and mass communications of “thanks to all those who serve” are nice . . . they will never mean as much as a person-to-person “thank you” from the pastor, staff or ministry leader.

Which of these really spoke to you? What is the one small step you are going to take now?

Sorry, but you will most likely not be able to move from 20% serving to 80% in a week or two. However, I do believe that following these keys will eventually change the serving paradigm in your church. Make the investment in your church and the Kingdom. Let’s get everyone off the sidelines and into the game!

* One of the challenges I’ve seen with getting new people to serve is those who are currently serving. A new person feels the call to serve for the first time and shows up only to find they are not needed. This sends a very dangerous message. I don’t think anyone is doing this intentionally, they just don’t see the effect it can have on new servants. An example is when we ask for people to come and help to prepare a meal for an event and when they arrive they find out that a few others arrived hours before and already did all the work. If you really want people to experience the spiritual disciple of serving, we need to ensure they have those opportunities.