Church volunteers are worth their weight in gold. How many Christmas programs, weeks of VBS, and successful church events have been pulled off only because of God’s grace and volunteers’ elbow grease? Too many to count!
Cheerful, willing church volunteers help to show that the Church is not a building. It’s a body. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:12).
So let’s take a look at how to get church volunteers, how to keep them, and how to serve faithfully.
Feel free to read from top to bottom or skip around using the links below.
- 13 tips to grow your volunteer program
- 7 church volunteer appreciation ideas
- Advice for staying joyful
Church volunteer recruitment: 13 tips to grow your volunteer program
Right now, there are people in your church who want to volunteer, but aren’t involved yet.
Some of them are waiting for the right opportunity—the role that perfectly aligns with their gifts. Others are literally just waiting to be asked.
The challenge for your staff is finding the right times to ask, the right ways to ask, and the right people to ask.
If you’re struggling to develop a solid volunteer program, here are 13 tips to help you recruit more volunteers.
1. Share opportunities in multiple ways
Announcements, newsletters, and church bulletins are great ways to tell your congregation what’s going on in your church. They let you cast a wide net and communicate with everyone at once, and you’re sure to get some of the people you need. But that shouldn’t be the only way people hear how to get involved.
Sometimes it’s better to use a fishing pole than a net.
An announcement to everyone doesn’t have the same impact on someone as a personal invitation. People want to know they’re in the right place, that they belong, and that you really are talking to them specifically. A personal invitation leaves no doubt that this opportunity is for them.
Every two weeks I lead a Bible study with high school students. When I send a group message to all of them at once, I get crickets. At best, a couple of the most actively involved kids respond. It’s only when I personally call, message, text, or talk to each kid individually that they realize I’m really inviting them and I really want them to respond to the invitation.
The big announcements are an important piece of the puzzle, but you can’t rely on those to connect with every person. Even the people who want to get involved can miss, forget about, or dismiss an announcement.
Each piece of your volunteer recruitment plan should direct people to a personal conversation with a real person.
2. Define who you’re looking for
If people don’t know what kind of person you need to fill a role, they’re less likely to believe they’re the right person for the job. If you’re desperate for volunteers, you might be tempted to let this slide, but if your goal is to develop a healthy program and get the right people in the right roles, be upfront about what it takes to succeed in a particular role.
If you need friendly extroverts who like to meet new people, ask for them specifically.
If you need someone who can focus on one task for a long time, say so.
If you need someone with experience, or if a particular skill would make someone better suited for the job, let people know.
Defining the personalities, skills, or knowledge people need to succeed will undoubtedly shrink the pool of eligible volunteers—but that’s not something to be afraid of. It means putting together a volunteer program that lasts.
The more specific you are about the type of person you need, the more likely someone in your congregation will realize, “Hey, that’s me!”
3. Explain the purpose before the task
There are lots of reasons why people volunteer. Most of them aren’t “I really like to say ‘Hi’ to strangers” or “I love the software you use.”
Before you ever get to the specific micro-level tasks a particular role entails, make sure people know why you need them to help.
“We want people to feel like they belong here before they set foot inside our doors.”
“We want every detail of our service to look thoughtfully prepared—because it’s true.”
Whether this happens from the stage, in personal conversations or in volunteer-interest meetings, don’t miss your opportunity to cast the vision for your volunteers. If they don’t understand why they’re perfectly arranging several hundred pens or folding bulletins or shaking hands, they might quit before they even start.
Share why you need volunteers, what the job is, and how to do it—in that order.
4. Make it simple to get involved
The more hurdles you put between potential volunteers and the finish line (volunteering), the fewer volunteers you’re going to have.
A strong volunteer program should be easy to get involved in. If someone checks a box in your bulletin saying they want to volunteer, someone should contact them within a couple of days to find out how they’d like to volunteer and what their schedule looks like.
Don’t place a huge burden on new volunteers—start them out with a limited schedule so the initial burden is as small as possible.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be thorough or that you shouldn’t have a vetting process for particular roles (like children’s ministry volunteers). It just means that whatever your process is, it should happen quickly, and most of the actual work should happen on your end.
If the position requires a higher level of responsibility or higher expectations for knowledge, skill, etc., that should be very clear before someone ever starts the process of trying to be a volunteer.
5. Let people try it before committing
Even if you clearly communicate what it’s like to be a volunteer, some people will still feel like they had no idea what they were getting into.
Maybe they’ve never been in a room full of third-graders before. Maybe they didn’t realize how volunteering would actually affect their schedule.
If you let people try something before they commit to doing it regularly, it’s less stressful to say, “Yes.” It also makes it easier for you to say, “No,” if you have to.
You might want people to try several different roles before they decide which one they want to do. (If you need certain roles more than others, let people know). This helps you and the volunteer to know that they are in the best possible role—which hopefully means they’ll stay longer and provide a greater benefit to your ministry.
You need volunteers you can count on regularly. Providing a volunteer “test-drive” is a great way to make sure nobody gets stuck in a role they aren’t cut out for—and it helps keep your church from getting left out to dry. It’s also an important part of preventing volunteer burnout.
6. Follow up with potential volunteers
Sometimes getting to know a potential volunteer might reveal that someone isn’t the right fit for your ministry. Sometimes, they might just not be the right fit right now. School, weddings, moving, job-hunting, and other major transitions can make it hard to commit to volunteering—but those things don’t last forever.
After getting to know a potential volunteer, you may also find that you don’t feel like they’re ready. Maybe there’s a maturity issue, or you see or hear something else that clarifies this isn’t the right time. Maybe you know about a better opportunity to use this person down the road.
Whether you make the decision or they do, take note of the people who might make good volunteers in the future. Put a date in your calendar to follow up with them.
Building relationships with the people in your congregation should never feel like a waste of time, and if you personally invest in potential volunteers, more of them will become actual volunteers.
Know the difference between “not now” and “never.”
7. Create clear expectations
The more defined a role is, the easier it is to get involved. Your volunteer program should have a solid volunteer training strategy, and every volunteer should know these three things:
- Where they need to be
- What they’re doing
- Why they’re doing it
When you “just wing it” through training new volunteers, it can make people feel like their role isn’t as important to you, your church, or your ministry. You’re also bound to miss something important. Meet with your staff and prepare everything you want your volunteers to know. This is your chance to cast the vision for what volunteering looks like in your church.
You should also make it clear what not to do. Volunteers are not the same as employees, but they absolutely represent your church, and you’re inviting them to be part of your ministry. If someone has a bad experience with one of your volunteers, they’re probably going to associate that experience with your ministry.
Put together a “code of conduct” for your volunteers. You don’t need to scare anyone or preemptively wag your finger—focus on the incredible privilege your team has, and use this opportunity to share why their role matters to your ministry.
8. Pray for volunteers
In the six years I’ve been a volunteer leader with Young Life, not one year has gone by where we didn’t take some time to reflect on (Matthew 9:37–38) and pray for more volunteers.
Invite your existing volunteers to be part of this process. They’re some of your best recruiters, and chances are they know other people who could volunteer too. Our Young Life staff gives every volunteer a card with Matthew 9:37–38 on it for us to write down names of people who could be volunteers too.
There are a lot of things you can’t control. But none of those things matter when you ask God for help and remember his sovereignty. Your passionate plea from the pulpit asking for more volunteers can only go so far. Your announcements, bulletins, and flashy videos can’t change someone’s schedule or address every excuse. But long after your words are forgotten, the Holy Spirit continues working on people’s hearts.
Prayer is the most valuable piece of your volunteer recruitment program, and the Holy Spirit is your most valuable team member.
9. Teach your church about the body of Christ
First Corinthians 12:12–31 offers a powerful picture of the diversity of the church. Each member of your congregation is unique and plays a particular role in the body of Christ. This is a passage the church can always benefit from spending more time in, but if your team is hurting for volunteers, this passage is also a great way to show people that each of us is uniquely gifted to serve a particular purpose, and each of us can benefit the entire body.
During or after a sermon on this passage, consider whether it’s appropriate to share about the opportunities available to your church. You may want to talk about some of your partner ministries and highlight some of your greatest needs.
This isn’t about guilting people into volunteering. This is about being the Church. Whether or not people are capable of volunteering, they should walk away from a teaching on 1 Corinthians 12 feeling affirmed in who they are and confident in what they’re capable of.
On the other hand, nobody should walk away from this thinking, “Volunteering is for hands, and I’m more of an eye, really.” There are plenty of very legitimate reasons for not getting involved in your volunteer program, but that’s not one of them. If you bring volunteering into the conversation, it should be clear that there is a role for everyone.
10. Help people identify their gifts
Many people have no idea what their gifts are. They don’t really know what they’re good at, or they feel like the things they’re good at don’t line up with how the church talks about “gifts” and “talents.” For some, the topic of spiritual gifts stirs up questions about their identity. Helping members of your congregation identify their gifts isn’t just valuable to your church or your volunteer program—it’s part of the process of helping people recognize who they are in Christ and seeing that they are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).
There are lots of different methods for identifying spiritual gifts, but they all come down to this: being familiar with the variety of gifts the Holy Spirit gives—and being familiar with yourself. There is no substitute for knowing the Holy Spirit and knowing the people in your church.
But not every pastor has the privilege of personally knowing every person in the church—and not every pastor has the time to evaluate spiritual gifts with every member of the congregation. If you can, try to identify volunteer roles in your church that align with each expression of the Holy Spirit, so people can easily see where they fit.
11. Appreciate the volunteers you have
Volunteer appreciation plays an important role in a healthy volunteer recruitment program. Why? Because your current volunteers are some of your biggest assets.
People are most likely to share a very positive or a very negative experience. You can’t guarantee every person will have a positive experience, but you can do your best to make sure every person knows they are valued.
Public volunteer appreciation also allows you the opportunity to show people what volunteering is like and how your church feels about its volunteers. This isn’t about providing some extravagant gift as an incentive to volunteer. It’s about showing your church that it’s an honor to be a volunteer and talking about what makes someone a good one. Highlight ways your volunteers are pointing people to Jesus, focusing on the gospel, and caring for the people in your congregation.
Any public volunteer appreciation should leave people with two thoughts:
- That’s so cool that so-and-so does that for our church.
- I wonder what I could do to help?
12. Showcase volunteer testimonies
It’s one thing when a pastor says, “Hey, you should all volunteer. I think you’ll like it.” It’s another thing when someone you know shares how much they love what they do.
When you want to draw people to a particular role, consider letting one of your volunteers share about their experience. This could be a huge growth opportunity for the volunteer, and you might find that their testimony is far more compelling than anything you could say. Help your volunteers put their experience into words. If they aren’t comfortable sharing on stage, see if filming their testimony would be more comfortable.
13. Highlight the benefits
Your volunteers’ desire to serve shouldn’t be rooted in any form of compensation. But as you probably know, volunteering can be a deeply enriching experience. Highlighting those benefits upfront can help fuel someone’s desire to serve others and be part of your ministry.
I’m not saying you should try to accommodate the person who asks,”What’s in it for me?” Highlighting the benefits of volunteering is a strategy to draw the right people into your program. People who have the motivation to stay involved for the long haul.
If a desire for better relationships with fellow church members, spiritual growth, and the satisfaction of serving others motivates someone to volunteer, they’re probably the type of person you want to have on your team.
Keeping church volunteers
7 church volunteer appreciation ideas (and the secret to making people feel valued)
I’ve been volunteering as a youth leader with Young Life for six years. Once or twice a year, one of our regular leader gatherings includes a time where volunteers are recognized for their years of service, and the community of people who support us generously provide a small gift of some kind.
It’s something simple to physically accompany the words, “Thank you.” Gift cards to the coffee shops we call home after countless hours spent in conversation with kids. A Young Life shirt, a hat, a blanket, or a mug stuffed full of candy. Vouchers for a free meal at a local restaurant or a service provided by a local business that supports the ministry of Young Life.
A couple of years ago, a friend volunteering with me was bothered by being recognized with a gift. It was too extravagant. It wasn’t fair to ask people to thank us with their money. And the gift was too impersonal to really feel like sincere gratitude. To him, the whole thing felt inauthentic, forced, and inconsiderate of the people who have already done so much to support us.
I understood how he felt, but I also believed that for these people who knew only some of the volunteers personally, the gesture was a sincere effort to show every volunteer that they genuinely support the work they do.
But my friend didn’t feel valued as a volunteer, and he hated feeling like people had a financial burden to say thank you to him.
He’s not an ungrateful person. But the thought and effort that went into the gift and the gesture of physically providing something to say thank you was lost on him. It didn’t communicate what it was intended to communicate. And unfortunately, when we use cookie-cutter formulas to show appreciation, some people are going to feel unvalued every time.
People receive love in different ways. The things that make you feel valued, respected, and cared for might not mean much to someone else. That doesn’t mean they’re ungrateful—it might just mean that they’re different from you. (It’s still totally possible that they are ungrateful, but that’s a whole other conversation.)
Like me, my friend feels more valued through words of affirmation—a note or personal conversation would’ve meant more to him than a gift ever could. My local Young Life area doesn’t by any means limit the way they thank volunteers to gifts. (They send cards and seize every opportunity to thank volunteers throughout the year in one-on-one and group meetings.) But to my friend, the build-up made the gift seem like it was supposed to be the pinnacle of thankfulness, and it fell short.
Making large groups of people feel appreciated is too complicated to try just one thing.
The bigger your church or ministry is and the more volunteers you have, the harder it is to get to know them all on a personal level—and the more important it is that each volunteer feels personally valued.
This is the only formula to make someone feel valued: get to know them.
Learn what makes them feel personally cared for, and then do that. Do lots of completely different things to appreciate them and see what sticks.
Note: one of the best indicators of how someone prefers to be appreciated is how they choose to show appreciation to others.
As you get to know your volunteers and genuinely seek to appreciate them, here are seven ideas for you to try. Full disclosure: most of these come straight from Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages series. While Chapman’s focus is on marriages, the principles apply to any personal or professional relationship that involves communicating you care about another person (so it’s pretty applicable to volunteer appreciation).
1. Acts of service
For some of your volunteers, words, gifts, and even time spent together isn’t what actually communicates that you appreciate them.
You can spend time with someone you don’t like.
You can give things to people out of obligation.
You can say things without really meaning them.
Some of your volunteers might feel most loved when people do nice things for them: give them a ride to some appointment they’re dreading, or make a meal for them when they’re stressed or busy. Help them study for that class, offer to babysit, or take care of something else that they keep putting off because they’re too busy. (My go-to is usually babysitting.)
Acts of service show people that they are worth making sacrifices for, that you’re thinking of them, and that you care about them enough to help make their lives a little easier.
If you don’t know enough about your volunteers to know what’s going on in their lives and what you can do for them, it may be time to refer to method #2.
2. Quality time
Some of your volunteers may feel most loved when someone makes a point of spending quality time with them.
Go to a movie or the park, or invite them over for dinner. Bring your families together. Find something to do where you can just hang out with the people you want to appreciate— something that says, “You’re worth spending time with.” It’s not an appointment. It’s not a meeting. And it has nothing to do with the ministry they’re involved with or the role they serve for you. It’s two people investing in a personal friendship.
When you like being around the people you serve with, the time you spend serving becomes that much more enjoyable, too.
3. Words of affirmation
This is me. I’m the guy that constantly wants to know what you think of me. My greatest fear is being misunderstood. And the single greatest thing someone can do to show me that they appreciate what I’m doing is to tell me.
When someone tells me I did a good job, it motivates me to do a good job again. When someone calls out a specific thing that they notice about me—something I did or said, how I approached a situation, or how something about me makes me well-suited to my role—it gives me the fuel I need to keep doing and saying those things to the best of my ability.
People who respond well to words of affirmation aren’t constantly looking for a pat on the head or waiting to be singled out for every little good thing they do. But when you notice someone doing an exceptional job, or faithfully and consistently serving your church or ministry in a particular way, tell them. Tell them how glad you are to have their help. If you notice specific things about them and the way they serve that role, all the better.
If your words of affirmation aren’t specific, they don’t mean as much. People can tell when you just said the same thing to four other people. Or when you don’t really know what it is they do for you.
People who respond well to words of affirmation feel cared about when you give them personal feedback. When you can identify particular ways they are succeeding or specific things they are uniquely gifted for.
I’m a writer. And my wife is always looking for new ways to encourage me to keep writing.
The best way she can encourage me is to read things I write and say something about them. It’s specific and personal from someone who knows me and understands why I write. That personal affirmation is all I need to feel like what I’m doing matters.
The best way to encourage your volunteers who respond to words of affirmation is to get to know them, look at the things they are doing well, and say something about them.
For some people, a thoughtful gift says “I appreciate you” in a meaningful way. It shows that you were thinking of them when you weren’t with them, and that you care about them enough to spend time and/or money on them. Whether it’s a treat you baked or a gift card you chose, it communicates that you notice them and the work they do. Like words of affirmation (and really, all of these ideas), the more personal or thoughtful your gift is, the more valued it makes someone feel.
A personal gift that cost you nothing can sometimes do more to communicate your appreciation than one that cost you (or your donors) a fortune.
5. Cast the vision
Nobody likes to feel like what they’re doing doesn’t really make a difference. If your role is small and you don’t feel like it matters, it’s a lot easier to leave it behind.
Show your volunteers why what they’re doing matters.
This can go hand-in-hand with words of affirmation, but it’s worth covering in volunteer training, too. Everyone who volunteers for your church should know how their role contributes to your church’s mission, makes your services the best they can be, and ultimately points people to Jesus.
6. Honor their time
Every time they show up to a meeting, training, practice, or event, your volunteers are sacrificing things to be with you. They’re giving up time with friends and family. Time doing the things that help them recover from a long day at work and the wear and tear of life. Some of your volunteers would rather be meeting with you than at home doing something else. But some of them would rather be home—or would like to get home as soon as possible. They’re here because they care about your ministry, they recognize their part in what you’re doing, and they know that boring or time-consuming meetings are often a necessary part of doing things we enjoy.
Show your volunteers that you appreciate what they do by honoring their time.
A couple of years ago, I was with a group of team leaders discussing how long our volunteer meetings would be for the upcoming year. Some of our volunteers wanted to spend more time together to get to know each other better. Others felt like we already spent so much time together, and asking them to take off another hour for an informal social time was going to be a struggle. The compromise? We established an optional hour for dinner and hanging out before the “official” meeting started (which always lasted at least two hours anyways).
We absolutely wanted to encourage people to get to know each other better and to spend more time together, but we didn’t want that to come at the cost of losing (or discouraging) volunteers who already felt stretched too far for time.
How much you emphasize honoring people’s time will completely depend on the makeup of your team, but it’s important to recognize what people are giving up to be with you. Show them that you appreciate what they are already doing enough that you aren’t going to take up more of their time than you have to.
You don’t have to cancel all your meetings and shush all small talk. Honoring your volunteers’ time can be as simple as starting and ending on time, being where you’ve asked them to meet you before they arrive, and not letting your meetings have long gaps where nothing is happening.
Clearly communicate any changes to the schedule in more than one way. Don’t just send an email—if people aren’t used to getting last-minute schedule changes from you, they may not even check their email. Make sure someone has established contact with each person on your team so that nobody shows up when they don’t have to. As you get to know your volunteers, you’ll get to know the best ways to reach them at the last minute (which hopefully doesn’t happen very often).
7. Help them grow
As your volunteers give more of their time to your ministry, they should experience personal growth—or know what they need to do to experience it. This could be closely tied to #5: as they understand more about why their role matters to the ministry, they can grow in their understanding of how God uses them in the lives of others. Help them connect the dots between what they’re doing and what God is doing.
When you meet together, challenge your volunteers to try specific things that could help them grow personally and in their role.
Give your greeters better tools for starting conversations or something to reflect on while they meet new people.
Give your tech volunteers freedom to experiment or try new things (I’d start with a controlled setting), or a more experienced person they can work alongside and learn from.
Give your worship team members the opportunity to share something they’ve been learning or reflecting on lately—with the team or the congregation.
The specific growth opportunities available to your volunteers completely depends on your church. But for most roles, some of the biggest things that will help volunteers experience personal growth are mentors and community. If you don’t have the capacity to personally walk alongside your volunteers, find someone (or a group of someones) who has the time and energy to invest in the people that serve with you. Help them recognize their potential and show them they are worth investing time in and developing a personal relationship with.
With respect to #6, giving your team opportunities to get to know each other can go a long way toward personal growth and ultimately feeling valued.
Know your volunteers
Even the most thorough vetting process doesn’t do much to help you get to know someone. And the bottom line is, if you want your volunteers to feel valued, you have to know them on an individual level. Being on a first-name basis isn’t good enough (but it’s definitely a start).
And if you’re looking at this list thinking, “I don’t have time to do any of these things,” maybe it’s time to bring someone on board who can. Who knows, maybe someone will volunteer?
Advice for staying joyful (from volunteers who’ve been there, done that, and maybe gotten a t-shirt)
Good advice can save you heaps of trouble (when you remember to follow it, of course). And the best advice comes from people who’ve been in the trenches, who’ve fought the same battles you’re facing now or will face eventually.
So Faithlife asked pastors and volunteers for one piece of advice they’d want others to know. They offered pearls of wisdom you can share with your volunteers or pull out yourself when you’re having a rough day.
Short & sweet
Take time for personal devotions every day. —Herbert B.
Be genuine and authentic. —Josephine J.
Love your flock, love your flock, love your flock. —Jared B.
Remember Jesus died for people, even the difficult ones. —Marilyn B.
Forgive as you’ve been forgiven… —Enrique H.
Communication. Early and often. —Kyle W.
How to get everything to work out
It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about Jesus and his kingdom. Get that right, and everything else will generally work itself out. —Ben S.
Be all in. If your heart isn’t in it, it’s reflected in your work. If you work in the children’s program, show up 15 min early and love those babies like they’re your own. —Laura P.
Prayer & remembrance
Ask God to help you to be more like Jesus, to be selfless and to lay our lives down for others. I found it helpful to understand that God doesn’t owe me anything. What he has already done for me and given me is sufficient. —Mark E.
Encouragement (& eating ice cream)
Don’t go at it alone. Also, we’re in desperate need for servants of the Lord, so don’t be discouraged. Also, if your health allows, stop every now and then and eat ice cream.
Serve because you want to. Serve with “Joy” (Jesus, others, yourself). With Christ as our center, the joy of our Lord is obvious and radiates in our service to our heavenly Father, to the Church and to others.
- Psalm 119:111
I have your decrees as a heritage forever; indeed, they are the joy of my heart.
- Galatians 5:13
For you, my brothers, were called to freedom; only do not let your freedom become an opportunity for the sinful nature (worldliness, selfishness), but through love serve and seek the best for one another.
- Luke 10:27
And he replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
—J. W. W.
Finding & not fearing
Find the gift that God has given you and link arms with the body of Christ and be part of the body of Christ. God has gifted everyone. FEAR NOT! —Sharon U.
What to do & not do
Do not forgo your daily prayer, Word intake and reflection/meditation/journaling (whatever you call it). Learn when to say no. Too many volunteers are doing too much. Don’t overextend. Do one or two things really well—it’s better than doing 10 things poorly. —Mike J.
Serve from the power of the Spirit
Be led and directed by the Holy Ghost. Anything done on your own is flesh and accomplishes nothing. —Justin T.
Don’t get offended when people are abrupt or critical. Take the opportunity to show grace. —Corinne O.
What it’s all about
When volunteering, remember that it’s not about what you want to do but where the need is and what God wants to do through you. —Steve R.
Once you’ve got your church volunteers and you’re on the path to keeping them, what’s next? Training is a huge part, and the faster and easier it is, the sooner your volunteers will feel comfortable helping out.
The introduction and conclusion of this article were written by Mary Jahnke, along with advice for church volunteers. Ryan Nelson wrote about church volunteer recruitment and volunteer appreciation ideas.