O Volunteers, Where Art Thou?

Volunteers in the local church seem to be an endangered species. It is not as if this is a new problem, but is seems acute at this season in church ministry. The problem of staffing in businesses we observe is also echoed in non-profits and churches. I don’t have extensive qualitative data to prove my assumption. However, in early 2022, Christianity Today published an article about volunteer shortages. In it they share findings from Gallup. The research found that 35 percent of Americans reported volunteering for a religious organization last year, down from 38 percent in 2020 and 44 percent in 2017. In the qualitative sense, I know what I see and hear of the shortage in my church. I also have gleaned similar findings from talking with other pastors in my region. The shortage itself is felt in the week-to-week church activities and the quarterly/annual programs of the church. It seems that those who feel it most are the paid and volunteer church leaders that are responsible for recruiting, training, and coordinating volunteers. In this article, I would like to share some reasons for this volunteer shortage and few ways to cope with the struggle.

There seems to be a relationship between a post-covid world and the volunteer shortage in the local church. I don’t know all the reasons for this, but I think that one thing to consider is that those who were serving in the local church are not attending the same church or any church for that matter. It could also be that many just realized that they were too busy before Covid and now they enjoy a less complex existence by cutting out church. Covid allowed many to reconsider their options and church was lower on the priority list. After all, they can just watch it when they want and wherever they want. Finally, I would say that many just don’t see the importance of serving regularly a stress worth bearing. The problem from it is unnecessary. There are other reasons and many more opinions that could be shared.

Here are a few limited suggestions to combat the shortage and cope with the struggle. First, consider that maybe, as a church, you are doing too much. Many churches are smaller, in every way, than they were before Covid. Many pastors, with encouragement from church members, want to get back to a new normal, which was the way it used to be before Covid. Unfortunately, many try to launch too fast and too much at once. The result is an overwhelmed volunteer base and a haggard staff. Covid pruned back much of the churches programs and events. Consider that some of these do not need to come back at all. Also, perhaps some need to be smaller, more manageable, and focused on relational discipleship. The old saying, quality over quantity, is very applicable in this case. This can also reshape the way resources are stewarded in the church budget.

Second, pastors should consider temporarily and intentionally serving or leading an area of the church that needs help in a hands on way. In the past year, I was blessed to lead a team of youth and children’s ministry leaders in my church. I taught some, organized, planned, and in the end turned it back over to a new Family Pastor. In these days, when church is leaner and volunteers are fewer, pastors may need to step out and temporarily lead in an area of the church. He can do so for the purpose of developing leaders and handing off ministry at the proper time to qualified people.

Third, more than ever before, there is a need for a healthy team leadership approach to church. In todays complex times, it is important for a leader to deal with this complexity by embracing a plurality of leadership. The church is designed to work best with a plurality of Elders and Deacons. Each has differing roles, but are essential to the health of the body of Christ. The reassessment of church vision/mission, the refinement of its programs/events, and the intentional redeployment of resources is best accomplished through a collection of wise counsel. Leaders who go it alone will suffer, along with the churches they lead.

Fourth, consider how you motivate volunteers to serve in the local church. Are they motivated for love of Jesus? Are they driven to help others for the sake of Christ? Do they feel a part of an ongoing mission to make disciples? Is there Gospel community within the volunteers? These are all helpful questions to answer as you consider recruiting in the future. People want to belong to something that is bigger than themselves. They desire to be a part of a community that is doing the same. We are wired for this kind of glory and belonging.

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