How to Develop and Sustain a Volunteer Culture

This post is a contribution from Dale Sellers, the Executive Director of 95Network. Read more about him here.

As I’ve worked with churches over the years, one topic that leaders consistently struggle with is the development of a strong volunteer culture. Churches depend on volunteers. But it often feels like there’s never enough to go around, doesn’t it?

I was the Lead Pastor in a small church for 12 years. During my early years of pastoring, I also served as the Special Events Coordinator for a large radio station. A significant part of my job was to promote concerts, and it was not unusual for us to have over 5,000 people attend many of our sold-out events. While everyone in our community loved those concerts, I have to admit that my level of anxiety and stress increased dramatically as the date of the event drew closer.

If I’m honest, the main contributor to this anxiety and stress was my inability to develop a team of volunteers to assist me. Although it is hard to confess, my failure was built around the notion that no one could do the job as well as I could. In turn, I distanced the majority of people who could have assisted me without realizing that this perspective was my own worst enemy.

Many church leaders also suffer undue anxiety and stress for the same reason. Our lack of great volunteers is often created by our inability to recruit and train instead of simply not having enough people to draw from. And this problem falls squarely on the shoulders of the leader!

To push this further, another contributing factor to volunteer shortage is the unclear communication of expectations. More often than not, we lose volunteers because they aren’t confident of what they have been recruited to do. We often set our volunteers up for failure due to our lack of clarity.

With this in mind, let me share with you my three absolutes in recruiting and retaining volunteers. They have been developed out of my own struggle to impart ministry to others. The first two are on you as the leader. The last one is required of the volunteer.

Absolute #1 – The leader must provide a written job description.

You can’t hold someone accountable for expectations that aren’t clearly stated. This is true for staff and volunteers alike (yes, even for parking lot attendants, greeters, youth leaders, etc.).

I personally have done this collaboratively, though that doesn’t always need to be the case. For all positions to be filled by a volunteer, or even a paid staff member, I ask them to write down their understanding of the position. I also write down my concept of the position. Then we sit down together and merge the two descriptions until we have complete agreement. This agreement becomes the written job description.

I firmly believe most of the conflict that arises over a volunteer not doing their job comes from unclear communication of expectations. This written agreement also serves as a great way to provide accountability and direct difficult conversations, if necessary.

Absolute #2 – The leader must provide the tools necessary to properly equip the volunteer for success.

There is nothing more disheartening for a volunteer than being asked to do a job without being provided the tools necessary to accomplish the job. Can you imagine the frustration you would feel if you were asked by your leader to serve as the volunteer janitor at the church, then you arrive at the church to discover that there are no cleaning supplies, brooms, vacuum cleaners or mops. Your willingness to serve would be sabotaged by the leader’s lack of support.

Take a moment now to analyze this in your own ministry. Have you recruited nursery workers, children’s ministry volunteers, or youth leaders without providing them the fundamental tools necessary to serve in these areas? The fastest way to lose children’s ministry workers is to put them in a room full of hungry kids and no snacks. Do that and they’ll eventually quit!

Don’t let a lack of support sabotage a volunteer’s willingness to serve.

Absolute #3 – The volunteer must have a good attitude.

The responsibility for the first two are on the leader. However, this last one must come from the volunteer. It is crucial that they have a good attitude!

I can already feel the push-back from the small-church leader who is in desperate need of volunteers. We have all heard it before: “I’ll let them serve and change them in the process.” However, in most cases, all a volunteer with a bad attitude does is influence other volunteers to have bad attitudes. Allow this to persist and your ability to lead will quickly come into question. We postulate what we tolerate!

Pastor, there is never going to be an easier time to establish a positive standard in your ministry than when you are small. Very few issues do more damage to your ability to reach those far from God than seekers encountering a believer with a bad attitude! Weed out the bad attitudes and empower the good ones. This is an essential step towards developing an irresistible ministry environment.

Developing Volunteers is a Non-Negotiable

I believe one of the basic reasons that 87% of all churches in America have less than 200 in attendance is our inability to recruit and retain volunteers. However, developing volunteers is much more than finding people to do jobs. Equipping saints for ministry is the backbone of an Ephesians 4 church.

Fight the flawed perspective I had adopted that no one could do the job as good as me. The truth is that equipping saints for ministry is an essential part of your role as a church leader. And it is my firm conviction that these absolutes are non-negotiable in developing a healthy volunteer culture and a strong environment for discipleship.

Guest Author

Dale Sellers is the Executive Director of 95Network, a ministry designed to connect small and mid-size churches to BIG resources. Throughout his 37 years of ministry, Dale has served in a wide variety of ministry positions, from Executive Pastor to Lead Pastor to Ministry Consultant. Above all, he is dedicated to serving the small and mid-size church in America. He and his wife Gina reside in Greenville, South Carolina.

About Scott Magdalein

Scott Magdalein is the founder of TrainedUp. Previously, he worked as project manager for YouVersion and Church Online, a software developer at Treehouse, a digital director for an ad agency, and as an Executive Pastor in multiple local churches. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida with his wife and three kids.