So you are a leader in your congregation and you are having a difficult time finding volunteers for the XYZ committee. You feel like you’ve tried everything – advertising in the newsletter, asking people directly, but still, it is the same few folks who say “Yes” and they are getting burned out. You are worried about what the future might hold. You wonder: Is your congregation alone in this struggle?
Absolutely not. Many congregations are struggling with this same issue. And there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. So let’s take a few minutes to look at why congregations are struggling, and then look at a few possibilities to think about.
There are three primary reasons why the volunteer landscape is not as lush as it once was: time, commitment, and relevance. Once upon a time, long ago, many congregations could rely on a stable volunteer force: stay at home mothers. They ran the church – from volunteering in the church office, to religious education classrooms, to music/membership/worship committees and so on. But in these days where many families have two working parents, this is no longer a viable source of volunteers (and indeed, it hasn’t been for quite a while). Parents, in particular, are pulled in many different directions as their children’s sports, music, art, and academic enrichment programs keep them hopping each evening. When families can barely find time to eat dinner together once a week, how can we expect them to make time for a 2+ hour committee meeting? Many of our congregations are still structured in a way that depends on exactly these folks and we find that the same people who were volunteering when their children were young thirty (or so) years ago are still the go-to volunteers when it comes to operating the church today.
Combined with a lack of time, many congregants today are also struggling with making the commitment to an ongoing volunteer position. We see this in the way they pledge, as well. Many people don’t want others to rely on them in case they (or a family member) gets sick and needs care, or if their work schedule changes, or if they’ve just had a rough week and need a night off. In their minds, it is better to not make the commitment than it is to let someone down. For many years, nonprofit organizations that rely on volunteers have found that the number of people interested and available for key volunteer positions (which require an ongoing commitment) has dropped off dramatically. However, this does not mean people are not willing to volunteer in other ways – the number of people willing to volunteer episodically has risen dramatically. Episodic volunteers participate sporadically (perhaps only certain times of the year) and volunteer without an ongoing commitment.
Finally, volunteers are concerned about relevance. In those long gone halcyon days, church was often the center of a congregant’s social life, and as such featured long committee meetings with loosely structured conversation, often complemented by drinks and snacks. Today, however, volunteers are usually not looking to make the congregation the hub of their social lives. Instead, they want to know that the work they are doing is important and has meaning and is directly tied to the mission and impact of the congregation. They want the time they put in to be efficiently utilized and impactful in the community. It isn’t that they don’t want their volunteering to have a social component – far from it, but having a social component to a relevant, efficient volunteer opportunity is different than a volunteer opportunity that (intentionally or unintentionally) centers the social and puts the work as secondary.
So what might adjusting to this new(ish) volunteer landscape look like at congregations, where volunteers are often difficult to find due to time, commitment and relevance issues? Interestingly enough, I think that the three factors impacting the volunteer landscape are the same three factors congregations can use to address the issue.
First, since potential volunteers have less time than they used to have, a congregation would benefit from having flexible ways to participate. Allowing participation from teleconferencing software such as zoom enables people to stay at home and still participate. For each committee, evaluate whether the standard monthly 2-hour meeting is really necessary, or if perhaps shorter meetings, or less frequent ones, might be possible to get the work done. Because many congregations are still using the committee structure of a generation (or two) ago, and often just keep adding on new ones, it would also behoove congregations to look at what work is essential to the mission of the church and what might you stop doing, in order to do that which remains even better.
In terms of commitment, congregations would benefit from looking to see how they could better use episodic, task-oriented volunteers. For instance, is it possible to have an usher/dishwasher/greeter/fill-in-position-here checklist so that someone who shows up and wants to help on Sunday can easily follow what to do? Episodic volunteers sometimes find the work so fulfilling that they want to volunteer more, so having commitment tiers (low, moderate, high) of volunteer opportunities allows a volunteer to contribute in more meaningful ways as their commitment to the congregation grows.
Finally, to address concerns about relevance, it is essential to make the connection between the volunteer opportunity (whether it is episodic or key, low/moderate/high commitment level) and the mission of the congregation. How does this volunteer opportunity serve the congregation and/or larger community? How does it bring our values and our faith alive? What will a volunteer expect to get out of the experience? This can get done at an orientation, or during the opportunity itself, or in a volunteer appreciation event the congregation might hold.
The volunteer landscape has changed substantially in the last fifty years, and our religious communities need to adjust as well. Volunteers are an essential human resource to accomplish the mission of the congregation and to keep the doors open. Volunteerism thrives in organizations where there are multiple ways to contribute and where the expectations are clearly stated and connected to the mission of the organization. It is essential to approach this task and manage volunteers at least as carefully (if not moreso) than a congregation manages its financial resources.