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Mobilized Volunteers

John R. Cionca

This chapter is from the forthcoming book , Catching the Wind of the Spirit: Setting a Course for Church Health



A number of images are used in the New Testament to describe the church. Perhaps the two best-known analogies are the temple and the body. All those who come to Christ become living stones (1 Peter 2:5). While they maintain their individual identity, together they become Christ’s living temple. All the bricks are important; the structure is incomplete if they remain on pallets or lying on the ground. The church is also called the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), Jesus himself being the head of the body (Colossians 1:18). In our physical bodies, all body parts contribute to the wellness and function of our bodies. Similarly, in the body of Christ, each Christian’s involvement is required for the church’s structural integrity and wellness. If 100 percent of the people in your faith community are using their giftedness to serve others, then your sail is all the way up, and you’re catching the maximum wind of the Spirit. If only half your people are involved impacting other lives, then your sail is only half unfurled. Healthy congregations maximize member ministries. Expectations for volunteerism are high. They affirm and practice the core value that every member is a minister. Effective volunteer ministry is more about teams than individual performers, retention than recruitment, invitation than coercion, passions than programs, entrepreneurism than prescribed tasks and experimentation than speculation.

Volunteer Service is more About Teams than Individual Performers

In the world of sports we are aware of the influence of superstars. Every team would like to have a few of these outstanding performers. Less notable, but perhaps just as significant, are the impact players. These are the players that may not dazzle the crowd, but consistently step up to do whatever is needed for victory. Many teams, even with their great players, fail to win their conference or playoff. Teams that win championships have more than raw talent they usually have outstanding teamwork. They maximize the skill levels of each player through the synergy of teamwork.

Irrespective of the ministries a church chooses to offer, those services can only be maximized through volunteers serving together. Needs are too great and opportunities too plentiful for any individual to touch them all. Team ministry< has many advantages over individual service. Some of these include:

• Complementary giftedness
• The spreading of the weight of ministry on several shoulders
• A natural encouragement and support network
• Ministry recipients can identify with different role models
• Absenteeism can be covered more naturally
• Skill development is maximized across the team
• Safety risks and false accusations are better safeguarded
• Team interaction can model the very concepts a team is presenting.

Volunteer Service is more About Retention than Recruitment

Each year I conduct surveys of churches’ discipleship programs, particularly their challenges. When results are tabulated from across these congregations, recruiting volunteers has never lost its first place ranking over the last 18 years. Regardless of congregational size, location, theology or governance, all express a concern with finding enough volunteers to run their program. Generational differences do impact volunteerism. Builders primarily serve out of duty (loyalty to the church means that I will serve). Boomers primarily serve out of obligation (since my children are in the program, I probably should take a turn staffing some of the sessions). While busters primarily serve out of interest (this ministry is exactly what I’ve been looking for). Economic differences also impact volunteerism. The more affluent the constituency, the more accustomed they are to buying services rather than< volunteering. On the other hand, people who care for their own lawns, car, babysitting and tax returns also expect to pitch in and care for their church. Irrespective of these differences, however, most churches misunderstand their staffing shortfall. The challenge facing these congregations is not primarily that they can’t find enough volunteers. The truth is that many churches cannot retain those who have tried volunteer service. The coin of staffing has two sides: recruitment and retention. And while church surveys reveal that most leaders think that they have a recruitment problem, the truth is that most have a retention problem.

Tack with me if every one who served as a volunteer last year, returned to serve again next year (for the next ten years, for that matter), then most churches would not have to look for new volunteers. Growing churches would only need additional volunteers to serve their expanding ministry. Customer service experts tell us that it takes ten times more work to find a new customer than to keep an old one. Translated into the church setting this means that it’s much harder to find a new volunteer than it is to keep encouraged a member who is already serving.

Volunteer turnover is to be expected, if for no other reason than simply allowing people to discover their service niche through trying a variety of ministry options. However volunteer turnover can be minimized. By carefully matching a person’s ministry gifts with service setting, and then providing training and encouragement so that their service is rewarding, retention is maximized. Closing the volunteer back door is far easier than adding additional front doors. We can correct the misunderstanding that service is simply filling a ministry slot by encouraging people to employ their giftedness over the long haul for kingdom impact. Therefore, volunteer service is more about retention, than recruitment.

Volunteer Service is more About Invitation than Coercion

A few years ago I compiled and edited book called Inviting Volunteers to Minister. i Notice that I didn’t call the book, Recruiting Volunteers. For many people the word recruitment is negative. Besides militaristic associations, it also connotes being drawn into something, perhaps even against one’s own will. A program manager whose focus is the number of ministry slots that need filling may be tempted to pressure people into volunteering. But serving because no one else would do it is a lose-lose-lose situation. The program recipients lose because they have a leader who doesn’t really want to be there. The volunteer loses because they do not have any joy in their service. And the program coordinator loses because the drop out rate among coerced workers is high. On the other hand, a program director with the attitude let me help you become all that God wants you to be will enjoy a fruitful solicitation process. These types of leaders realize that God’s plan for spiritual growth is through the sharing of personal gifts and talents. In other words, fulfillment and joy are byproducts of service. Therefore, when I invite somebody to consider a ministry opportunity, I am actually doing him or her a favor rather than filling the hole in the staffing dike. I am helping people fulfill their creation design. Volunteer service is more about invitation than coercion.

Volunteer Service is more About Passions than Programs

There are many reasons why people don’t volunteer. The time crunch hinders many. Some do not understand the benefits of service; others have been burnt out in a previous ministry; and some just haven’t been asked. One of the primary reasons people do not serve is that the list of opportunities presented to them simply doesn’t include areas of personal interest. They may not enjoy working with children, and might not be musically inclined. Yet in many churches, 75 percent of ministry openings are in these areas. Every church has a core program that must be staffed. Filling those ministry positions with people who have a passion for that type of service is essential. Unfortunately, too many churches have made their program too large. Desiring to be a full service church, they try to offer a program that outstretches their human resources. They are always behind the staffing curve. However, when a church is more selective on the activities it schedules, it can release people into service areas beyond the core program.

Many churches have a clear delineation of the services that they offer. Some even have ministry descriptions for each position. Unfortunately, other congregations are not as effective in detailing all the desires, experiences, personalities and talents of each of their people. Volunteerism is hamstrung when leaders do not know their people.

But service flourishes when individuals can fulfill their creation design in focused ministry opportunities. Rather than viewing volunteers as prospective program workers, we are better off to see them as entrepreneurial servants. Each person’s ministry is unique. Even two teachers working in a high school class will be different. One may be an introvert, for example, while the other an extrovert. They come from different backgrounds, and have different experiences, skills and passions. Where a person best fits in service should flow out of this entire mix of individuality. Therefore, effective volunteer service is more about people’s passions, than program needs.

Volunteer Service is more About Experimentation than Speculation

I believe each of us needs to be a person of DEPTH. A solid ministry match is one that capitalizes on our whole creation design. Service that is out of sync with our God-wiring is draining. Service that is simply living out who we truly are is deeply satisfying. Therefore we should examine our Desires, Experiences, Personality, Talents and the Holy Spirit’s enablements to discover how we can best fit into the many service options before us. Churches are doing an increasingly better job at matching volunteer ministers to ministry opportunities. Many conduct classes to help people understand their personality, talents and spiritual gifts. These types of giftedness classes try to minimize the mismatch of placing square people into oval ministry positions.

While I applaud this pre-service self-awareness process, many people can only know if they will click with a particular ministry after they’ve tried it for a while. While we want to minimize poor ministry matches, at the same time we need to create a service environment that lets people try various service opportunities. Like doctors fulfilling their internships, several ministry experiences should be tried. Over the course of time, particular areas of service will surface that produce inner joy for the volunteer, and are validated by external confirmation from those who observe their effectiveness.

Hoisting the Sails

Our goal in volunteerism is for 100 percent of our people to serve. This every member a minister value is critical for the programs that require the human resources to run them, but more importantly for the volunteers to fulfill their creation design.

Since the purpose of the church is to make disciples of all peoples, all of our human resources dare not be consumed on keeping the program machine running. While many churches struggle to find enough volunteers to maintain their program, we must work toward releasing more of our people into missional activities. Ideally, 25 to 40 percent of our volunteers could be commissioned to use their entrepreneurial giftedness in service off-campus. Here are a number of ways churches are expanding their volunteer ministries:

Discovering My Design Seminar.

Many people are interested in learning more about themselves. Greater self-awareness can influence learning choices, activities in which to engage and responsibilities to accept. And people’s insights on their personal style, giftedness, motivational wiring and interactive patterns can positively impact their volunteer service. Churches that offer classes on LifeKeys (Bethany House Publishers), Network (Zondervan Publishing House or similar discovery-type classes provide a valuable developmental resource to their people.

Short Term Ministry Opportunities.

We presently live in a time when
people are slow to make long-term commitments. Since fewer people are eager to sign up for a one-year ministry assignment, many churches are using flexible scheduling to allow people to test the waters of volunteerism. When people learn how enjoyable it is to utilize their gifts in a ministry, they are more willing to sign-up for a full season of service. The key to long-term engagement is the provision of many short-term opportunities for sampling service.

Director of Volunteer Ministries.

Many churches have seen the value of adding to the professional staff a coordinator responsible for volunteerism within the entire congregation. This individual serves as a director of human resources, matching personal giftedness to ministry opportunity. He or she maintains the database of congregant’s volunteer experience and interest. This leader then disseminates this information to specific program directors, coordinating their solicitation process, and recording responsibilities accepted.

Faith Stories of Volunteers.

People learn by example. Hearing the stories of others who have tried a ministry opportunity, and have found joy in their service, is highly motivational. Over time the people in the pews begin to realize that ordinary people just like them have taken the step of service in the church. They may not volunteer until personally asked, but they are more likely to try an opportunity if they have regularly heard the stories of others who have taken the same step of involvement.

Pastoral Examples of Volunteer Service.

In a healthy congregation people are touching other lives on a consistent basis. Relating some of these stories from the pulpit is likewise highly motivational. Without embarrassing an individual, the pastor can recall the impact that a member made on another’s life. Many great things are happening each week through the ministry of the laity. Highlighting some of them for the church family to see reinforces the priority of personal service.

Prayer Concerts.

Jesus said: Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven (Matthew 18:19). Furthermore he invites: Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field (Matthew 9:38). Ongoing, concerted prayer by those involved in the volunteer solicitation process, and by other groups of intercessors, under girds the congregation’s ministry.

Parade of Children

The average church member doesn’t have a clue on how many volunteers it takes to run their ministry, particularly their children’s ministry. Since in many congregations the children are in their own program, rarely do the adults see all of their children at the same time. To paint a visual image of how many children are being ministered to on a weekly basis, some leaders have scheduled a children’s walk or parade of children through the sanctuary. For many in the pews, the stream of children impacts them with the large number of volunteers needed to touch these young lives for Christ.

Preaching on Kingdom Investment.

When people are asked: What is your most valuable commodity, they usually rank time ahead of money. It makes sense therefore to help people more carefully plan their time investments, particularly their time contributions in Kingdom activities. Preaching from passages such as Mark 10:45 (Jesus came not to be served but serve), 1 Corinthians 12 (the beauty and necessity of complimentary giftedness), 2 Corinthians 15:10ff. (Christ’s death for us so that we would no longer live for ourselves, but in service as ministers of reconciliation) and Ephesians 2:10 (God has already prepared us for good works of service) reveals God’s design for Christian service. Believers fulfill their creation design when complementing/serving one another.

Community Needs Assessment.

Some people’s time investments move toward service outside of the church. Their passion may be for lost people, and/or their giftedness doesn’t match existing program positions. The needs of a local community are more comprehensive, however. A congregation can impact their neighborhood, for example, through volunteers teaching ESL classes (English as a Second Language), assisting with income tax preparation, providing foster care or helping with transportation needs. Each church can survey its community to see which of the hundreds of volunteer needs might best be serviced by their Christlike stewards.

New Member Interviews.

Part of joining a church should be the willingness to participate on a ministry team in the church. For this reason many congregations use their membership seminar to highlight their philosophy of volunteerism and to solicit commitments to serve. Some churches, for example, use a membership application that features volunteer ministry opportunities on the reverse side. The implication is clear to all who join every member is a minister.

Team Ministries.

Research studies reveal that affiliation is a powerful motivator for service. While hesitant to accept a responsibility that rests solely upon them, some people are open to trying a ministry shared by a team. Therefore, rather than trying to recruit a volunteer to a service task, invite them to join a team who will work together. This relational component adds value through the complementary giftedness of team members, and also provides community to group members.

Children’s Month.

A number of congregations realize that their children’s ministry requires a disproportionately large number of volunteers to run an effective program. They also realize that the good things happening in the children’s work is usually out of the sight of the adult community. For this reason a growing number of churches are using the month of May to highlight children’s ministry, with an emphasis on volunteer solicitation for next fall’s program. Bulletin inserts, testimonials, banners, hymnal covers and pastoral affirmation heighten congregational awareness.

Operation Andrew.

The first thing the Apostle Andrew did when he learned about the Christ was to invite Peter to meet Jesus. Likewise some churches practice a more decentralized approach to inviting volunteers to minister. While program coordinators conduct final interviews and make official appointments, it’s the volunteers in the trenches that are on the lookout for people who can join their various teams. When recruitment becomes everyone’s business, the core value of service deepens in the congregation. i Cionca, John, Editor. Inviting Volunteers to Minister: Stories and Strategies from Seven Effective Churches. Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing, 1999.


This chapter is from the forthcoming book , Catching the Wind of the Spirit: Setting a Course for Church Health All rights reserved. ©2004 Ministry Transitions, Inc. Duplication and distribution without written consent of author is prohibited.


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