Volunteerism and the Future of Church Leadership

By Michael Harton

It is not a stretch to realize that churches are probably the longest standing user of volunteer services. From teaching Sunday school classes, staffing committees to operating the various mission efforts churches are almost completely dependent upon unpaid volunteers. That is why the future of program and ministry leadership in churches is in jeopardy.

Jeopardy? Are people going to stop volunteering? No. Are churches in danger of loosing volunteers? Yes. For years churches have found it increasingly challenging to staff programs and ministries, and that challenge will increase. The primary reason has nothing to do with lack of dedication or poverty of time, but rather the increasing opportunities for volunteering in the community.

It appears that community agencies are more in tune with demographics and trends, which leads them to be more adept at attracting and holding volunteers. This is particularly true of a significant demographic of the populace, babyboomers, who number 40,000,000, and who are approaching retirement or have taken early retirement with no desire to spend all their time knitting, playing golf or fishing. Indications are that this will be the most active retired cohort in history so far. High numbers of boomers are actively searching for meaningful ways to give their time in service to their communities.

Couple this with a perhaps surprising effect of the economic downturn, the conscious decision to focus on significance over success, and you get a virtual tsunami of potential volunteers. Already the value of volunteer hours runs into millions of dollars, and this statistic is growing.
The opportunities for volunteering in the community continue to grow: School aged and adult literacy (in some areas called mentoring), English as a Second Language, helping older adults, addressing hunger and homelessness issues, teaching hobbies and life skills and the list goes on and on.

But you may protest, these are all things that many churches do! And that is true. However, when babyboomers evaluate the options for investing their time they are affected by such things as the quality of orientation to the job, clarity of expectations, the training provided, the promise of supervision, feedback and recognition, clearly stated goals, and often the possibility of short-term commitment.

How do churches stack up in these areas? Let’s be honest: usually there is little orientation to the task one is asked to undertake, expectations are unstated, no training is provided, nor is there any real supervision, no feedback on how well or poorly the task is done, and little or no recognition for service. Add to that lack of goals and the likelihood that volunteers fear becoming lifers (“If I accept that job I’ll never get out of it!”) and it is easy to see why people choose to volunteer outside the church.

So what can churches do to attract and keep volunteers? First, recognize and bless members’ service in the community. They are being Christ to their neighbors! Second, provide the same benefits for volunteering that members find “out there”—all those listed above. Present the challenge that ministry provides, list the expectations, provide orientation and training, set goals with the volunteer,
identify channels of accountability and give feedback on the quality of service done, and find multiple ways to recognize their service. And last, provide short-term opportunities for service: talk in terms of weeks and months rather than in terms of years.

If programs and ministries are to survive churches must awaken from their malaise and show potential volunteers that the opportunities provided are worthy of their investment of time and energy. No amount of guilt or appeals to spiritual motivation will substitute for meeting volunteer’s expectations.

Dr. Michael Harton is an educator, former seminary professor and former interim dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.

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