Where Did Our Volunteers Go?

By Erica Baron

empty chairs in a room

We have talked to many congregations recently reporting that they don’t have enough volunteers to fill open board and committee roles. We don’t expect this to change anytime soon

— and that might not be bad.

UU congregations in the last century — largely white, middle- and upper-class — benefited from volunteer time available in households where only one adult worked outside the home. Today, working Americans of all classes and races have less discretionary time. But the volunteer structures in our congregations have not shifted much, if at all. We’ve been getting along on the volunteerism of retirees and working people scrounging time for it rooted in their dedication and love. But our structures are increasingly unbalanced, and unsustainable.

The collapse of this way of structuring our congregations really began at least 25 years ago. If you have served on leadership development or nominating committees, maybe you’ve felt the pinch. Maybe you’ve sat with the church directory calling the same people over and over; downplaying the commitment required to get someone to say yes; decreasing the size of committees and boards. Many churches have been patching it together until…


One effect of the pandemic has been a reckoning with how we spend our time. You've probably heard of the "Great Resignation" or "Big Quit." Large numbers of people have been leaving the workforce due to caretaking responsibilities that their jobs cannot — or will not — accommodate. Or because they realize they don’t want to do work that feels meaningless, pays inadequately, or treats employees as things, not people. Or as a rejection of the narrative that our value comes from our productivity.

The "quit" is happening in volunteerism, too — perhaps more so since leaving a volunteer position tends to have gentler consequences.

Many feel pushed past their breaking point: parents trying to manage at-home schooling while still working; folks caring for elderly friends and family while still trying to make a living; workers moving through degrees of crisis but never beyond it. And of course, so many of us who have felt wave after wave of personal and collective grief. No amount of cajoling may entice these folks to take on volunteer jobs — especially ones that don’t feel compellingly meaningful to them.

Meanwhile, the retirees who have been getting us through continue to age. They are also exhausted from these Covid years. We hear the plea from lay leaders in their 70s’, 80s’, and 90’s — “We’ve been doing this for a very long time. Where are the people to hand it off to?”

So now what?!

  • More Doing, Less Discussing

We know both from research and experience that people are more likely to commit to projects or tasks than to committees, and that people are more likely to give their time if the work feels personally meaningful. People with a call to serve crave more of a direct ministry experience, and less of a prolonged process of decision making and permission granting. Can we accommodate more flexibility in our structures? What might emerge for us with fewer monthly meetings on the calendar?

  • Yours, Mine, And Ours

Making a shift away from standing committees and toward more direct opportunities to serve may mean only a few key staff or volunteers help track the ministry works taken on by members and ensure there is good communication between governance and programs. What would it look like to have a smaller group of us focus on and equipping our people for direct ministry? How do we ensure clear communication and faithful decision making?

  • Centering In Gifts

We know that people come alive when their volunteering taps their unique gifts. Centering in Gifts is a practice of Spiritual Leadership. “Gifts” are those things we do naturally; that bring us joy; the things we can’t not do. What if we stop asking “Where are the volunteers for the X Committee?” and asked instead, “What gifts do our people long to bring to the world and how can we equip each other to deliver them?”

Our pre-covid volunteer structures are ending but that makes way for our creation of new, emergent, faithful, embodied ways of being Beloved Community, if we are willing to risk faithfully and learn with each other.

About the Author

Erica Baron

Rev. Erica Baron joined the New England region staff in 2019, focusing on helping congregations live into their missions and develop their gifts for spiritual leadership. Before joining the Congregational Life staff, she served as parish minister for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the...


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