Volunteer management for churches: outline

Of all the things I do as a minister (and used to do as a Director of Religious Education), I’m best at volunteer management. The basic principles of volunteer management in churches are not complicated — no, volunteer management is not rocket science. However, the the devil is in the details, and there are many details in volunteer management. For years, I’ve been meaning to write out some of those devilish details of basic volunteer management principles for churches. I have lots of notes on the subject, and even an outline….

At this point, I’d love to have some feedback from my readers. Many of you are long-time church volunteers yourself, many others are involved in some aspect of volunteer management, and the rest of you are just plain smart people. Below, you’ll find my outline for a Web-based resource page on volunteer management. I’d love it if you, dear reader, would look it over and tell me what I’ve forgotten.

Once I get some feedback on the outline, I’ll start writing. And I’ll post what I write here so you can comment on it further. For now, here’s the outline….

Outline: An Approach to managing volunteers in churches

I/ The basic principle

The basic principle of volunteer management in churches is quite simple:–

Volunteer management is a four-stage cycle…

(S) The cycle begins with support of existing volunteers.

(C) Then the cycle moves to regular celebration of volunteers’ efforts (in churches, this happens most often on an annual basis).

(R) Which leads naturally into recruitment of volunteers — re-recruiting existing volunteers where appropriate, and recruiting fresh volunteers.

(T) Once volunteers are recruited, they need adequate training so they can succeed in their volunteer jobs.

II/ The starting place: Support

Every church already has at least a few volunteers in place. And the place to start is supporting the existing volunteers. Supporting volunteers can be broken down into at least three main categories of support: Attitude, In-service training and support, and Administrative support. There are at least eight concrete things that we can do to support volunteers, spread among these three categories.


(a) First and foremost, be nice to volunteers! Volunteers should be treated with respect. In this context, volunteer managers can think in terms of customer service: the volunteers are the customers, and we want them to be pleased with their volunteer jobs, and the best way to do this is to treat all volunteers with respect. (Elsewhere, we will talk about volunteer accountability, and the possibility of firing volunteers — but even when we fire volunteers, we will do so respectfully.)

In-service training and support

(b) Although this is often forgotten, all volunteers appreciate annual training on safety procedures. The usher or greeter wants to know what to do if a crazy person arrives at the church door just before worship service. The Sunday school teacher wants to know where the emergency exits are, and how to report suspected child abuse. The office volunteer wants to know where the first aid kit is. Volunteers feel safer when they have safety training — and that means they are able to do their volunteer work better.

(c) In-service trainings, where appropriate, should be one of the benefits a volunteer gets for volunteering. Choir members appreciate the opportunity to attend a choir workshop. Youth advisors appreciate being able to attend training in youth ministry. Worship associates and lay readers appreciate coaching in public speaking. Etc.

(d) One of the stated reasons why volunteers offer their time in churches is to get face-time with key staff. Therefore, staff who supervise volunteers (including volunteer staff who supervise other volunteers) should realize that this is part of their job description:– to provide the benefit of face-time as a key component of the support they give volunteers.

Administrative support

(e) Adequate working space is essential for all volunteers. At the low end: Parking lot attendants may need a place to store orange cones and signs. At the high end: a dedicated office volunteer who comes in twenty hours a week may need desk space and a computer (depending on their volunteer job).

(f) An accurate written job description helps focus the volunteer’s efforts, while making clear what the volunteer doesn’t have to deal with. A volunteer job description should include:– mission statement of the congregation; goal of the volunteer job; time frame (how much time per week); statement of accountability (stating to whom the volunteer reports); list of specific responsibilities; desired knowledge, skills, and abilities; benefits and opportunities.

(g) Volunteers should be clearly accountable to a specific staff person (either paid staffer or volunteer staffer). Obviously, volunteers know they are ultimately responsible to the church governing body, but they need and appreciate having a single person to whom they are accountable.

(h) Annual volunteer evaluation process, where the volunteers evaluate their volunteer jobs. For some volunteers, the annual evaluation process will include their volunteer supervisor evaluating them, and/or a self-evalutaion.

III/ Celebration

All volunteers service should be celebrated. But different volunteers will want to be celebrated in different ways. Some volunteers appreciate formal celebrations (e.g., in a worship service); others want less formal celebration.

Ask the volunteers how they want to be celebrated. Some examples from real life:– In one church, a group of office volunteers liked to be celebrated with a mid-week brunch, just after their regular volunteering time; the brunch was served by staff. In another church, the Sunday school teachers, many of whom were parents, asked to be celebrated with an annual family breakfast, served by the Religious Education Committee, just before they taught Sunday school. In yet another church, the choir held a party between two of the Christmas Eve services.

In addition to celebrative events, all volunteers deserve public thanks, e.g., in the church newsletter, in annual reports, sometimes in worship services.

The celebration process can also include evaluation and feedback. At a minimum, all volunteers should be offered the chance to offer feedback on their volunteer experience before they are celebrated — at a minimum, offer them a volunteer job evaluation to fill out, or ask them to review their volunteer job description and say if it’s accurate. Key volunteers deserve face-to-face evaluation, where they can offer direct feedback of staff support for volunteers, the joys and frustrations they experienced, etc. Key volunteers also deserve to receive face-to-face feedback on their job performance:– how did they help the church meet its goals? in what specific ways did they meet the stated goals of their volunteer job? Feedback is often informal, but it can be more formal as well.

Now we have celebrated our existing volunteers. Only now are we ready to adequately recruit new volunteers.

IV/ Recruitment

The most important principle to remember about volunteer recruitment is that there are two basic types of volunteer jobs:– there are one-shot volunteer jobs, and ongoing volunteer jobs. Newcomers are most likely to volunteer for a one-shot volunteer job (less risk, less commitment). Therefore, it makes sense if we create meaningful one-shot volunteer jobs that lead in to higher commitment volunteer jobs.

Open recruitment

The recruitment process to seek fresh volunteers is most often an open process, where the volunteer job description is openly publicized, and people are invited to apply for the volunteer position. But if we want to be sure to get people’s attention, jobs should be publicized in at least two different ways, at least four times total. Example: Post volunteer job opening twice in the church newsletter, and twice in the weekly order of service announcements (two different places, four total times).

After open publicity, we will expect to have to do face-to-face recruiting.

Face-to-face recruiting

Let’s start with the hard part. The hardest part about doing face-to-face recruiting is hearing someone tell us “No.” But we should remember that “No” can mean at least six different things, each of which leads to a different active response:–

“No” can mean “Not this year, but ask again next year.” Response: file this person’s name away for next year.

“No” can mean “This is not the kind of thing I’d do, but I’d consider doing something else.” Response: refer this person’s name to the appropriate supervisor of volunteers.

“No” can mean “I plan my life six months in advance and you call the week before.” Response: file this person’s name away for next time.

“No” can mean “I only decide on things at the last minute, and you’re asking me six months in advance.” Response: file this person’s name away to be called in five months and three weeks.

“No” can mean “My life is crazy right now! Help!” Response: refer this person’s name to the minister(s) or pastoral care team.

“No” can mean “I hate the church.” This is the worst kind of “No” to receive as a volunteer recruiter, but there is a good response:– refer this person’s name to the minister(s) and/or the Membership Committee/Coordinator.

Remember:– Face-to-face recruitment is made easier by accurate written volunteer job descriptions. For example, when someone asks, “How much time will this volunteer job take up?” we need to give an accurate answer.

Remember:– Plan for the people who decide to volunteer at the last minute. And we’ll promise ourselves that we won’t get grumpy at them just because we wanted to have our volunteer grids filled out well in advance.

The key skill for face-to-face recruitment is overcoming resistance. When we are recruiting someone who is reluctant to volunteer, it is OK to ask them why they are reluctant. And we should plan in advance how we will overcome common types of resistance. For example, in a church where Sunday school takes place at the same time as the worship service, we might anticipate that a prospective Sunday school teacher will say, “I like kids but I don’t want to volunteer to teach Sunday school because I want to hear the sermon,” we should be ready to say either, “The minister will give printed copies of the sermon to all Sunday school teachers,” and/or “We will give you a recording of the sermon,” and/or “You will have every other Sunday off so you can attend the worship service,” and/or “The minister(s) will meet with Sunday school teachers once a month before church for an hour of face-time.”

The best way to overcome resistance is to make volunteer jobs attractive, so it is easy to say “Yes!”

Closed recruitment

In some cases, the recruitment process will be a closed process, where pre-selected persons are invited to volunteer for a sensitive task. Two examples: (1) Often, we don’t openly recruit for persons to do youth ministry, due to the possibility of attracting sexual predators; rather, we pre-select people we think would be appropriate. (2) Sometimes, the church bylaws specify that certain key positions must be elected and/or selected by a nominating committee or other committee.

However, even when there is closed recruitment, all of the above principles apply, except publicizing the volunteer job.

Feeder systems

Some volunteer jobs are harder to fill than others — some volunteer jobs require out-of-the-ordinary knowledge, skills, and abilities. In such cases, it makes sense to get feeder systems in place. A feeder system starts with low-commitment, low-skill volunteers, and gradually moves them into higher commitment and higher skill volunteer jobs.

For example, if our church has a huge church fair that raises tens of thousands of dollars and requires months of advance planning, we want people to have experience with the fair before they get placed on the fair’s organizing committee. thus, the feeder system for the fair’s organizing committee begins with placing volunteers for two-hour one-shot commitments on the day of the fair; feeds the most talented volunteers up to higher commitment jobs in one area of the fair (e.g., overseeing parking, doing set-up, publicity, etc.,); feeds the most talented people up to serve on subcommittees doing advance planning; and from there feeds volunteers up to serve on the central organizing committee.

Usually such feeder systems are informal, but they can be formalized. Feeder systems can be bypassed when a volunteer comes in with relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities (e.g., a professional event planner offers to serve on the fair’s organizing committee). Feeder systems contribute to volunteer training, and ensure that volunteers are most likely to succeed at their volunteer jobs.

V/ Training

Once volunteers are recruited, we should do them the kindness of giving them enough initial training so that they don’t flounder and fail. Initial training may be informal and brief, or it may be formal and last for two or more hours.

At a minimum, training must include the following:

  • Welcome and appreciation
  • Safety training (location of fire exits, extinguishers, first aid kit; emergency procedures where appropriate)
  • Tour of physical space where the volunteer job takes place (there’s the bathroom, here’s the stapler, coffee over there)

Where more extensive training is required, it should include:

  • Review or teach basic skills
  • Address probable volunteer anxieties
  • Time for questions/feedback

A good training session will be fun, it will be well-organized, and it will give volunteers a chance to meet other volunteers.

VI/ The cycle begins again….

To review:

Volunteer management is a four-stage cycle…

(S) The cycle begins with support of existing volunteers.

(C) Then the cycle moves to regular celebration of volunteers’ efforts (in churches, this happens most often on an annual basis).

(R) Which leads naturally into recruitment of volunteers — re-recruiting existing volunteers where appropriate, and recruiting fresh volunteers.

(T) Once volunteers are recruited, they need adequate training so they can succeed in their volunteer jobs.

…Once volunteers are trained, they begin their volunteer job, and we are back to support.

And we must recognize that different groups of volunteers will be at different stages of the cycle — e.g., the church may be recruiting volunteers for the big church fair at the same time the church is celebrating the service of Sunday school teachers at the same time the church is providing a choir workshop (support) at the same time the church is training a new office volunteer.

The task of a good volunteer manager is to keep all these different volunteer management cycles moving smoothly forward, all the time. The devil may be in the details, but volunteer management is not rocket science.

2 thoughts on “Volunteer management for churches: outline

  1. Geoff Brown

    There’s a new online tool that might help your R.E. teacher training. Teachers who notice suspected child abuse need to handle it professionally and legally so the abuse is stopped. It’s a tough conversation to start up with a child. A new free online role-playing course helps your people practice what to say in these tough situations.

  2. Dan

    Geoff Brown @ 1 — Umm, OK, but that’s not really what I asked, and this really isn’t an article about teacher training. I understand that you want to promote your Web site. For now, I’m leaving your comment and one link to your Web site, because one of my readers might actually be interested (no, I have not checked out his Web site, and I am not recommending it). But next time you comment, please address the topic at hand.

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