Think of a Sunday morning service where you see the pastor get up on the stage and ask for children’s ministry volunteers (isn’t it always children’s ministry!). There is a twinge of hesitation in his voice (he’s thinking… “are we really doing this AGAIN?”). But, they need volunteers for children’s ministry. It’s getting to be a war zone back there with just Rhonda and Debbie. Someone — anyone — please volunteer.

 How compelled would you feel to oblige? How compelled do you think the person sitting next to you feels — he’s awkward with children!

There’s this approach that many of us take, consciously or not, toward ministry in our churches: we have X slots to fill, so let’s get people into them. It’s robotic, it’s impersonal, and it doesn’t work very well. Only the truly committed person volunteers when they’re given a general call to serve from the pulpit like that — and many of those people still burn out quickly. Yet this is the reality in so many churches. Why? It’s all because we’re looking at volunteer ministry the wrong way. We see it as a way to get work done rather than a way to help people become more like Christ. If we shift our thinking, God can shift our results. He doesn’t need to work through us; He chose to work through us because it helps us grow. God’s not shoehorning random people into a calling because He needs to fill a quota, so why should we? If we want to transform our volunteer ministries, we have to move towards inviting people based on where they will be fulfilled, rather than just where we need bodies. We have to develop the mindset that we are growing more than a volunteer army — we’re growing disciples.

Move from filling slots to growing disciples. 

  1. Know them before asking them. Frequently, the only information we go out of our way to collect about the people in our church is their contact information. We might also keep track of who’s in their family and which of their kids has a debilitating peanut allergy. But very rarely do we proactively go out and collect information that will tell us who they are, what they’re passionate about, or where they have skills they could use in ministry. The first step to knowing is figuring out what you need to know. What ministry opportunities are people most passionate about? Where have they served before? What job skills do they have that could be applied to something unique, like a ministry performing free oil changes for single moms?
  2. Make what you learn usable. Now that you have a framework of the types of information you want, the next step is obviously filling in those blanks with real information about people — but it’s important to keep it where it’s accessible. If Mike is getting to know David and Joe really well, but keeping all that information in his own head, what happens if there’s a ministry opportunity that would be perfect for David but Mike hasn’t heard about it? Or what if Mike moves away? It may feel impersonal to write down what you know about people in a centralized database — like it’s just reducing them to data points — but it’s actually the opposite. This is actually the key to connecting with them in a very personal way.
  3. Extend a personalized invitation. It’s easy to find a ministry opportunity that will suit someone when you know what their passions, skills, and gifts are. Extend a personal invitation for them to serve somewhere you believe those passions and gifts will be used. People are much more likely to get involved and stay involved when they know you cared enough about them to extend that personal invitation to an opportunity that fits them well, rather than just announcing a need for volunteers from the pulpit. It’s true that you won’t always land on the perfect opportunity right away, and sometimes your invitation will be declined. That’s actually a good thing — listen to what they’re saying! This is a chance for you to learn more about them as a person and find a place where they will really be happy to serve. It’s always more important to find someone the right fit than just a fit.
  4. Stay connected. Getting someone to say ‘yes’ to volunteering is not the end goal. It’s the beginning of a new process. It’s just as important to know how people are doing spiritually and in their new role as it was to learn about them beforehand. If someone is getting burnt out or feeling like a poor fit where they are, you want to know before things get worse! Continuing to pour into your volunteers is important for both the spiritual health of the people in your ministry and the health of your ministry as a whole. It lets people know you really do care about them, not just what they can do for you. It tells them you’re invested in their discipleship.
  5. Avoid silos. Those last four points are all about good process, and it is important to keep that consistent across every ministry in your church that develops and leverages volunteers. Don’t implement these ideas in your children’s ministry but not in other areas. Make these principles consistent across the whole church so people have a great experience regardless of where they serve. Finally, try your best to support the process with your church management system. Using a different tool to support such a vital part of your ministry will lead to disconnected data and confusion about where to find the most accurate information about your volunteers. That’s how you lose track of people or, worse yet, miss out on discipleship opportunities.

There are so many people in your church just waiting for the right opportunity to make a difference in ministry if you just take the time to make it personal. It’s time to stop inadvertently treating volunteers as disposable and start pouring into them as disciples. Invest the time and energy into the lives of the people in your church, looking for a place where each one of them individually can thrive and grow, and your whole church will grow with them.