Declining Volunteer Numbers and 5 Steps to Reverse It

This is a post by Jeff Henderson. Jeff is a leading voice on how to create and grow momentum for organizations and leaders and is a member of my Speaking Team. Jeff is the founder of The For Company and author of the book, Know What You’re For

By Jeff  Henderson

While there’s been a lot of conversation about declining church attendance numbers (even before COVID), the more concerning number is the decline in consistent volunteers.

While this appears to be more of a physical location versus digital issue, it’s actually both.

We’re talking about the vision-carriers of the church. The less consistent volunteers are in carrying the vision, the less the vision is carried.

This Summer, the focus should be on volunteer recruitment for the Fall.

To help with this, save this list and discuss it among the team.

The less consistent volunteers are in carrying the vision, the less the vision is carried. - @JeffHenderson Click To Tweet

1. Blame COVID, Then Cut Back.

I love the advice John Maxwell gives leaders about the pandemic. John said it’s an opportunity to try new things and if it doesn’t work, blame the virus! 🙂

This isn’t reserved for trying new things, though. It’s also for eliminating current ministries in order to shift volunteers to “essential ministries.”

2. What is Essential in Your Ministry?

What’s essential in one ministry might not be essential in another. The reality though is if everything’s essential, nothing is.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be a permanent decision. It could be for a season. (However, it is an opportunity to eliminate competing systems and ministries that should have already been retired.)

For example, if you need more volunteers in student ministry in the Fall consider going to another ministry area and asking volunteers to shift to student ministry. You aren’t shutting down a ministry because it’s not working. You’re shifting limited volunteer resources to a more “essential service.”

Granted, telling one ministry area that it’s not as essential as another is never fun. But that doesn’t make it untrue. If your church wants to be FOR the next generation, it probably can’t have a senior adult ministry. And vice-versa.

If your church wants to be FOR the next generation, it probably can’t have a senior adult ministry. And vice-versa. - @JeffHenderson Click To Tweet

As uncomfortable as it is, less is more.

Again, what do you want to be known FOR? You can’t be known for everything. You do need to be known for something. What is that?

You can’t be known for everything. You do need to be known for something. What is that? - @JeffHenderson Click To Tweet

3. Do Something BOLD.

Rather than limp along week to week, consider shifting to an every other week model — both physically and digitally — until you can recruit the volunteers needed. But be sure to explain why: “Our volunteer numbers aren’t where we need them to be so we are going to cut back to meeting every other week until we can recruit the number we need.” Then, be sure to ask people to serve. This puts the decision into the court of the vision-carriers — the volunteers.

For example, before we started Gwinnett Church, people were constantly asking me when were we going to open. “I don’t know,” I replied. “We need 500 people to sign up to serve and give. Once we have that, we’ll be in a better place to make that decision. Have you signed up to serve and give?” In other words, it’s not on me. It’s on us.

By the way, whenever I suggest an every-other-week approach to church, pastors and leaders usually say, “That would be great but I don’t think people would go for it.” Maybe, maybe not. My observation though, is that people are coming to church every other week anyway. It’s already something they’re doing.

Additionally, this approach leverages a very important concept: Scarcity. For example, one of the reasons people from the East of America take photos of their visit to In-N-Out Burgers is because they are only located in the West of America. No one is taking photos of their hamburger at McDonalds because of the abundant locations. Scarcity breeds demand.  I believe this most definitely applies to an every-other-week approach for churches.

4. Digital Recruitment.

Going digital is much more than showing church services online. And it’s far deeper than just content. People aren’t missing content as much as they are missing community.

People aren’t missing content as much as they are missing community. - @JefffHenderson Click To Tweet

And one of the best parts about volunteering is the community that is built among those that serve. In other words, volunteering fills a hole in the heart of many people right now. They’re lonely. You can help.

The problem is how do you recruit people who aren’t attending, or no longer attending your church?

Let’s think of this from a business point of view. If this was a situation facing an entrepreneur, she would create a lead generator in hopes of building an email list that would ultimately create a pool of people from which to recruit. This begs the question, “What is your email strategy?”

Additionally, churches should be showing their volunteers and casting vision about the community it provides as part of their social media strategy. Too often, we just talk about what’s happening on a Sunday and what last week’s sermon was about. That’s about content. Take a look at your last few social media posts and ask yourself this question: Is this more about content or community?

Leverage community as a way to recruit.

Take a look at your last few social media posts and ask yourself this question: Is this more about content or community? - @JeffHenderson Click To Tweet

5. Build a Recruitment List from Existing Volunteers.

There’s so much I could say about this but far too often current volunteers aren’t asked for leads for potential volunteers. Every volunteer gathering from now until the Fall (and beyond) should be focused on adding more and more names to a list of those we can reach out to and recruit.

For example, how is the team leveraging Sunday mornings with volunteers regarding recruitment? A great question to ask volunteers on Sundays is, “Who do you know that would be a great volunteer for our ministry?”

If this sounds like sales, there’s a reason for that.

Because it is.

Sure, we need to pray, but we also need to ask.

And yet, if we don’t have anyone to ask, we can’t ask anyone.

Build the list.

Finally, if I were to ask you how many volunteers do you need for the Fall, do you have a number? How exact is it?

Does anyone else know that beyond you?

Put that number in front of the church.

Let them feel the weight of it.

And ask them to help you carry it.

A great question to ask volunteers on Sundays is, “Who do you know that would be a great volunteer for our ministry?” - @JeffHenderson Click To Tweet

What About Your Church? 

Are your volunteers coming back? Let me know below!

Declining Volunteer Numbers and 5 Steps to Reverse It

24 Comments

  1. Nancy on June 24, 2021 at 8:06 am

    I believe God will supply volunteers through prayer. I so much appreciate the volunteers in my church and will continue to make them feel valued. Through prayer and kindness, everything is possible!

  2. Sarah on June 23, 2021 at 4:24 pm

    Honestly, most people that left churches (I’m one myself) during covid was not about lack of interest. Healthy churches are not having “recruitment” issues with volunteers. Churches that are obsessed with the Sunday smoke and mirrors that require a small free production army, are. The people I know that have left, are seeking healthy, Christ centered churches with non toxic leadership. There was AMPLE opportunity for leaders to facilitate connection and community during covid lockdowns, and honestly- churches spent more time complaining and more money on lights and cameras (60k at my former church) than they did actually connecting with the church community. People are feeling super used. PLUS- we developed new rhythms, boundaries and priorities. Covid was a period of rest and reconsideration. I grew so much spiritually during covid because I had time to contemplate and quiet myself. I wasn’t running to 3 practices a week and 3 church services every weekend. I had time for my family and friends. I had genuine community and had many more opportunities to serve people that I never would have had time for. People want organic, healthy communities that align with their growth and values. Sadly, in my anecdotal opinion, many church leaders were more obsessed with how covid was cramping their show than about actually caring about people and changing their methods and “vision”, and being Christlike, and now they’re paying the price. This isn’t a simple equation, God is doing something among the ones whose hearts beat for him. They’re willing to endure a lot if it means following Him. Gimmick time is up, authenticity is in.

    • matt on June 29, 2021 at 7:22 pm

      word

    • Donna Covello on June 29, 2021 at 8:35 pm

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I believe you are right on target. My spiritual grew greatly as I would walk through forest. I felt really connected to spiritual power. I never felt that in church

  3. Donna Covello on June 23, 2021 at 12:53 pm

    We need to discuss why their is a decline in church attendance and why churches are closing. All religious organizations and institutions played a big role in this new trend which I believe by 2050 ALL churches will be closed permanently.

    Why? Look at the past 5 years under the old administration. Religious organizations forgot the separation of church and state. Religious people you broke the First Commandment. Religious people tRump (orange man as your God). Thank you Evangelicals and White Conservative Republicans Churches ⛪ “God send Trump to the United States of America 🇺🇸 to save us”. What did you Orange 🍊God achieved, hatred, bigotry, whitesuperists, QAnon, Sexists, Racists and Nazis.
    Plus killing of over 600,000 people with his inability to handle COVID from the very beginning. Besides everyone knows all CHURCHS received money 💰from the Stimulus Package Bill. There is a Constitution separation of church and state

    Young people are smarter now a days. They are running 🏃‍♂️as far from any Religious Organization, Institute and Church.
    Was it worth it to believe in a false God.

    • Ms. A on June 23, 2021 at 2:02 pm

      I’m sorry, but your comment is not helpful to anyone. No one person or “type” of Christian is to blame for the problems of the church. The PEOPLE ARE the church and seeing the church merely as an “organization” may rightly so be how the world sees the church. But, as Christians, we understand that we are not of this world (Jesus). Christians are glad for the separation of church and state, as the separation is designed to protect religious liberty. But as Americans, every Christian has the right to a voice in the running of said state.

  4. Vicci Adderley on June 23, 2021 at 9:28 am

    What we are seeing is, as our volunteers are coming back to services they are either not wanting to serve at this time anywhere or, they are looking to serve in a different area in the ministry than where they were serving before. In our conversations with them we have found that they’ve had the space to re evaluate their season in an area as well as if this was the area of ministry that they felt they should be as apposed to being there because they were needed by that particular ministry area. We as leaders have also had the time to look at those systems we had in place that were working, needed to be revamped or, needed to go.
    There have also been a lot of new people and families that are now attending our service. Right now we are only having one service when before COVID we were at 2 services. Being able to have the “white space” to reimagine, retool, and restructure some things have been very beneficial for us to look at our recruiting strategy for our volunteers. The growth that is now happening is naturally pushing away the debris of some of our recruiting strategies that we realize were not as effective as we thought but were holding on to because it was all that we knew. I love getting all the information that is provided here. We have a team where their sole focus is on the culture here in our church so thank you for making available to us your insights and tools to move forward our culture community.

  5. Sarah McCubbin on June 23, 2021 at 8:57 am

    I think there is more happening here than this blog post identifies. Backstory…My family of 11 left church almost 10 years ago. We love Jesus and have tried church many times since. We are enough of an anomaly in our community that church people often feel comfortable saying things to us about church that they won’t say to people in church leadership. So COVID hit and my friends (who love Jesus and did go to church) started expressing what a relief it was to stay home and actually talk to their own children about the Bible. They had all kinds of realizations about the stress volunteering was putting on them and their families. They expressed feeling guilty for not wanting to go back because their families are better off now than before. They expressed anxiety about telling the leadership their new priorities for fear they would be shamed. ALL of these were realizations we had when we left 10 years ago. And we did receive a lot of shaming comments from pastors and other leaders for our struggles. A LOT. But when we left…NO ONE called. No one checked in personally to say…Hey, we missed you. Leaders are busy….but I believe that a return to grass roots relationships is in order. Not social media posts…not email blasts…straight up personal phone calls, personal emails etc. Don’t ask them to DO something…create opportunities for people to gather and just BE. So much of church is about DOING and people are tired mentally. I think people had lots of realizations about their lives during COVID and being blasted with the same old marketing messages that sort of worked 18 months ago…it just doesn’t work. The early church was very relational…much of that has been lost. Pastors often have an inner circle…the people they are close to…but it makes them feel distant to those outside the circle. Even if you are a really nice person…you can seem distant to people outside the circle. Try calling people outside your circle. Invite them to coffee. Ask about their families. Don’t have the secretary do it…or other volunteers. People invest in people…and if the leadership is distant, it doesn’t feel like you are mutually invested. As always, I enjoy reading the articles here. Thank you for all you do.

    • David on June 23, 2021 at 10:07 am

      As an assistant pastor working with volunteers and striving to reach people, you said some great points! I’ve messed up with people asking them to fill positions because of the “need” – people are the need. Let’s care for one another. Thank you for your point of view. I don’t want to trample over my fellow servants.

    • Sarah on June 23, 2021 at 4:31 pm

      ME TOO! I have had a nearly IDENTICAL experience. My husband was a former staff member. We POURED our energy into our church- at the cost of authentic relaxing friends and family who always got the the excuse of “sorry I have to serve that weekend”. We have not only been shunned, but they’ve gone on the offensive to warn other places about us (news flash, we are very amicable, professional and loving people), but we are just done with the dictatorial, shamey leadership. Sorry, but bypassing people’s lived experiences and blaming them and shaming them when they are not on top of their game is no way to grow a church.

      • Sarah McCubbin on June 23, 2021 at 4:47 pm

        Sarah, I’m sorry you went through that…I truly am. It is a surprisingly isolating experience to have people alienate you when you thought you were on the same side. For me, it opened my eyes to how many people experience the church this way. We could probably swap lots of stories…funny…we share the same name too 🙂 In our case, COVID caused all the shaming to stop and the whole conversation shifted as people realized what we had been seeing for years. My father in law was a pastor for 40 years before retiring and even they still haven’t gone back to church much after COVID in favor of doing Bible studies in their home. Leaving church made me realize how many believers don’t go to church (I meet them all the time). We like to say we do church on the porch…or wherever 2 or 3 of us are gathered which happens often as it turns out 🙂

        • Sarah on June 23, 2021 at 4:58 pm

          Its funny how that is. I think we likely could share a lot of similar experiences. I feel more compassionate and empathetic for it. It is incredibly painful- we had to seek trauma therapy, which sounds dramatic, but it was so deeply wounding to our spirits and souls. I had to repent and ask forgiveness for submitting my will and autonomy to man, instead of God. I realized many things, and though it was a very frigid winter, I think it was enough to open the seed he wanted to grow. God has been good, my validation now comes from Him alone and I am learning how to separate myself from codependent, enmeshed, and simply toxic relationships- even if they claim to be the bees knees of church leaders. God is wholly at work in hearts. It hurts so good.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 23, 2021 at 5:42 pm

      Sarah, Lauren here on Carey’s behalf. Thanks so much for sharing. It’s so true that while some are excited to get back to volunteering, others are feeling the pull to continue serving their families in ways they weren’t (or couldn’t) before the pandemic. The Church is meant to be a life-giving body, not another time tax for the sake of checking a box. We have work to do. So grateful for you and cheering for you.

      • Sarah on June 23, 2021 at 6:25 pm

        Thanks so much Lauren. Appreciate you all sharing healthy leadership. Its so needed!

      • Janice Ramkissoon on June 24, 2021 at 9:12 am

        Thank you for that Lauren. This is what I find missing. So many of us are experiencing wounds in the place we are meant to be receiving healing, yet when they actually weep (complain about their pain) very rarely they receive what you’ve just given. Thank you! Much appreciated.

    • Donna Covello on June 24, 2021 at 8:19 am

      Well stated Sarah 👏. It is very sad how pastors have their inner circle. When I returned back to church a few weeks ago, the only people who were in the church were the inner circle. The people who gave lots of money through stewardship, estate planning, and have setup endowments for this church.
      It’s is upsetting to me that millions of people who and still are finically struggling this church ⛪received 2 millions dollars from the Stimulus Package Bill back in 2020. The total financial statement for this church in 2020 $90,000. It was more than 2019.

      Again the decline in church attendance goes back to Bush administration. I know my comments from my previous blog was harsh but I stated by it. All the churches turned their backs on God and when and listen to the orange 🍊God for 5 years. People are not stupid.
      In terms of volunteering, I heard that a LCMS pastor from a church close by my house asked for volunteers to help clean up the lawn by pulling out the dandelions.

      Sending good and warm thoughts your way

  6. Matt on June 23, 2021 at 8:08 am

    One of the things that we are running into is that our congregation is about 75% online and 25% in-person post-COVID, despite being completely open. The congregation grew during COVID, but it grew online. So, we have a smaller number of kids (for example) coming on Sunday mornings in-person and also a smaller pool of volunteers to work with them coming as well. We lost 2/3 of our volunteers in areas like kids and hospitality when we re-opened.

    We are trying to work on recalibrating our expectations for in-person and online and what we do for those groups in regards to Sunday morning and how we staff both with the proper volunteers. It is a complete shift in thinking, but it seems to be what is needed to move forward.

    • Janice Ramkissoon on June 24, 2021 at 9:20 am

      I like your thinking Matt. Recalibrating is a necessity in this season. Thinking like that means that you’re on the right track. Keep loving, serving and moving forward. Stay blessed.

  7. Kim Hancock on June 23, 2021 at 6:40 am

    A sure way to recruit is to identify people of favor who are passionate about the areas volunteers are needed. This means people have to be known. There is nothing more compelling than being a part of a team that is making a difference. One of the worse things we can do as ministers is to come across as desperate. If that’s our stance, we’re forgetting the power of God’s spirit to draw and compel every person. Most every minister got their start as a volunteer so investing in people to help them explore how God wants to use them to make a difference, is an investment in the future of the bigger church and so much more exciting than begging people to fill a spot.

    • Bridgette Gloster on June 23, 2021 at 7:51 am

      Kim,
      I absolutely adore your comment! It is important To look at the recruiting of volunteers as an opportunity to connect people not with fulfilling the church positions but as a part of helping them to fulfill God’s mission in their lives. It is so very true! I appreciate your reflection on this article. I and so many of my colleagues are grappling with this same unexpected post-lockdown issue. Thanks!

      • Kim Hancock on June 23, 2021 at 8:43 am

        Bridgette thank you for your encouragement! I’m blown away by how the lockdown has allowed people to process what God is saying “to them”. Which is one reason people don’t want to crank back up the craziness of trying to meet every need. We (as leaders) have to be willing to listen and encourage people to follow God’s call. I just want to be grab a big ole fan and spread this type of fire! We can’t (and aren’t supposed) to create it but we can sure help it grow…by listening, providing resources/tools and getting out of their way!

        • Sarah on June 23, 2021 at 4:33 pm

          This is the type of healthy, empathetic and understanding leadership that will rebound and thrive. Thanks for your kind heart.

    • Heather on June 24, 2021 at 8:01 am

      Kim,
      Yes!! Knowing our people for sure is the key to helping them find their fit in ministry. Once upon a time someone helped ME find MY fit in ministry, and I can’t help but love helping people find where they are equipped. There’s a new tool that was just created by a church I know in Illinois that helps connect people to the opportunities to serve, and it takes less than 5 minutes. I’ve been blown away by how it enables church leadership to begin to know and understand their people and have conversations. I think there’s an overview of it at http://www.volunteeraccelerator.com. We are so ready to jump in and help our people be known.

    • Janice Ramkissoon on June 24, 2021 at 9:22 am

      I agree with you Kim.

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