7 Questions Every Volunteer Asks But Never Says Out Loud

So you’d love to see more volunteers serve in your church or organization.

Who wouldn’t?

And yet when it come to volunteers, a surprising number of leaders struggle. Many leaders suffer from:

A chronic shortage

High turnover

Mediocre or poor morale

Ask most leaders why this is, and they can’t tell you.

And yet the reasons are not that difficult to figure out. Often you just need to shift perspectives.

questions volunteers askStart With This One

Here’s a simple place to start. If you’re always short on volunteers, ask yourself

Would you volunteer for you?

Answer honestly. The response can be very telling.

If the answer’s no (or you think the answer is yes, but almost everyone else would answer it for you differently), then the next step is to figure out why. Why aren’t people stepping up or sticking around?

That’s where the next 7 questions can help.

7 Questions Every Volunteer Asks

Almost every volunteer at some point probably asks variations of these 7 questions, whether they ever say them out loud or not. If you’ve volunteered for someone else, you’ve probably asked them whether you realize it or not.

Develop great, healthy answers to these 7 questions, and volunteers are far more likely to stick around.

Better, yet, they’re likely to grow and flourish under your leadership.

1. Is this really about the mission?

Most people want to give themselves to a cause that’s bigger than themselves. In my view, no cause is greater or more worthy than the mission of the local church.

Yet many churches lose focus on the mission.

Volunteering ends up being about

Filling a slot

Meeting a need

Doing your duty

Or, in the worst case scenario, volunteering can become more about serving the ego of the leader than it does about serving Christ.

When you keep the true mission of the church or your organization central, people rally.    For example, in addition to leading a local church, I sit on the Board of Directors for an extremely well run local food bank. Their mission? A city in which no one is hungry. That’s inspiring.

When you lose focus on the mission, volunteers lose heart.

Every volunteer wants to give their time to something bigger than us or bigger than themselves. So give them that opportunity.

2. Are the relationships around here healthy?

No community should have better relationships than the local church.

After all, our faith is based on a saviour who reconciled the world to himself, forgiving our sin. What could we possibly hold against one another?

And yet often the local church has some of the most fractious, passive-aggressive relationships out there.

We have a saviour who came full of grace and truth, yet often church leaders will often swing to either extreme: all grace, so issues are never dealt with, or all truth, so people get hurt.

Even if you don’t lead a church (leaders from a variety of backgrounds read this blog), realize that many people love the mission of the organization they work for, they just can’t stand the personal politics and dysfunction.

One of the greatest gifts church leadership can give to a congregation is healthy relationships. So be healthy.

Not sure what that means?

Start by changing one thing. Talk to people you disagree with, not about them. That will change far more than you think.

Additionally, almost every organization has toxic people in it. Here’s a primer on how to spot and deal with toxic people.

3. Will serving help me grow spiritually?

It’s ironic that in many churches and organizations, people equate serving with burning out, not being renewed.

And yet Christian service should be a paradox of renewal: when we give our lives away, we find them. When we serve, we grow.

Part of growing is providing a healthy environment. Pay attention to the issues addressed by the other six questions and you’ll have an environment that favours growth.

But you also need to care for volunteers spiritually, or at least provide an environment in which spiritual growth flourishes.

Pray for them.

Pray with them.

Share your journey.

Encourage theirs.

Mentor your key leaders.

You can’t guarantee spiritual growth will happen, but you can provide the conditions in which it can easily happen.

4. Am I just a means to an end?

I wish I could get some of my early years of leadership back. As much as I would have denied it at the time, I think I naturally saw people as a means to an end.

The end was (and is) a great one: fulfilling the mission of Christ’s church.

But people matter. A lot.

Nobody likes feeling used, but that’s often how churches and other organizations treat people.

Care about them. Encourage them. Ask questions. Listen to their stories. Pray for them.

When you have a healthy, Christ-centered, energized team that knows they’re valued, the mission advances further and faster anyway.

 5. Will you help me develop the skills I need?

I have a friend who has visited a lot of churches and non-profits tell me recently that—as well intentioned as leaders are—the vast majority of organizations are, in his view, poorly run.

That’s a tragedy.

Why is the local Walmart better run than the local church?  Seriously. One is selling products that last a day, a month or a year. The other is brokering life change that lasts forever. The church should be the best in the world at recruiting, training and releasing people into ministry and their calling.

Many volunteers who come your way are highly capable people who just need a little training to know how to master the specific task you’re giving them.

A good heart just needs to be supplemented with a good skill set. Set aside an evening or a Saturday to properly train volunteers as they start serving, and then top up their training from time to time to help them get better at what they do.

6. Are you organized, or are you going to waste my time?

Disorganization is epidemic among church leaders and non-profits.

Too many volunteers show up to do their job only to discover that they also  have to do yours because once again, you’ve dropped some balls.

The more organized you are (on time, prepared, other holes plugged), the more your volunteers will be able to excel at what you’ve asked them to do.

As I first outlined in this post, disorganization is one of the six reasons many leaders lose high capacity volunteers. Here are 5 more.

7. So, am I signing up for life?

In many churches, serving is like the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

You’re a Christian for life, but that doesn’t mean you have to serve in one role for life. But many churches just assume people will.

What if you start putting a time line on every role? What if your conversation sounded more like:

Why don’t you try this for a season?

Can you serve with us for this semester/year?

People in this position typically serve for a 3 year term. You can try it out for a month before you commit to that term.

We definitely have some long term serving roles at Connexus (for example, we ask our high school small group leader to serve for four years), but we’re clear on the term from the outset.

Most other roles can easily be shortened to a few months to a year.

If you start providing end dates for roles, you’ll notice something surprising. Many people stay after their term has ended. They sign up for more.

Surprisingly, when you give volunteers an out, many lean in.

Want More?

If you want some deeper insight into creating an amazing volunteer culture, my book Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow has a full chapter on it.

I also created a Lasting Impact Team Edition video series to help pastors and their teams walk through the issues that are keeping a lot of churches from healthy growth.

Hope this helps!

In the meantime, what are you learning about volutneers?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

29 Comments

  1. Emma on August 18, 2017 at 11:08 am

    I am a young leader in our 100-person church. Volunteers are not INCREDIBLY hard to come by, we do have a bunch of dedicated people, but it’s still a frustration. I am a volunteer (i.e. unpaid) leader and have a full time job outside of our church’s ministry entirely, so it can be difficult to feel passion for the mission when it’s disorganized and bureaucratic. I want to feel that my time is worth it and being used the most effectively, let alone also make other volunteers feel the same.

    I really appreciate the insight and steps to take in this post!

  2. […] Carey Nieuwhof says, “When you lose focus on the mission, volunteers lose heart. Every volunteer wants to give their time to something bigger than us or bigger than themselves. So give them that opportunity.” […]

  3. CPSOT on May 8, 2017 at 10:13 am

    Great article! It touches on all the key issues.
    I would add one, that arguably could be included above in organization but I think it’s important enough to call it in its own.

    Will the leadership listen to me?

    Leaders are leaders, they should lead. But many times they leave the volunteers as the boots on the ground and move on. In some aspect that is absolutely fine (and healthy). But in those scenarios the volunteers are the only ones in the trenches, and therefore they have their finger on the pulse. When they speak up and say something is wrong, something doesn’t work, or something would make their life easier, are there ears to hear it?
    Many times it is “a distraction” for leaders to hear these comments and requests because it tells them something isn’t working or is cross grain to their vision.

    It’s all about being open to hear what the volunteers are saying. Empower them to do their job, which also means be there for them when they need you. They will dig in deeper every time.
    Miss that, and you lose them forever.

  4. ServantHeart2012 on January 25, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    I have a question. How do we acknowledge and use someone who wants to volunteer in a particular area because they have real world expertise in that area? We are always cautious not to bring someone on board who wants to reinvent the wheel, but sometimes that may be just the ticket to help us move forward. For example, we have developed procedures to use in case of an emergency up to and including an active shooter scenario. They were developed with the aid of a couple of local police officers and seem sound, although we haven’t exercised them. A guy who has been a member for several years offered to help us continue to develop our plans and educate our staff and volunteers. (Our procedures are “top secret” and only shared with staff on a “need to know” basis. That is, they are pre-destined to fail in a real world event.) The guy has a masters degree in corporate security and has 18 years experience as a management level security agent for a worldwide corporation. Excellent credentials, yet we sat on our hands and put off accepting his offer. The thought process was; “Oh my, what if he wants to change everything we’ve already done?” He wasn’t pushy or insistent on “helping,” but it seems a pity that we were so afraid of figuring out how to utilize his expertise for our benefit. He has since been transferred to an assignment in Europe with his company. Our loss.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 29, 2017 at 3:32 pm

      You can really miss out on expertise if you’re closed. I’ll bet he knew more about security than the entire team combined. Great point!

  5. Jerry Sweat on April 23, 2016 at 7:36 am

    Carey, I always learn so much from your insights! I am very thankful for your ministry and willingness to share with others in ministry! This article was extremely helpful on volunteers! One more that I would add- Will I connect in meaningful relationships with others to accomplish the mission? Most of the generative growth that I have seen in volunteer ministries is when people discover community while serving. They are also more likely to invite their friends to share in their particular ministry team as well.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 24, 2016 at 4:26 am

      Thanks Jerry! Appreciate the encouragement and great point.

  6. Alex Verdun on September 13, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Hi Carey,
    Thanks for great article on a very important subject.
    May I add a nuance to question #4? That is “Do you want me to be a doer of tasks or may I participate more fully in accomplishing the objective by contributing ideas too?” Do we sometimes want people to just do what we want – not to contribute ideas that may be even better than our own? Are we willing to risk letting our volunteers contribute at that level?
    What do you think?
    Thanks, Alex

  7. Travis Stephens on August 23, 2015 at 6:36 am

    One of my pet peeves is disorganization, and yet far too often I have volunteer leaders in my church who aren’t organized. Many times volunteers end up frustrated to the point that they quit serving. We’ve promised them an environment that they can come and grow, and now they leave that environment further from God than when they started.

    This isn’t acceptable, and it’s an easy fix. If you are leading others, make sure you are organized. If you need help putting a schedule together, ask for help. But whatever you do, don’t let volunteers fall through the cracks. It may be the only chance we get with them.

  8. davebaldwin on June 2, 2015 at 8:03 am

    This really fits with my sermon for this Sunday on the volunteers that built the wall around Jerusalem during the time of Nehemiah. Great insights for our ministry team as well.

    Thank you Carey.
    Blessings,
    Dave

  9. Darren Wooff on May 11, 2015 at 10:41 am

    Hello Carey – Just a bit of feedback. Would it be possible for you to add a easy print copy of your blog to the page. There are many articles I’d like to share with our church staff and volunteers.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 11, 2015 at 11:14 am

      Hey Darren. We’ve had that request more than a few times. I’m not technical enough to do it, but I’ll ask my designer about it. I’m releasing a book this summer called Lasting Impact that’s a summary of the 7 hottest subjects on the blog specifically rewritten for team discussion. This subject (volunteering) gets a whole chapter in the book. You can sign up for the launch list to be an insider here: http://eepurl.com/bi4Bcv

  10. Brandon on January 3, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    I’d add, “Why are you asking me to volunteer to do a job for which you are paid?”

    I’ve wondered this, but would never ask.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 3, 2015 at 12:07 pm

      Good question. That’s easy. If staff are doing what staff are ideally positioned to do, they’re coordinating the work of many volunteers, not just doing the work themselves. Helpful question.

      • Mick Mc on April 13, 2015 at 8:18 pm

        Brandon, I have witnessed a pastor who openly struggles with the reverse of this issue I.e. “I’m getting paid so I need to do more”. Admirable in its humble sentiment but ultimately disempowerment for people serving in that place

        • Mick Mc on April 13, 2015 at 8:19 pm

          Disempowering

    • LuLu on May 5, 2015 at 2:00 pm

      Thanks for asking this question! It is definitely one that people think but don’t but their thinking to words.
      As part of a staff-driven church, and being on staff – I think I can answer this through another set of eyes. Volunteering empowers your members to become part of ministry. If staff takes care of all the needs outside of working hours… we have taken away a vital part of an attender/member’s ability to give back. They feel useless and become consumers – eventually forgetting how to be givers of life within the body. On another note, when staff become the ones who take care of all needs – well, you would have a high turn-over of staff. Most people don’t realize what goes on during the week – we receive crisis phone calls that require immediate attention. And these moments can break our hearts as we minister and care for these people. Eventually, bodies can only take so much and we become battle weary. We cannot be effective and need rest.
      I love my church and I love the way we are becoming more volunteer driven, allowing the body of Christ to give to the church the gifts they have been blessed with. What we are seeing are people who are engaged and feel they are part of a vibrant church. Amen to that!

      • Carey Nieuwhof on May 6, 2015 at 7:29 am

        Some great points. I agree, churches need a healthy combination of staff and volunteers.

  11. JohnWesleyHelpUs on November 18, 2014 at 7:47 am

    The word “volunteer” should be replaced with “servant.” The word “volunteer” has a certain sense of distance and not really belonging to the mission or even the organization, whereas the word “servant” appropriately puts the person in the realm of God’s Kingdom (and Kindom). Apart from the important and practical questions posed in this article none considers the most important factor; that, even when all of the answers to these 7 questions are in the negative a servant serves for the love of God and neighbor and can certainly have the voice to help to make serving more joyful and efficient.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 18, 2014 at 5:01 pm

      I agree that attitude and joy is important, and I hope that’s what we carry as followers of Christ. However, many church leaders test our joy by creating conditions that make it difficult to serve in. At least in my view. They use ‘faith’ to excuse lazy or incompetent behaviour.

      • JohnWesleyHelpUs on November 19, 2014 at 2:42 pm

        What might be some of those “conditions” that church leaders create to test our joy and make it difficult to serve?

        • Carey Nieuwhof on November 21, 2014 at 1:56 pm

          Thanks for the question! I think the 7 conditions listed above make it hard for people to serve.

  12. Karen on November 17, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    Thanks for the article. Some great points have been raised. I think it’s important that volunteers are informed of what is going on in the leadership of their church. Not all people like surprises. So to find out that there is a new direction the church is taking or having something ‘new’ implemented without knowing it was coming can be detrimental to the volunteer spirit. Likewise, I think it is important that churches have a means for people to ask questions. Forums, suggestion/question boxes are good ideas. When people don’t have the opportunity to ask questions they can sometimes become disgruntled with what they do.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 17, 2014 at 6:43 pm

      True! I think the most involved should know the most. People who are heavily invested in a ministry should always be the first to know.

  13. CJ on November 17, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    I volunteer at a Church where some people have been in positions 25 years. The leadership always encourages people to volunteer and says your welcome, but no one new comes on board, I think its because they are overwhelmed by making a committment that has no known end. Its like asking someone to sign a blank check, they don’t know how much they could be in for when its all said and done, and would feel quilty of ever placing a stop payment on that check. Not setting a commitment period also makes the volunteer feel bad for leaving a “ministry position”. Usually they end up staying in the position beyond the point of enjoying it, which leads to a toxic attitude that ends up hurting the very organization they initially wanted to grow. I speak from personal Experience.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 17, 2014 at 6:42 pm

      CJ. Great points. Sometimes I think it’s the responsibility of people who have been in a position for a long time to do something else so someone else can take their place. You can overstay your welcome and thwart other potential leadership.

  14. Lawrence W. Wilson on November 17, 2014 at 7:09 am

    I think No. 3 & 4 are becoming larger. People are getting that volunteering is not about about helping you, the leader, but is a stepping stone to growth in their lives.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 17, 2014 at 9:08 am

      Great to hear from you Lawrence. I agree…people want to grow, and they want to know your real motives. So true with people under 40.

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