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Church is Not a Spectator Sport11 min read

In first Corinthians 12, Paul describes the church as a body. He indicates that a healthy congregation is a church with each part functioning as determined by the Holy Spirit. That portion of Scripture provides substance to the term “member.” The member of a church is a vital organ of the church. When the members are not engaged, the whole church suffers.

As a parish pastor, I struggled with that Scripture passage. My experience has not been at church with 100% of the members engaged in the work of the congregation. I have more often seen the 80/20 principle at work, 20% of the people serving and 80% just showing up and sometimes applauding.

This problem isn’t just a pastor problem; it’s a church worker problem, from DCEs to volunteer Sunday school superintendents, from teachers to Altar Guild presidents. Key for volunteers and paid leaders is the skill of getting more people involved in the work. My hope is that this article will provide you with some tools to improve your volunteer recruitment process. I’m a big fan of lists, so I want to encourage you to think about the process of retooling recruitment as a four-step process.

Step One

First, you need to determine the types of volunteer opportunities that you need to fill. The approach used to recruit a volunteer varies based on the type of positions you’re trying to fill. There are two basic types of volunteer positions: task-oriented positions and goal-oriented positions.

Task-oriented positions need people who will do specific things for the church. These positions include ushers, greeters, altar guild members, hosts and hostesses, and custodians. Goal-oriented positions need people who will accomplish specific goals. These positions include spiritual care, children’s ministry, youth ministry, discipleship ministry, and worship ministry, and the second step is to match the recruitment process to the orientation of the position.

Step Two

Secondly, match the recruitment process to the orientation of the position. It’s important to figure out the type of position that you need to fill because your recruitment strategy will vary based on the position. In addition, the level of commitment and engagement will vary based on the type of ministry position you’re trying to fill and your recruitment strategy.

For example, if I approach recruiting a person for my children’s ministry as if it were a task-oriented position, I might get someone to volunteer to complete a task for children’s ministry, but their commitment would be to the task and only through the duration of the task. For example, if I recruit a volunteer to teach second grade Sunday school for the school year, that person would likely do a fine job checking all the boxes off of teaching Sunday school until the end of that year. Then, at the end of the year, I would need to find another teacher to teach second grade. More importantly, there’s no guarantee that the goal or purpose of having the kids in second grade Sunday school was accomplished because the teacher’s focus was on the task, not the goal. The teacher’s focus was on the task and not the goal because I recruited her or him to the task, not the goal.

Step Three

Invite a person to serve. This is where we tend to struggle. The invitation that we extend will influence how people will serve. I have noticed, and I’m ashamed to say I’ve engaged in, some bad practices in recruiting volunteers.

Consider this first the bribery method. This is where you offer the potential volunteer a reward. It may be anything from “I’ll be ever so grateful” to “I hear they may be putting names of volunteers into a hat at the end of the year and drawing out one of the names to possibly win a new car.” Included in the bribery method are attempts to make the job seem easy and inconsequential. For example, “Barry, all I need you to do is one Sunday every three months and hold the door open as people approach the entrance. Don’t worry. You can stand inside where it’s warm in the winter and cold in the summer. You don’t need to say anything or even smile. Just open the door. Barry, would you do that for me? Did I mention that there might be a drawing at the end of the year? Barry, new car?”

While bribery sounds criminal, it can be effective for task focused short-term volunteer positions. However, it doesn’t do anything to develop a servant’s heart in the volunteer. In fact, it reinforces a consumer mentality in the church.

Another bad habit is the guilt method. This is where you remind individuals that Jesus died on the cross for their sins and the least they could do is open the door for people as they enter the building on Sunday morning. There isn’t much to commend this method of approach. Yes, it can bring quick results, but it also builds resentment. Not to mention that, if the pastor is doing a good job of preaching law/gospel sermon, your guilt-ridden volunteer will suddenly feel guilt free at the end of the sermon and they’ll no longer want to serve as ushers or door guardians.

Lastly, the Buffalo Bill method. This is where you wait until the narthex is full of people and then you charge in as the people scatter before you and you lasso, [or rather] engage, the slowest person to flee and ask them to serve. Well, it might sound funny and if you’ve served at a church for any length of time at all it begins to feel more and more like you’re recruiting using the Buffalo Bill method. It does work for task-oriented, short-term needs. However, it usually results in a warm body filling the slot and will require a great deal of attention and maintenance.

Here’s what I have found has worked in the past for recruiting volunteers for task-oriented positions:

  1. Be very specific about the requirements of the position. The requirements include how long it will take each time they serve, how long they are committed to serve, and what are the specific tasks that they will be expected to accomplish.
  2. Explain that they will receive training for the position and how that training will take place and when it will take place.
  3. Explain how you personally will support them and their service. Recruitment is about relationship. If you recruit a person to a task and don’t continue the relationship, you’re just using people. While that is a future topic for podcasts, notice the implication that sentence has upon who should be doing recruiting. If you recruit someone to a task, you are the person that needs to keep in regular follow-up with that person.
  4. Explain why you think they’re a good fit for the position. Now, this is a biggie. When people understand that you’re asking them take on a volunteer position based on your appraisal of their knowledge, skills, and ability, it makes them feel valued. It makes them want to excel in the good that you see in them. Now, here’s the hard part: To be successful, you have to have a valid reason for why this person should be involved in the ministry task. You don’t want them just because they can stand up and open a door. Why is it that they should be serving the church? What is their skill and ability that makes him uniquely qualified for this task?
  5. Connect the task to the bigger picture of the mission of the church. Don’t underplay the position that just makes people feel like you don’t value them. When I recruit a person to be a greeter at the door, I want to remind them that God has prepared a table for his children. At that table we have the privilege to dine in the presence of our God and receive his mercy. You have the honor of welcoming them to this wonderful feast. Your greeting, your smile might be the first good thing they’ve experienced that week. As a person welcoming people into the church, you have the honor of preparing them for the feast.

When recruiting for a goal-oriented position, it’s all about providing a clear vision or goal that needs to be fulfilled.

To begin with, if I’m recruiting to youth ministry, I would want to emphasize the goal of our youth ministry. I might say, “We know that, as teens get older, their convictions and confidence in their Christian faith are challenged by their peers and society. Faith becomes less significant. Having friends, figuring out a career, and establishing an identity apart from the family become more important than the church and their faith. Our goal for our youth program is to strengthen the faith of our teens so that they value God’s Word and rely upon Jesus for life and salvation. I would like for you to consider being a part of our team that is focused on this mission.”

Now, when you recruit to a goal, you recruit a long-term supporter of the ministry. You recruit someone who will seek to accomplish the purpose of the task, not just get the task done. Now you may have a specific task that you want them to accomplish in youth ministry, however, you would want them to commit first to being a part of the team and its purpose. Before you talk task, you want them to commit to the goal because the accomplishment of the task is not as important as achieving the goal. You want them to commit to the goal because you want them to be empowered to develop task and processes that will accomplish the goal. In other words, you don’t want them to run your plan. You want them to develop their own plan.

Secondly, explain how the ministry team functions. What does it look like? How often does it meet, and what type of training is provided?

Thirdly, explain how you will personally help them get connected to the rest of the ministry team. It’s good to have people work in teams with tasks. However, remember: You’ve recruited them to a task, not to community. You’ve asked them to greet people at the door, not care for people on the team. However, care for team is essential for a goal-focused team to be successful. Because the team includes care for the team members, you can eventually hand-off the relationship of that new recruit to the team. In other words, the team is responsible for establishing a relationship between its members and the new recruit.

Fourth, explain why you think they’re a good fit for the purpose. Again, this is a biggie because people understand that you are asking them based on a passion that you’ve seen in them. It makes them feel valued, it makes them want to excel.

Now here’s the hard part. It has to be valid. You have to understand and know people. You have to observe people and their passions and sometimes you have to speak aspirational hopes into them because it isn’t yet developed. But nonetheless, they have to see it as authentic before they’re willing to say yes to the task and to the goal.

Step Four

The fourth step is follow up. Provide them an opportunity to pray about the request and include a time when you would get back with them: “I’ll get back with you in about seven days,” that type of a thing. Let them know that there’s going to be accountability. Don’t ask for a commitment right away, particularly if it is a long-term task or goal commitment.

If it’s an emergency and they are just needed to take the offering today, then obviously you want a response right away. But for other recruitment, when you want them to be a part of an ongoing ministry, give them a chance to think and pray about it. Please emphasize prayer because it reminds them that this is a commitment between them and God.

This article is a transcription of the Thought Leadership Podcast “Church is not a Spectator Sport” by Rev. Dr. Todd Jones on May 2, 2019. To subscribe to the podcast, click here or search for Michigan District LCMS in your favorite podcasting app.

Photo (c) Pearl/Lightstock


About the Author

Rev. Todd Jones is Assistant to the President – Mission Education and Support for the Michigan District

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