Volunteers are the lifeblood of our congregations. They fill our committees, lead our small groups, cut the grass, and run our canvasses. A constant stream of them flows through all aspects of church life.
That is, if we ask the right people.
If we don't ask the right people then the flow slows to a trickle and finding willing volunteers becomes a chore. At that point, many congregational leaders, faced with rejection, often find it easier to do a task ourselves, courting burnout.
Some congregations have confronted this problem by creating a position called volunteer coordinator: a person whose job it is to anticipate the need for volunteers, determine who is able—and willing—to do a job, and in some cases, help line them up.
At West Hills Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship, Portland, OR (164 members), that person is Rosie Hamilton. Hamilton is a paid volunteer coordinator, a position that an increasing number of congregations are adopting. Because West Hills is lay-led, she performs some office functions as well, but one of the things that she does that members appreciate most is recruit many volunteers, including committee chairs. She acknowledges that when she first took the position four years ago, fellowship members were afraid she would "pressure" them into committee work. That doesn't happen, she says.
Hamilton keeps records on the skills and interests of members. Then, when a committee opening comes up or someone is needed to help with a work party or a pledge drive, she goes to her computer and calls people with those interests. If a committee chair wants to do his or her own recruiting, she supplies them with names of likely candidates.
She says that when committee chairs had to fill their own committees they often ended up with only one or two members, because they hated to call people. "So when I give them five or six members they're thrilled." She also brings in new people to prevent the veterans from burning out.
At the UU Congregation of the Susquehanna Valley, Northumberland, PA (102), an unpaid coordinator provides names of prospective volunteers to committee chairs, who then make their own calls.
Chris Smith and Elizabeth Koski are cochairs of the Volunteer Support Committee at the Michael Servetus UU Fellowship, Vancouver, WA (227), which has embarked on a long-range plan to streamline committee work.
The committee and others in the congregation are writing a how-to manual so that new chairs know what's expected. For instance, for the annual homecoming barbecue, the committee worked up a detailed list of what is required to put it on, including how to publicize it and how to scale it back if enough volunteers don't step forward.
The congregation's shared ministry plan requires that volunteers be encouraged, educated, supported, and celebrated.
Each September, January, and June, the committee inserts a congregational survey in the order of service for three consecutive Sundays to identify potential volunteers.
The committee anticipates the need for volunteers and advertises for them months in advance. That works for some jobs, but the committee found that filling leadership roles requires personal contact. The committee also reviews a portion of the membership list each month, Smith says, "to talk about where people are in their lives and whether we can involve them in deeper participation or whether they should be protected to prevent burnout."