3 Winning Strategies to Help You Attract, Keep, and Motivate Volunteers

“3 Winning Strategies to Help You Attract, Keep, and Motivate Volunteers” is written by Joe Dobbins. Joe is the Lead Pastor of TwinRivers.Church in St. Louis, MO. His first book will release in Summer 2024, and you can learn more at www.joedobbins.org.

There are an estimated 380,000 churches in America, and each one is unique.

They differ in styles, statements of faith, and societal makeup, but one thing unifies them: The need for more volunteers!

Ask any pastor, staff member, or leader what is limiting their vision and you will hear something to the effect of, “We need more people serving to make it happen!” 

If this is the universal cry of church leaders and the greatest need of every church, what’s the problem? 

Today, church leaders face some unique obstacles to gaining volunteers: 

  • People are more protective of their time than ever
  • In-person church attendance is on the decline
  • Competition is growing as non-profits, community organizations, and school systems are increasingly leveraging volunteers

Recognizing these trends requires every church to retool. Mindsets and methods that worked just a few years ago are no longer dependable.

Most likely, it is time to make some significant adjustments, because, as one of my mentors used to say, “A church can grow no greater than the number of those serving!” 

With that in mind, here are 3 winning strategies to help you attract, keep, and motivate volunteers.

1. Adjust from Unreasonable to Reasonable Expectations.

It has been said disappointment is the result of expectations that did not become a reality.

To this point, many church leaders are disappointed because their expectations are unreasonable when it comes to how many people will serve in their church. 

In my experience, there are four segments within your congregation:

“Do Anything People”

As you can guess, these people will do anything! They will teach a class, greet at the front door, serve on a board, or help clean up an event. You love these people, and you wish you had more of them. But there’s something important to know… only 10% of your church are ‘do anything people.’ 

“Do Specific Things People”

They won’t do anything, but they will consistently serve in a specific capacity. Usually, this group has some sort of specialized skill or singular passion. Examples are teaching children or singing on the worship team. This is an important group, but a group that only makes up another 10% of your church. 

“Do an Occasional Thing People”

They will serve, but not consistently. They may be willing to set up an upcoming event, host a group for one semester, or help around the offices until their child’s next soccer season begins. Because of their limited and sporadic availability, this group is often inactive. Alarmingly, this group represents nearly 30% of your church.

“Do Nothing People”

They will attend services, possibly join a group, or even give. But when it comes to serving, they will pass on the opportunity. Now, before you shame them consider that their status is usually tied to a situation or season of life. It could be the aftermath of a divorce, the fact that it’s their child’s senior year, a recent diagnosis, or a spiritual crisis. It could also be because they do not see serving as a valuable part of their discipleship journey.

This group is the largest, making up nearly 50% of your church. Just because they are in the ‘do nothing’ group today doesn’t mean they won’t serve in the future, seasons do change. But if a person falls into this group, it’s not wise to keep placing expectations on them. Too often pastors spend too much time trying to change people who do not want to change at the expense of investing in those with the most potential! 

Understanding the Four Groups

A greater understanding of these four groups should result two outcomes:

  1. Your frustration decreasing. Instead of blaming people or feeling bad about the culture of your church, you will recognize the appropriate group each person falls within. This allows you to recalibrate your expectations closer to reality.
  2. Your effectiveness with the ‘inactive’ increasing. You’ve heard the adage ‘20% of people do 80% of the work’ – that 20% is made up of the ‘Do Anything’ and ‘Do Specific Things’ groups. Knowing that you can turn your focus to new ways to activate the untapped 30%. Narrowing your focus will make you more effective! 

2. Adjust from Competing to a Complementing Approach

When your goal is increasing the number of people serving, this is an important question: “Does our system for serving complement or contrast people’s current way of life?”

Unfortunately, the framework in many churches for serving is “fulfill your duty by making an endless commitment!”

This is the reason our schedules and systems are built for the most committed groups. Meaning if someone can’t serve at least every other week – with an indefinite commitment – then we tend to not have a spot for them. 

That approach may be simple for the leader, but it limits the number of people who can potentially serve because it contrasts our current ‘flex-work’ culture.

On the other hand, if you are willing to build a framework with people’s present priorities in mind – you can activate a large group who haven’t been a part of your church’s mission! 

Presently people care most about their schedules and relationships. Therefore, a couple of practical steps to complement this reality are…

  1. Seasonal Serve Schedules. Instead of unending commitments, change your serving schedule to match the education calendar (Spring, Summer, Fall). Many churches have already adopted this for small groups. By also adopting it for Serve Teams you have increased the number of “on-ramps” for people to join in. Additionally, end dates show people you care about them as a person – not just what they produce, thus increasing confidence in your leadership.  
  2. Organizing around friends, instead of function. The typical ratio for recruiting is one ask to one person. But when we recruit groups that are already formed, one “ask” multiplies into many people. Could a Sunday school class handle guest follow-up? Could small groups alternate weeks to provide first impressions? Could set up and tear down for an upcoming event be done by the men’s or women’s ministry? Engaging groups of people increases the number of people serving and makes serving more enjoyable because life is at its best when you’re part of a winning team!

3. Adjust from All Calls to Individual Asks

Before anyone can make a contribution, they have to get an invitation – that makes your strategy for recruitment crucial.

Often that strategy consists of a social media post, bulletin blurb, or stage announcement that asks for more volunteers. However, if you are using that approach you know how fruitless it is.

When we ask a crowd, everyone in the crowd assumes the ask is for someone else. This is the reason we need to train our leaders to become proficient in the “Art of the Individual Ask.” 

One-on-one conversations are the secret ingredient to an effective recruitment process because…

It restores a personal touch to any growing ministry.

Pastor Rick Warren has noted the goal for any local church is to grow larger and smaller at the same time. It is challenging to increase the number of people to whom you are ministering while also ensuring discipleship and care continue for those who’ve been with you. 

One-on-one conversations accomplish this task by creating ministry moments alongside recruitment (encouragement, prayer, listening, etc.).

It keeps people from hiding in the crowd.

When someone is personally invited to serve, they feel seen, desired, and trusted to be part of the church’s mission. It also displays the church’s goal is to connect people to purpose and not just complete a task.

It sharpens your leader’s relational skills. 

Ministry is about people that makes people skills the best skills to have! Unfortunately, too many local church leaders seem to be missing these skills. So before you send a leader to have a one-on-one conversation, make sure to train them in relational skills. 

How to Ask for More Volunteers

With all of that in mind, here’s a couple of suggestions:

Put on a ‘People First’ Perspective

Ask yourself “When I walk in a room do I ask: ‘How am I seen? or Who do I see?’” The first thought for most people is “What do people think of me?” That’s the reason why you look for yourself first when reviewing a group photo! As leaders, we’ll never help others find their purpose by thinking of ourselves.

Therefore, when you enter a room choose to intentionally look for others. Who is alone? Looks confused? Who haven’t you spoken to in a while? Who needs to take the next step in our process?

Practice the “10 Foot Rule”

John Maxwell famously said, “Walk slowly through the crowd.” On Sunday, intentionally place leaders in the lobby before and after worship services. Then instruct them that if anyone gets within ten feet of you, don’t ignore them – engage them. Smile, greet people, and ask questions.

This rule lets conversations flow to you, instead of you having to find them.

Perfect Your Pitch

There is nothing worse than gaining someone’s attention but losing it because you were unable to communicate your cause in a compelling way. Being prepared to cast vision for why serving is a step someone should take is the most essential part of recruiting. 

Each leader should have a clear two-to-three-minute pitch that shares:

  • Why their team is important to the overall goal
  • How the person would find fulfillment in the team
  • What specific quality the individual could add.

Making these adjustments moves the organization from recruiting from desperation to recruiting through inspiration.

The Biggest Mistake Leaders Make

The single greatest mistake leaders make is: They don’t believe before they ask.

Meaning, they haven’t convinced themselves of the importance of a ministry or task before they ask someone else to join in. At best, the pitch will be boring and unconvincing. At worst, this error leaves a leader with a mindset that says, “I’m bothering this person by asking for their time.” 

We should never apologize for inviting someone to fulfill what they were created to do! What they drive, where they live, and what they accomplish in their careers will eventually vanish. The only thing that matters is what a person does for eternity and God’s glory! And your ask should reflect that!

Before you engage your next potential volunteer, consider all the ways your ministry makes a difference.

Even something as simple as a greeting is significant because guests come to church assuming they will be judged. When guests are greeted with a smile and treated with kindness by someone at the entrance the entire service improves. Remind your first impressions team that hearts open to sermons when friendly people open doors! 

Adopting the “Art of the Individual Ask” is significant because each person has a calling that is voice-activated.

It is likely that you are serving where you are today because someone had an individual conversation with you about a gifting or skill they saw in your life.

A spiritual gift survey or class may have helped, but the thing that most propelled you forward was a conversation where someone else said, “I see something in you and I think you could make a difference.”

If that is true of the leaders today, then it is true of the leaders we need for tomorrow!