By Eddie Pipkin

I was attending a local church service last weekend, a lovely worship service offered by a great congregation that is currently sponsoring the kinds of ministry typical of neighborhood congregations this time of year.  At various points in the service, they worked in references to volunteer opportunities.  (And I was impressed about the ways they worked in these calls to serve within the context of the various worship elements — this is a highly recommended strategy, to work the discipleship call to serve others into the fabric of the worship service, not just during the announcements.)  Bravo!  And yet, each of the three calls to serve also included an example of self-sabotage which undermined the goal of getting people excited to volunteer their time and talents.

Everybody in ministry knows that volunteer recruitment (and I am one of those people who doesn’t even like using the term “volunteers”) is one of the most challenging aspects of the job:

But the primary focus of this blog is how we can stop shooting ourselves in the foot when we are making our ministry pitches.  Too often we undermine our own message.  We build in excuses to not participate within the very appeal we are making.

Let me lay out the examples from my recent worship experience:

  • First, during announcements, a pitch was made for helping staff a local elementary school fun run. The presenter did a nice job of articulating how this event was important to the church (as a way to build a stronger community connection with this local school), but then he dwelt on why the time of the event made it understandable that no one would want to volunteer for it.
  • Second, during a designated ministry focus time just before the offering (which is a great spot for that!), the VBS director made a pitch for help, but one aspect of the presentation was about how the director herself had been “forced to volunteer.”
  • Third, the morning’s guest speaker, a youth program leader, began with an ill-formed joke about serving in youth ministry: “Don’t! It’s a lot of demanding work!”

In each of these cases, even as the need was being articulated and the ministry vision cast, the leaders of those initiatives gift-wrapped exit ramps for people to decline to answer the call.

I see these unfortunate mistakes carried out in churches all the time.  I have been guilty of perpetuating them myself.  Obviously, none of us intentionally sabotage our own efforts.  This collateral vandalism is a byproduct of these missteps:

  • Lack of preparation.

Many if not most of us are verbalizing our volunteer appeals on the fly.  We have not given sufficient time to crafting them in advance.  We have not been careful in following the guidelines for clearly communicating our vision, identifying the specifics of who (and what) will be a good match for the need at hand, and why this work will have impact.  Attention to preparation is an excellent argument for video announcements (which force the preparation issue), but all verbal and written appeals should be carefully thought through.

  • Attempts at comedy.

Everybody likes a laugh, and nervous presenters lean on the crutch of getting people to laugh along with them, but a laugh at the expense of your ministry is not a productive laugh.  Don’t use a joke that undermines your vision or the people serving that vision.  This common comic fail is frequently directly related to a lack of preparedness – an off-the-cuff joke stands an exponentially greater chance of going wrong.

  • Faulty assumptions.

We bring the baggage of our personal and professional assumptions into the appeal.  Here is the granddaddy of all assumptions: “Most people are not interested in volunteering; they are looking for reasons to opt out instead of excited about opportunities to opt in.”  This one assumption poisons many of our conversations about service, when, as disciples of Jesus Christ, the truth is that selfless service that utilizes our God-given gifts is one of the keys to joy.  It is continually amazing to hear and see tales in which church receive positive responses just because people are asked enthusiastically (and coherently) to partner with ministry.

  • Insider “sausage making” perspectives.

We ministry leaders sit in hours and hours of meetings, grinding out the ministry sausage (and it ain’t pretty).  These meetings can get bogged down in all sorts of negative details related to why things might not work, why people might not want to get involved, etc.  Our perspective can be tainted by the conversations, and the appeal thus infected by them.  Potential volunteers and the general public don’t need to hear that information.

These mistakes crop up in spoken presentations, but they also worm their way into written appeals in newsletters, bulletins, and social media posts.

In general, ministry leaders should be upbeat, positive, casting a clear vision, detailing the gifts that can be best used, and stressing the affirmative aspects and joy to be found (and shared with others) in every ministry opportunity.  Theologically speaking, this approach flows from the knowledge that God appoints transformative ministry to every community of believers, and having given those communities a vision to serve, the resources and people necessary will be provided.

The world, however, teaches us to be skeptical of such bold, faith-based approaches.  Take the examples I used by way of illustration: jokes that undermined the ministry were used, and suspect assumptions were in evidence:

  • Assumption: Nobody really wants to serve in these roles, but it’s a duty we must grin and bear. [This is different from the biblical attitude to joy is selfless service.]
  • Assumption: This time frame for serving is terrible. (This was an awkward time frame in this case – 4:30-6:30 p.m. – if you were a parent with kids, for instance, and so the ministry leaders communicated their own experience and assumptions.  But, on the other hand, if you are an empty nester, that timing works out pretty nicely.)  [This assumption about the terrible time frame veers from the biblical attitude that if this community-connecting ministry is important, there are people who are called to make it happen.]

Another of the governing assumptions that derail us from joyful recruitment is the premise that the higher our expectations, the less people will want to serve.  This toxic premise exists even though there are mountains of evidence to the contrary.  Ron Edmondson, in the above-linked blog, writes these words about the toxic philosophy of low-expectations-based “warm body” recruitment:

We need warm bodies who will share the love of Christ during the week, at the coffee shop and in the work place, just as well as they warm the sanctuary chair on Sunday mornings.  We need warm bodies who will lead small groups and teach Sunday schools that are committed, enthusiastic and well-prepared each week to disciple people to become growing followers of Jesus Christ.

You get my point. We need warm bodies…but not warm bodies who are simply warm bodies.  Who knows? Perhaps if we raise the bar of expectations we will get people who better meet our expectations.

In truth, as demonstrated again and again, high performers are energized by high expectations.

In the other article linked above, there is a solid accountability procedure for making sure we take the task of recruitment with the holy seriousness which it deserves:

There are lots of reasons why people volunteer. Most of them aren’t “I really like to say ‘Hi’ to strangers” or “I love the software you use.”  Before you ever get to the specific micro-level tasks a particular role entails, make sure people know why you need them to help.

“We want people to feel like they belong here before they set foot inside our doors.”

“We want every detail of our service to look thoughtfully prepared—because it’s true.”

Whether this happens from the stage, in personal conversations, or in volunteer-interest meetings, don’t miss your opportunity to cast the vision for your volunteers. If they don’t understand why they’re perfectly arranging several hundred pens or folding bulletins or shaking hands, they might quit before they even start.

Share why you need volunteers, what the job is, and how to do it—in that order.

This moment of sharing – the moment when your vision comes into direct contact with the very people who may have been sent by God to help bring it to fruition – is truly a sacred moment.  Let’s celebrate it as that.  Let’s stop treating it as an unpleasant chore or a necessary evil.  Let’s lean into it with the very joy with which Jesus called the disciples, looking into the future prophetically to the possibilities of what God’s work can be.