I recently conducted an online poll asking church leaders to name the top 2 or 3 challenges they are currently facing in ministry. With 110 votes, out of 346 total, recruiting volunteers was identified as the #1 problem ministry leaders are trying to solve.  

Now, for those in church leadership, this doesn’t come as a surprise. In my nearly 20 years of ministry, this has always been a constant struggle.

Most of us are familiar with the 80/20 rule, also known as Pareto's Principle. Pareto was an Italian economist who observed that 20 percent of your input accounts for 80 percent of your results. In the church world, we frame it this way, 20% of your church members do 80% of the work. This obviously isn’t a hard rule but it is usually in the ballpark of reality.

If this is a nearly universal problem, what can we do about it? How do we change the narrative and encourage greater ministry involvement from our congregations?

A New Paradigm

I’m not going to answer these questions. Instead, I’m going to borrow a move right out of the Jesus Playbook and ask you a question.

Rather than asking “how do we recruit more volunteers?” it’s time to ask, “how well are we stewarding the volunteers we have?”

In Matthew 25:14–30, Jesus tells a story of a master who leaves on business. In his absence, he has entrusted his affairs to be managed by his 3 servants. Two of the servants were faithful and experienced success. The third was afraid of his master and did nothing. When the master returns, the first 2 servants are rewarded for their faithfulness and the third is rebuked.

This is ultimately a story of stewardship. Those who are faithful with little will be trusted with much. Inversely, those who are not faithful with little, will not be trusted with more. Perhaps our lack of volunteers has less to do with our recruiting strategy and more to do with how we are stewarding our current volunteers.

How well are you stewarding?   

1. How are you engaging your volunteers?

With this question, I’m referring to engaging the many spiritual gifts within the body. In most churches, the two most public volunteer positions are on the worship team and teaching in the classroom (or small group). I once had a church member ask me, “I don’t sing and I can teach…is there any place for me to serve?” We need to do a better job engaging people with ALL gifts and abilities, not just the two obvious ones.

2. How are you encouraging your volunteers?

One of the worse things is when a volunteer quits because he/she feels unseen or undervalued. Encouraging and appreciating our volunteers is simple but so often neglected. Yet, this is one of the most important factors in retaining volunteers. Leaders must be intentional and systematic to ensure that all volunteers know they are loved and a valuable part of the ministry of your church.

3. How are you equipping your volunteers?

There have been a few times in my life when I’ve been asked to serve in a particular role but never received the education or training necessary to be successful. Those were difficult and challenging times. No one likes to be thrown into chaos without a life vest. In his letter to the church of Ephesus, Paul instructs church leaders that a key component of their leadership is to equip the saints (church members) for ministry. Equipping our volunteers is not optional. It is an essential part of our duties as good leaders.

4. How are you empowering your volunteers?

Early in my ministry, I made the mistake of trying to recruit volunteers to serve in MY ministry. I needed people to fulfill MY goals and help ME achieve success. This is not good leadership, nor is it biblical. The reality is, rather than recruiting volunteers to serve in our ministry, we need to be empowering people for their ministry. In the same passage referenced above, Paul reminds church leaders that every member is a minister. Peter writes in his Epistle that believers are a “royal priesthood.” We are not recruiting volunteers to simply fill spots but we are empowering God’s people to minister as God has called them to do.  

5. How are you inspiring your volunteers?

This last question was difficult to write, primarily because I couldn’t find an appropriate word that started with an “E”. A better Baptist would have been successful. But I digress. People serve, not because there is a need, but because they have an opportunity to make a difference. This is why asking for help in the bulletin or from the stage is one of the least effective ways of recruiting volunteers. Every volunteer should know that their role is important to the mission of the church. We inspire our volunteers when we remind them that every job, every task, and every act of love is a necessary part of the ministry of the church.

A New 80/20 Rule

In a video to church leaders, Allyson Evans of Life.Church encourages leaders to follow the 80/20 rule. She says, “spend 80% of your time developing your current volunteers. When you do that, they are going to find all of your new volunteers.” The Life.Church 80/20 rule simply recommends spending 80% of your time developing current volunteers and only 20% of your time recruiting new volunteers. It sounds counterintuitive. Yet, we know from the Parable of the Talents that those who will be faithful with little can be trusted with much. Be a good steward of those God has brought under your care. Lead them well and see how God provides!