How do we get more volunteers involved in the church
August 13, 2008 11:03 AM   Subscribe

Posting for a friend: She needs help getting volunteers to help out with various church functions.

My friend is the volunteer coordinator at a local church (Catholic if that matters). She also does admin and logistics for the church and various events.

They need help getting volunteers at all levels from simple things like doing readings or being an usher at mass all the way up to organizing events. The goal is around 1-5 hours per week from people who commit but they have trouble finding more than 2 ushers for some Sunday services with attendance of 700-800 even after opening it to youths (14+)

She is hoping for any kind of help she can get, something like a slogan (Make our church your church?), marketing method, pep talk or anecdotes to encourage participation from the 4000+ registered parishioners.

Some other useful points:
*Volunteer activities are typically completed by a small core of super-involved individuals (who apparently do not alienate/discourage new volunteers)
*New volunteers do not remain involved for long periods of time, typically more responsive to being assigned very specific tasks instead of broader roles
*Other churches in the community face similar problem finding/retaining productive volunteers

Have any of you faced this type of issue? What strategy have you used at home/work/volunteering to drum up support and involvement? How can my friend improve involvement from people who already spend 1-2 hours per week of going to mass?
posted by KevCed to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know that this is happening at your friend's church but one problem we had was getting the people who actually had the most free time to volunteer. I'm talking about the retirees.

It was like when they retired from work they dropped everything. I always suspected that it just wasn't clear to them that the people they thought should take care of church related work (the younger non-retired members) were also holding jobs, raising families and likely to become burned out.

If your friend is seeing the same thing I suggest trying to find a way to tap that group. May finding a way of reminding the retirees how busy their lives were twenty or so years ago compared to today.
posted by Carbolic at 11:34 AM on August 13, 2008

Has the pastor been doing a volunteer pitch from the pulpit, either during announcements (before dismissal) or incorporating an ask into his homily? In a parish of 4000+ members (which is probably over a thousand families, honestly), there's probably a constituency of folks who just need to be encouraged by the man in the collar at the front of the room.

Alternately, my Catholic volunteer organization has had relatively good success by empowering volunteers to do volunteer recruitment themselves. Have that "small core" of volunteers extend out a bit into their networks to ask their friends and the people who sit near them during church to participate. Your friend may need to help them develop a rap and an ask, but we've found that the personal ask from a fellow "person in the pew" can work really well.

We call it "Leadership Development Ministry," and it has a pretty good success and retention rate, but it takes time to develop.
posted by elmer benson at 11:36 AM on August 13, 2008

Does her church have Sunday school or other gatherings that break the congregation into groups? If so, it might help for her to speak to each group, explain what her needs are, that sort of thing--make a personal appeal.

As a lifelong church-goer, I've found that many people avoid formal service positions out of the fear that they'll be stuck doing that job for the rest of their lives. I've known people who were asked to sub for a sick Sunday school teacher and were still teaching the same class 17 years later. Your friend might want to put together a rolling roster or develop some kind of system where volunteers aren't "on" all the time.

Also, she should seek out the college-aged, newly graduated, and young marrieds (between 19 and mid-30s). These groups can feel marginalized from the congregation as a whole and often respond very well to personal requests for greater involvement. It's interesting that in church you may have a group that desperately seeks assistance and can't find any volunteers, while on the other side of the sanctuary is another group of people that desperately wants to be involved and can't find opportunities.

In short, tell her not to give up! Sorry for the length; feel free to send me a private message if you like.
posted by orrnyereg at 11:40 AM on August 13, 2008

How our church handles it is they have folks sign up for a specific period of time-no longer than say, four to six months. At the end of that time, their commitment is over. If they wish to continue that is fine, but there is no obligation to whatsoever.

We also make it clear that folks will be trained and not just thrown into things.
posted by konolia at 11:52 AM on August 13, 2008

My teenhood church volunteer organization actively targeted the other groups in the church. If it's a church of 700-800 people, then I'll bet dollars to donuts that there are Youth Groups, Young Singles Groups, Couple's Bible Study, "Single Silvers" or another type of Elderly bible study/social group, etc. etc. Our volunteer coordinator would meet with each group every few months or so and really pitch the importance of giving back the the church. She'd offer specific events that they'd be interested in and have schedules and sign-up charts.

It's inevitable that 75% of the volunteer work will be done by the same group of people - the trick is to fill the other slots and find new volunteers to join the group as others leave.
posted by muddgirl at 12:01 PM on August 13, 2008

I would nth the suggestion to speak with the pastor of the church about making an announcement of some kind. I listened to a sermon as a kid about the importance of tithing, not only of cash to the church; but, also of yourself to the community. I think of that sermon anytime I help a friend, volunteer in the community, mow the sick neighbor's lawn, etc.

Perhaps a volunteer campaign could be built around tithing time?
posted by wg at 12:59 PM on August 13, 2008

Best answer: Your friend is not having a unique church experience; my lutheran church has 5% of the members but has the same problems. There is always going to be a small core group that is supper involved, there is always going to be people who don't want to get involved, and there's always going to be problems with retention. Is your friend making the mistake in thinking that, if she merely makes an announcement, the individuals will come? You can't wait for people to come to you because they won't come: you have to come to them. And you know what happens when you go to them? They sign up and they show up. And how do I know this?

I am one of those suckers who will say yes when asked to volunteer for something.

My guess is your friend's church is full of people like me, she just needs to be proactive and reach out for them. Go to every individual and ask. Is there a meet/great fellowship time after church? Does she have access to member's phone numbers? She should go to individuals and ask them to perform specific tasks. When our church needed cruifers, they went to specific people and asked them to volunteer. Some wavered, some heehawed, but, after a few weeks, all four new cruifers accepted the position. Slogans are nice, sermons are better but nothing beats being proactive and asking people, repeatedly, if they would like to volunteer for a specific task.
posted by Stynxno at 1:14 PM on August 13, 2008

Best answer: I think this is a common church problem- I know it has been at all the churches I've ever gone to. Some thoughts I have on the issue:

*Maybe finding a way of reminding the retirees how busy their lives were twenty or so years ago compared to today. - I don't think that's a great idea (for etiquette reasons alone- "Your life is empty beacuse you're old, be an usher"). Nobody should be guilted into getting involved- the church is first and foremost a place for people to pursue their spiritual needs. Invite, do not pressure. Prioritizing what needs to be done will help cut down on the race for volunteers- maybe one person would like to do all the readings every week, maybe you don't need 8 ushers if all you can find is 2, maybe things that nobody wants to do can be done without. Don't let the quest to fill roles rollover the feelings of people- the people are most important, not the work.

*Volunteer activities are typically completed by a small core of super-involved individuals (who apparently do not alienate/discourage new volunteers) - keep your eye on this. Every church has martyrs, who love to drone on about how miserable they under the mountain of work they're hurt if no one asks them to do. Most of the rest of us don't want to be that person, and it can discourage people from getting involved at all. At the very least, it's important for someone to run around reminding people that they can get involved at their own level (at my church, the pastor does this).

*Recruit mini-recruiters. Get your friendliest, most involved people involved in bringing in new folks- put one of the ushers in finding other ushers, a choir member in charge of recruiting new choir members, etc. They'll be better about spotting those who are interested. I also think those visitor cards in the pews that have a place where people can mark where they'd like to help can be helpful if the cards are given to the right people and followed up on- I've certainly filled out things like that and never heard back from someone, which is odd. Don't let anyone fall through the cracks.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:19 PM on August 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you pass around a collection plate at some point in the service you could put a signup sheet in with it or pass a clipboard around with it. Some people might be more able to give time than money and might realize that's another way to give back to the church.

Also having a permanent signup sheet at a popular gathering place in the church (entry way, sunday school rooms, etc) could help it to be a more visible need.
posted by Craig at 1:29 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been in the church my whole life and this is a challenge always and everywhere and the situation you describe - a small group doing 90%+ of the work - is par for the course.

Although the core group doesn't necessarily alienate new participants, I do think it can contribute to the problem by simply always doing stuff that needs doing, often without being asked. People get used to the idea that things will just be taken care of. These people have to be encouraged to think about delegating and to ask "how can we assign this work" rather than just immediately taking it on without discussion.

I've been in churches where they just assign things. You basically tell people on a regular basis, everybody takes a turn on a helping team, send around a sign-up sheet and then give people advance notice (you'll be assisting worship in February and August and so forth). Of course, people can dodge this if they like, just not sign up or never be available for their assignments, but in practical terms most people actually just go along. You have to be careful not to over-assign, and respect people who can't deal with public reading or so forth. You still need your core group to run teams, but this method worked better for everyday needs like ushering, passing the plate, assisting communion, etc. than anything else I've seen. The main downside is that it is a method that might discourage some visitors or new members from returning, and of course you can't mandate higher-impact stuff like Sunday School duty.

It helps to prep people by inventorying interests on a regular basis - passing around sheets to turn in asking what sorts of areas they might be interested in serving for. It's a low-barrier response with no specific commitment, so it can be a foot in the door, but of course you can't assume every response will translate into real volunteering. Having some services with a volunteering theme can help - reiterate a message through the service and make soliciting help an activity in or after the service. It's good to have volunteer leaders discuss needs during announcements prior to worship. It's good to talk to the congregation about what the church is doing and why it matters (especially important with community-service oriented volunteering needs).

The main thing is that you have to ask. You have to ask specific people to do specific stuff, and you have to ask and ask and ask. You have to cold-call people or collar them in church and ask them to do stuff. The need for help has to be reiterated in church over and over again. People who do help need to be thanked and encouraged and asked to help again. Only a small percentage of people ever become self-motivated volunteers. But many people when asked to help with something specific will do it if they can manage it logistically.
posted by nanojath at 2:01 PM on August 13, 2008

Best answer: I'm not a churchgoer, but I have experience in harnessing volunteers for various projects. Here is what I've found to be the recipe for success:

1) Define the overall areas you need help with. For example: Events, Communications, Fundraising, Community Service etc.

2) Take your core team of super-involved people and assign one person to be the lead of each area (obviously taking into account their areas of expertise, experience and interest). This will become your 'steering committee' (or whatever you want to call it). This step is vital because it gives each member a feeling of real responsibility and commitment and it also defines their area of involvement. It is very helpful to have a Chair - someone who is not assigned to any one area but is a resource and arbitrer for all (and possibly in charge of budgets).

3) Have each lead come up with and prioritize a workload. For example, for Communications you could choose to focus on a newsletter, a website, fliers, phonelists.

4) Once each lead has, say, 3 projects identified, pull together a preliminary roster of volunteers (I call these first-level volunteers). Contact these volunteers and let them choose an area to be involved with, and within that, a specific project.

5) Next step is to further advertise exactly what you need help with. Have your leads and first-level volunteers reach out to their contacts, set up rosters, include in sermons - I'm sure there are good church-specific ways to do this, but the key is to make it as specific as possible. It's a lot easier to get people to commit to 'bake 5 cakes for the cake sale' than 'help with fundraising'.

6) Make sure Leads keep a list of everyone who has helped with a particular project. Not only should they all receive a thank you, but they are your first go-to list for your next project, even if only to recommend someone else who may be able to help.

Good luck!
posted by widdershins at 2:05 PM on August 13, 2008

One really simple (and almost embarrassingly effective) method is to make a bigger, more public show of appreciating the folks who do volunteer. Ask the pastor/priest to pray for and/or thank those who have recently volunteered, by name, during the Sunday service/mass or to "commission" their volunteer service at the end of the service/mass. Commissioning folks publicly has the added benefit of peer pressure—your whole church knows you committed to help out, so now you can't not show up.
posted by UrbanEconomist at 2:07 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I want to thank you all for your thoughtful answers so far. The suggestions so far are amazing. I'm will discuss these with her and let her pick the best answer(s).

Thanks again AskMe!
posted by KevCed at 2:28 PM on August 13, 2008

Best answer: Pretty much my whole family has volunteered at our church. I don't think any of ever thought of volunteering. But we were each asked, one-on-one, at various times if we'd volunteer for something specific, and it was hard to say no. One day our priest told me after mass that he was trying to start a youth group, and needed some people to help lead it, wondering if I might be willing to help out. So I agreed to try it, mostly because I had no idea what else to say. (I ended up enjoying it!) Then they asked my dad and I if we'd be interested as serving as ushers a couple times a month, and we agreed. And then someone told my mom that they thought she'd be a good lector, and asked if she'd give it a try.

We'd all sat through multiple masses where they talked about how we really need people to stand up and volunteer, but none of us did. But it was hard for us to say no when asked one-on-one. (Of course, be reasonable here: asking a couple people if they'll help is effective, and makes it seem like a special honor/distinction. Accosting everyone you can after mass with a script about how you need them isn't going to work.) But you can maybe pick one or two people who you see every week that you think might be good at something, and ask them. And get the people currently doing those jobs to do the same.

While I'm sure there are plenty of people who won't volunteer out of laziness or selfishness or whatever else, I think a big part of it is just that most people don't even think of themselves as volunteers. Our priest talked about the need for ushers (etc.) many times, and how Jesus calls each and every one of us to volunteer to serve in the church, and I sat there thinking, "He's right, we need more ushers to volunteer. Maybe that guy in front of me should be an usher. Why isn't he volunteering?" I just never thought of myself as a volunteer until someone asked me directly.

I think the other half is that I never really knew much about how things worked. There were always ushers and lectors and organists and cantors. I never really thought about who they were or how they'd been chosen. So I do think the bit about trying to take time to publicly thank the existing volunteers might help reinforce that they're ordinary church-goers, just like everyone else, but they stepped up to help. And oh, we need more of them, so ask them after mass about how to sign up to help.

In the public pitches, you might also stress that (a) no experience is necessary, and (b) there's no obligation to do it forever. Just saying it probably won't be enough, but I think it breaks down the big, scary, "What do I know about being an usher? And what if I don't like it... I'll be stuck doing this forever. Best to just stay away."

Oh, and a ludicrous idea that might just work: make it a competition. Catholic Idol: who makes the best lector? The winner gets an opportunity to serve as one of the church's lectors!
posted by fogster at 3:32 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In my experience, people are much more likely to respond to a direct personal request than a blanket invitation. Sign-up sheets are great if you already have an active volunteer pool - they're just a way of distributing the tasks. But if you need to recruit volunteers? Ask people on an individual basis if they'll take on a specific task. It's a lot more work for the volunteer coordinator but it's also 1) a lot more flattering to the individual asked to contribute and 2) a lot harder for them to say no.
posted by zanni at 12:59 PM on August 14, 2008

Response by poster: I am following-up on behalf of my friend. She has tried many of the strategies at one time or another. I think her decision is to use the core of volunteers to ask members of the parish directly (i.e. one-on-one) to help out with specific tasks with finite time scopes. Her hope is that this will reduce the workload and draw people into volunteering for other activities (based on Fogster's experience)

Thank you once again for your thoughtful responses.
posted by KevCed at 12:04 PM on August 24, 2008

I'm late to the party here, but I had a few thoughts to share. My background is Latter-day Saint (a.k.a. Mormon), where the church's functioning is overwhelmingly dependent on volunteers.

First of all, I have to say that this:
*Volunteer activities are typically completed by a small core of super-involved individuals (who apparently do not alienate/discourage new volunteers)
*New volunteers do not remain involved for long periods of time, typically more responsive to being assigned very specific tasks instead of broader roles
*Other churches in the community face similar problem finding/retaining productive volunteers

sounds pretty familiar. You've got some people who have a vision of their place in the church, serving others, and a lot more people who are agreeable but don't have the vision, and neither your parish nor your community is really unusual in that regard. I wish it were otherwise; it should be easier for us all to remember that God, who bought us with his own body and blood, may reasonably require more of us than a couple hours' passive attendance on Sunday. But the natural man is forgetful, and we all forget it. Not unusual.

What does strike me as unusual is this: 4000 parishoners?! By my experience that is a huge group. Over in Mormondom we'd have that divided (geographically) into six to twelve congregations for weekly meetings, and you'd only ever see all 4000 in one place a couple of times a year. And I think that's appropriate. Consider the 'monkeysphere' concept: You've got a limited capacity to relate to people as individuals, build 100 to 200 relationships and you're maxed out. But you get a much better payoff for serving those people, because you're able to really care about them, and you serve them more often in a permanent small group than in a large one. That's theory, but it matches my experience in different-sized congregations. So if there's some way you can regularly get those parishoners together more locally, even if it's only dividing the parish in quarters and having each quarter get together for potluck and ice cream on a different week of the month, you'll see some benefits.

(It is possible to divide your people too far. It does take 80 members, minimum, to fully staff a Latter-day Saint congregation. But (a) you're a long ways from that problem, and (b) although it's tough with 80, it's also a ton of fun when everyone's the monkeysphere and everyone's the core.)

The strategy of using the core to invite the periphery to serve is a great one. People respond to personal relationships and interactions, much better than to big anonymous calls from the pulpit; and your core people are the perfect resource to issue those invitations. Effectively, you're making them coordinators, a bigger job in keeping with their greater involvement, and freeing up the smaller jobs for those who need them.

So ideally, your core people should always be developing new friendships with others, and introducing people to one another, and then when it comes time to ask someone to volunteer they have the social capital to say, "Here's what we need to do for our other parishoners, and here's how we are doing it, will you help out?" The "will you" bit is a little bit scary and enormously necessary, because the natural man is also prone to answer every request, "Sure, if I feel like it," and "will you" disables that.

You can think of the buildup to Christian service as a pyramid: The broad base that supports it is the strength of relationships among people, and between people and God (and any other base, such as guilt or fear, will eventually crumble). The middle section that joins it together is the shared vision of whatever you hope to accomplish. The pointed "will you" question is, of course, the top; it's focused and specific and small, but it completes what underlies it, for commitment is not merely the end of talk but the beginning of action.

And then it turns out that "beginning of action," "shared vision," and "strength of relationships" are really code words for faith, hope, and love. Good luck, and God bless you.
posted by eritain at 10:44 AM on August 29, 2008

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