6 Reasons You're Losing High Capacity Volunteers

My guess is you could use a few more high capacity volunteers.

You know—the kind of volunteer who:

Can attract other capable leaders

Doesn’t drop balls

Loves a challenge

Constantly overperforms

I mean, who doesn’t want more of those people on their team?

But today in many churches, and in many not-for-profits, staff leaders are wondering where the high capacity leaders have gone.

The paradox is they’re probably in your organization. They might be attending, and some are helping to fund it.

But so many aren’t serving, and even if they step up, far too many high capacity people walk away way too soon.

Why?

 

6 Reasons You’re Losing High Capacity Volunteers

I know this is a bit of a tough post. But you need to know I’ve made every single of of these mistakes over my time in leadership.

So if your response to reading this is “oh no”…just know that if you make some changes you’ll find yourself in a very different (and better) place.

There are at least 6 reasons high capacity volunteers never join a team or leave it early.

 

1. The challenge isn’t big enough

It’s really quite simple. People with significant leadership gifting respond best to significant challenges.

Under challenge them and they won’t stay engaged for long.

So many church staff and non-profit staff I talk to are worried about giving their volunteers too much responsibility. Newsflash: that might be exactly why you don’t have enough high capacity volunteers (not to mention a thousand other problems on your team.)

 

2. Your vision, mission and strategy are fuzzy

People want to serve a cause bigger than themselves. And actually, that’s what the church (and most non-profits) are all about: causes bigger than ourselves.

But often our mission, vision and strategy are fuzzy.

Mission is the what.

Vision is the why.

Strategy is the how.

Even if they’re written on a piece of paper most people functionally can’t tell you what they are.

That’s a tragedy. The motivation for volunteers IS the vision. It’s the why behind the what.

And—get this—the church has the best vision and mission on planet earth. So why on earth do we hide it?

Quite seriously, helping people discover the God who created them and the Saviour is the most rewarding work volunteers will do in their lives, regardless of what they get paid to do their day jobs.

 

3. You’re disorganized

Few things are more demotivating than giving up your time as a volunteer only to discover the staff person responsible didn’t set you up to succeed.

The tools they need to do the job are missing or incomplete. The rest of the team is late.

Or maybe—worse—they’re not even 100% sure what they are supposed to do or how they are supposed to do it.

You can always find people who will put up with disorganization, but many more will simply give up.

And high capacity people will make a beeline for the door.

 

4. You let people off the hook too easily

I know I know.

They’re volunteers. And you can’t hold a volunteer accountable can you?

Wrong. You most certainly can. And should. For everyone’s sake.

If a volunteer is late, it’s really no different than if a staff member is late. Sure, you want to address it kindly, but you need to address it.

Again, few things are more disheartening for a motivated volunteer than if they did their homework and showed up early only to find that others didn’t, and then, to top it all off, have a staff person excuse the behaviour of the people who didn’t pull their weight with lines like “it’s okay, we’re just glad you’re here”.

The high capacity leader dies a thousand deaths every time he or she hears a staff person utter those words. And then, almost 100% of the time, the organized, highly motivated exactly-the-kind-of-leader-you-were-hoping-to-keep will leave, and the slackers will stay.

 

5. You’re not giving them enough personal attention

Another big challenge for church leaders and non-profit staff is the innate desire most of us feel to treat all people ‘equally’.

You don’t want to play favourites, so everyone should be treated the same.

Again, wrong.

The church should always be a loving organization. But certain people require more of your time and attention.

Unless you’re intentional, you’ll end up spending most of your time with your most problematic people and the least amount of time with your highest performing people.

Flip that.

Cut ties with the low performers and spend most of your time walking alongside and developing your best leaders.

And before you think that’s completely unfair, just know your entire team will thank you for it because you’ll end up with a strong team.

By the way, Jesus did this too. He had crowds of disciples, but then a group of 72, an inner group of 12, an inner circle of 3 and placed his greatest investment in 1 (Peter).

 

6.  You don’t have enough other high capacity volunteers around them

It’s never fun to lead alone.

As soon as you find a high capacity volunteer, your next step should be to recruit more and move others alongside them.

Nurture this team. Build into them. Take them for lunch. Take them with you when you travel. Do life with them (again, I think Jesus modeled this pattern).

Sadly, many leaders don’t do this, and high capacity leaders once again walk away, demotivated.

Those are 6 reasons I see in the church and organizations around me.

What do you see?

What have you experienced?

Leave a comment!

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  • charlotte

    I got a committee humming. It was the outreach committee and we were exceeding all previous benchmarks in our charitable giving and works. We were poised to engage our congregation even more powerfully. I attended the meetings designed to keep us in sync with the larger church. I was in close contact with the rector to insure that what we were doing was known and appreciated (and she was given the opportunity to let us know if something wasn’t working). So what happened. The vestry decided to look over our shoulders and overrule us without any conversation, and for “reasons” that turned out to be either false or incomprehensible. I was lied to and lied about, and scapegoated. I am high capacity and I don’t see wasting my time and energy on volunteering at church.

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Charlotte…Ugh…I hate hearing stories like yours. I am SO SO sorry.

      I promise you there are churches that value high capacity leaders. I hope and pray you find one. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Heroeffect

    Man I need to hear these words. Right on the edge for some of this (hopefully.)

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      So glad it helped!

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  • WasaCresswell

    Thank you Carey – exactly!!

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Thanks!

  • RedStateKitty

    I think there’s one you missed: You micromanage them. That happened to my husband and I, and it is why we are no longer at the church we had really felt (at first) at home with. It was a plant church, initiative of a pastor for whom this was only his second pastoral responsibility, and his first as “senior.” He wasn’t all that young, either (mid-40s, career changer). He, and especially his wife, micromanaged everything. I get that they thought that they personally were responsible for the success of any and all programs (however, they weren’t! — God was!)

    Every little detail was micromanaged — even to the color selection for the napkins for a Christmas dinner, even to how far apart to put the food for optimal flow of those getting their food (I have professional food service experience and she was quite combative about making her point about the setup for the event). She finally decided, after I explained why more room was needed, that I “could” set it up that way — even though I was the hospitality ministry director — and she never admitted afterwards that what I said was correct or apologised for her combative attitude.

    It wasn’t just hospitality — VBS, ushers, outreach, literature, etc. No matter what ministry, if the pastor or his wife were not directly running it then they made sure that whomever was “in charge” knew to ask or get guidance on every little detail no matter how insignificant. Thus, after a time, no volunteer would say or do almost anything without first going through both of them.

    Micromanagement is the way you take the “big challenge” away from a “high capacity volunteer.”

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      I’m so sorry to hear your story, but can completely relate to how frustrating that must have been. One certain way of alienating leaders is to micro-manage them. Thanks for this important point. :)

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  • Tim

    Too few volunteers and preoccupation with “significant gifts” is a systemic failure point of pulpit and pew oriented church.

    #1.True, in the institutionalized form of church. You are focused on “significant gifts”? Error! Eveyone is gifted significantly. Even the worship hour has zero confidence in the heart expressive particiaption of 90% of the saints. The hired man dominates.

    #2 Mission is clear. Vision: if expecting God to funnel it all through the top hired man they are missing Acts 2 revelation on who God gives vision to – everyone. How is all messed up beggining with the worship hour, and everything that follows that. If the saints have heard 500+ Bible lectures claimed to be “equipping them for the work of the ministry” and they aren’t equipped yet, then we ought to see there is a problem with the assumption that you can equip with Bible lectures and zero mutual relationship participation. See Eph 4 for who is to be “speaking the truth in love” so all can grow up to be like Jesus.

    #3. No, you’re ignoring the main organizer, Jesus, the head of the church. His word on how to do church life is completely ignored or explained away as soon as you hire someone to lecture the Word every Sunday. “Preach the Word” does not mean lecture the word. Do you see it there?

    #4 You have a power pyramid and you put God’s people below you. With Jesus, it’s the other way around. Jesus is the only upstream person in church. “You are all brothers” according to Jesus. Fix this and you will make great progress.

    #5 How can one man (said to be the pastor) have any kind of mutual, two-way relationship with 100 people? Or the same for 59 hired staff and 2000 people? You can’t. You have a false assumption about church that says you have to have enough people in one room to at least pay one guy to lecture you. This nullifies mutuality between teacher and students.

    #6 Back on your “high capacity” volunteer preoccupation. Where do you get that in the Word? If you keep the institutionalized form of church you are stuck with 80% of the work being done by 20% of the people.

    Why can’t you question the systemic assumptions? Are you chained to them?

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Tim…I’m not sure what your motive is, but, truthfully, you sound angry. And it also sounds like you have this all figured out. Maybe you don’t mean to come across that way, but that’s how it reads to me. So I’m not sure what I say will help. However, this is actually not a post about the ‘top man’, it’s about releasing the gifting of many people in the church. It has nothing to do with 20% doing all the work. Just the opposite. Sorry if that wasn’t clearer.

      • Tim

        Motive? To teach, rebuke, correct, and instruct in righteousness – the very purposes of God’s word. I know it’s not common for Pastors to be rebuked and corrected with God’s word from saints who are not paid to minister. We usually take the passive role and enjoy it for it’s ease. So you feel I’m angry and self assured. I’m very assured because of what the scriptures say and I’m talking direct because this is serious stuff – Christ’s body. The problem of low Christ powered volunteerism is rooted in the bogus foundations of institutionalized faith. It starts with the top man. He rejects ministry “free of charge” like Paul teaches. They sluff it off with really bad eisegesis. The leader is to be an example. People are to learn to do what he does, (1 Peter 5:3) not be pumped up to do things the things below his level of calling. He is a talking leader only. He will not “fully train” anyone to “be like him”. Luke 6:40. He expects to be paid so he won’t be a “muzzled ox” but he expects everyone else to be a free-bee minister. Now that is arrogance God will oppose. 1 Peter 5:5,6. Some can get a lot of people in to hear him lecture the word but there will be zero reproduction on his part. The saints will grow deeper and deeper into dependency and loving it more. For a hundred years hundreds of books and articles have been written on “releasing the gifting of many people” but the problem still persists because the false system still persists. Our previous church did a snazzy digital survey were everyone has a clicker with live graphs of results. 50% of the saints were doing nothing to serve. Did the leaders consider examining the system for error? They rejected my input and decided the saints just did not know their gifting. They did a gifting emphasis. Did anything change? No. They still need 30 or more hired staff to pump up church life to keep the numbers of “attenders” up. They are very sincere, but they are stuck. The hired staff get their pay checks. The saints get their ceremony. What’s not to like? If I sound sarcastic or angry it’s because this tragic counter Bible system has it coming. This is the kind of Church the Corinthians loved as they rejected Paul’s emphatic ministry of rejecting pay 2 Cor. 11,12. The text says pay for ministry is a “burden” at least 4 times. The more direct word is “numbing”. God’s people are numb from an overdose of hired in coddling and one-way communication (no heart participation needed from the saints in the worship hour). Is this clear or are you still wondering? Please read the scriptures I gave and do some soul searching on your 6 steps to more “high capacity” volunteers. I welcome feed back – we’re brothers.

        • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

          Tim, I still don’t think you’re interested in dialogue. You appear to have this all figured out. Your characterization of church staff is insulting. Sorry. It just is.

          • Tim

            How specifically is my characterization of church staff insulting? It certainly is negative because that is what is happening compared to what the Bible says should be happening. To take it as an insult may be merely self-justifying. God’s Word is the plumb line. That is what I’m offering. Where am I wrong in the Word? Where is the Word in your ideas? I am pointing to the root of the problem, not the whole thing. Clergy vs. laity. A horrible reality that meshes in well with the flesh of both involved. Now the Spirit’s power and his gifts are squandered. As you stand in the pulpit just look at them all completely silent – zero heart expression to the rest – just looking to you to say the good feeling words. I’ve stood there and seen it.

          • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

            Many staff led churches have hundreds (or thousands) of mobilized volunteers who serve in the church and beyond the church in the marketplace. They serve sacrificially and embody Christ in what they do. I feel like you’re painting every staff led church with the same brush of what sounds like a bad experience you’ve had.

          • Tim

            Now I’m concerned about your interest in dialogue. You have yet to address one scripture or question I offer. Your statistics are generalized and partial. For a church with a thousand “mobilized”? 1. How many are not mobilized at all? 2. How many are mobilized for a once or twice a month commitment to the nursery with zero expectation to “speak the truth in love”? Merely performing an institutional task in mass crowd settings where there is almost no simple name recognition is a dynamic that zero’s out God’s expectation that there be “one another love as he has loved us”. You know this is intimate and personal, but not in a church of 5,000 that has mobilized 1500 for one task or another. This is far from sacrificial or embodying Christ. How loose can we use that phrase?
            Bad experience? I was pouring thousands every month into the offering plate, serving in youth, singles, & children’s ministries, 15 Christmas performances a year with my French Horn, Missions committee, etc. I thought it was all stuff God wanted. Then I compared it all to the scriptures and my eye’s were opened. I was primarily a co-dependent helping other believers satisfy their addiction to sit and listen. Forget a contribution to even teaching their own children the Bible, and many more sad realities. Nice people. Love the Lord. Committed to the Bible. Suckered into a flesh oriented gathering that feels good and looks good. $1.5 million a year to hire men to lead them on this path. They are now down to 18% of giving going out the door. 82% is consumed in house for wealthy saints. I learned from my experience with God’s Word and the ways of American church life. I urge you to recognize the contradiction in your experience. It’s before your eyes, if you will see it.
            Staff led churches is a system. The people and personalities are different but the system is finely tuned and identical. I know it well. Calling out the scripture to show the corruption involved would bring and immediate label of “divisive” or “negative” or “basher” or any number of self-justifying protection schemes.

            There are some marvelous sacrificial saints in this system doing the work of Christ year after year. It maybe as high as 10%. The grace of God on display in a self-centered system. God working in spite of the folly. I was one of them and I left the system. Bad investment based on The Book. You see something going down but you are anchored in the system, not Jesus. We are told to “throw off the things that hinder and the sin that so easily entangles” so we can “run the race marked out for us”. Tweaking or shifting the things that hinder and the sin that so easily entangles doesn’t help any one run. Can you handle this? Point me to the Word if I’m wrong.

          • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

            Tim, thanks for sharing part of your story. I appreciate your perspective a bit more now. And thanks for acceding the point that there are faithful people in staff led churches. There actually are some. And there are abuses.

            I honestly think if I came back at you with scripture and arguments about how the current church is like the NT church, you would simply counter them with your own take. I get that. So I’m not going to do that.

            I’m going to leave your comments on the blog and people can make up their own minds. Thanks for your contribution.

            I believe that what we are doing in many churches is obedient and scriptural, and that it release thousands—maybe millions—more into effective mission in the world. Could we get better? Absolutely. Is it perfect? Far from it. But I am thankful for the difference it’s making in our local communities here in Central Ontario and all over the world.

          • Tim

            It is very sad that you will not put one scripture on the table as an authority for your volunteer boosting system. Is it because you know how weak and twisted they are? Is it because you know I can show you how they don’t say what they are claimed to say? Is it because the scriptures that are completely ignored are so very clear? One defense mechanism is to say”It’s meaningless to argue about anything. I just want to follow Jesus.” To label any dialogue that involves debate or disagreement as “arguing” is quite shallow. It is basically saying “I want to continue doing what I’m doing even if I’m wrong because there are some results in it. Don’t upset me with your truth.” Today I asked God to open your heart to observe in HIs word His design for supernatural capacity in giving of ourselves. Why stick with a 1000+ year old system when a little transformation brings more glory to Jesus?

  • Nate Woodward

    #3 is the challenge for me. I’m not naturally organized, being more of a dreamer/creative than an administrator by temprament. But that’s why I need my high-capacity organized people even more! A good challenge.

    I’m going to push back on #4 and #6. Part of challenging high-capacity volunteers IS challenging with the upside-down nature of the Kingdom. I have been a high-capacity volunteer but one with 3 young kids and a changing job schedule, and I have served in a really beautiful church community that has offered me grace when I run late or show up half-prepared. And I have grown in my understanding that the way of Jesus isn’t expecting everyone to shape up and get it together. In other cases, I’ve had to gently remind my type-A volunteers that church work is about caring for everyone through and with their weaknesses, and that our calling to love and serve extends to everyone, including the flaky ones. We ARE glad that their hear, even if it through off our agenda.

    #6 isn’t something most leaders have much control over. In fact, I’ve been a part of one extremely vital church that was so outwardly focused that it sent many of it’s core volunteers to seminary or other training programs because of the gifting and calling of those people. It would have been an easier road for them as a church if they had tried to keep those people around, but it wouldn’t have served the Kingdom.

    I guess my push back is generally a reminder that we are serving the Kingdom of God, not the Kingdom of Crossroads Community Church.

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      For sure we’re serving the Kingdom of God. I think sometimes our culture in church has shifted enough that we’ve forgotten what that is.

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  • Greg T.

    Just to tie in with #6…then your high-capacity leaders are overused and abused. You keep going to the same people and wear them out.

    HC leaders are also driven to get things done. They see what needs to get done and do it, so if the environment is disorganized, they’ll focus on NECESSARY things and not the IMPORTANT things. If you’re not focused on the important, you’ll continue to operate in the status quo.

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Truth there on both fronts. Thanks Greg!

  • Jeni

    Yes!!! I am struggling with this very issue right now and I am a high capacity volunteer. 3 years ago we joined a church and school after moving from a different state. I immediately starting getting plugged into both the church and school so I could start meeting people in my new home town. 3 years later I am running about half of the programs at the church and school and I still get asked to volunteer for more and be in charge of more. 3 years ago I started the Book Fair at our school and have been running it ever since with nothing more than a few hour long volunteers. 2 years ago I was asked to be a Sunday School teacher, 1 year later the DCE left our church and I was asked to take over the program. I should tell you that our church and school are so in debt that we have a “Bill Board” outside the church because they can’t afford to pay them. In the last 10 years the church/school has gone from thriving to barley keeping the doors open. The sunday school program once had 300 children and is now down to 35. My job with running the program was to rebuild it. I am an unpaid volunteer with no experience being asked to do this. Training is not being provided to me and communication is poor (sometimes several days before an email or message is answered. I was very excited to accept this challenge in the beginning and now I dread going in on Sunday mornings. by taking this volunteer position I thought I would be growing in my own faith. the opposite has happened because I have no time for my own faith I’m too busy trying to blindly rebuild a program I know nothing about with out any volunteers. We are considering moving to a church/school that is much more stable where I can be just a normal volunteer and not be asked to run everything without support. Please pray for us as we struggle to find an answer. I believe that God put me in that church/school for a reason, but is that reason still valid? How do I know for sure where God is leading me?

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Jeni…wow…that’s a tough one! I’m not exactly sure what to say other than it sounds like your church is suffering from a lack of capable leadership at the top, either from the board or senior leader. I would be careful about getting burned out. Being a high capacity member of a low capacity team is often a recipe for that. Talk to people you trust around you, pray and seek advice. The wisest thing might be to limit your involvement or step back. It’s one thing to give your all to something that has potential. It’s another to give your all to something that lacks that potential or has problems no one is willing to resolve.

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  • Yu Li

    In my opinion, a judgemental leader is a big turn off

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Agreed!

  • Loran Lichty

    Great post Carey. First time on your blog. Great job.

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Welcome Loran! Good to have you here. :)

  • Matt Beeman

    And all the people said Amen! – I would add a point of emphasis that fits into #3 and #5 – you don’t respond properly and promptly to their communication – a communication from a high capacity volunteer is going to be primarily one of 2 things – information they believe to be valuable or requesting help, information, or a resource that is going to assist them in completing what you have asked them to do (or in many cases, going above and beyond what you have asked them to do) – if you fail to respond to their communications well, it gives the impression that you don’t value their effort or don’t care about the task you want them to do

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Absolutely Matt. Love it. Play favourites with your inbox too. Completely agree.

  • Chris Lema

    Yes. 100% YES!!

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Thanks Chris. Glad to see a very high capacity leader resonating with this.

      And thanks Brian and Brian…awesome how 2 and 3 relate!

  • Brian McEntire

    Awesome post! I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for your wisdom Carey!

  • http://www.brianandkrista.com Brian French

    We’ve been working on # 2 and it’s been amazing how that has helped to fix # 3 along the way. Fantastic stuff Carey!