Recruit and Equip Volunteers

Working with others to improve your community can be stressful and complicated, so it may be tempting to go it alone. Yet recruiting and equipping others to work with you builds relationships and builds community. In light of this, it would seem problematic to rely on oneself as solo actor—the Lone Ranger riding in to save the day!—in order to build togetherness and engage community. It would generally be better, not to say more fun, to equip a team.

In some churches, a single person pursues outreach ministry. Rich Fowler, social action director of the Archdiocese of Washington of the Roman Catholic Church, describes a tour he made of parishes in the archdiocese. He asked the pastor of a medium-sized parish, “Do you have a social concerns committee here?” The priest responded, “ Oh, you mean Bertha! Bertha’s great! She would be a big help to you! I don’t know what I’d do without Bertha![1]

McEachern Memorial United Methodist Church in Powder Springs, Georgia centers its ministry around its volunteers. Faced with the problem of low-income and elderly people unable to maintain their cars, the church started Car Care Ministry. This volunteer operated ministry, operating in an old barn on a Thursday evenings and Saturday morning each month, offers several remedies: minor repairs such as oil and filter changes and bulb replacement and donated vehicles that are repaired and given to people in need. While patron are asked to pay the cost of parts if they are able, labor is provided free of charge. Car Car Ministry offers multiple places where people can become involved: through donating a vehicle or basic supplies or through working as mechanic, parts runner (shopping for supplies), helpers, or “lounge angel” who chats with patrons waiting for repairs or brings breakfast for workers and patrons.[2] The number of entry points turns this project into a collective effort that builds community as it repairs cars.

What is the best set up a volunteer system and keep it running? Start by considering the journey a new member makes from sitting in the pews on Sunday morning to getting involved in the congregation’s ministries. The process ideally would involve six steps: 1) Being assimilated into the membership through a new member process, 2) learning about the biblical basis for service through preaching and teaching, 3) exploring one’s personal passions and gifts through a “discovery” interview, 4) being asked to serve in a volunteer position, 5) growing in the ability to serve through training, feedback, and evaluation, and 6) being replenished and sustained in this ministry through public recognition and private reflection.[3]

At the heart of an effective system is the process of discovery. Why is discovery necessary? Why not just recruit someone? The problem with starting at recruitment can feel like the church is more interested in filling slots than in helping its members find their chosen ministries. Imagine the following scenario. First Church, in a bid to drum up volunteers for the various ongoing programs and committees, distributes a “Time and Talent” sheet to every member of the congregation providing a list of volunteer slots to be filled. One member, filling out the form, checks the box by a certain volunteer slot, and then waits for weeks, months or years. No one ever contacts the her. The problem may be easily explainable: the church lacks the administrative support to record the responses and provide feedback to everyone who checked the box. However, from the point of view of the individual, it feels like, “They didn’t really want me, I guess.” For this reason, it would be better to shape your ministries around people rather than slots. In fact, too many unfilled slots, may indicate a ministry that needs to be reshaped or eliminated.

Discovery must come first, and matching the person with a volunteer position only later. This reverses the typical order of things in which the recruiter approaches a potential volunteer “cold” to make the “ask” or distributes a list of available volunteer slots and waits for persons to self-select. Discovery goes deeper and is arguably more caring, starting with the abilities, interests and motivations of the potential volunteer before seeking to fill available slots. In the discovery interview, you are listening not only for positive factors, but also for perfectly valid reasons why this might not be the best time for that person not to volunteer, perhaps due to burn out from previous service, personal crisis or major life transition.

Anyone able to ask open-ended questions and practice reflective listening can do a discovery interview. Better to better to recruit a team of volunteers to conduct the discovery interviews than to do it all yourself. The purpose of this one-to-one interview is to discover the abilities, interests, gifts, motivations, temperament, skills and life experiences of potential volunteers. The interviewer should take prolific notes or use a pre-fabricated form to capture information. Some congregations use volunteer database software for its members, which is fine as long as confidentiality is respected regarding personal issues that might arise in the interview.

The following are sample questions to ask in a discovery interview:

  • I would be interested in learning about your family. Tell me about. . .
  • What do you do (or have you done) to earn your livelihood/
  • What do you love doing?
  • What do you dislike doing and hope never to have to do again?
  • We seldom have the opportunity to share with others those things that we most enjoyed and felt we did well. Are there things you have accomplished that you are really proud of?[4]

After discovery and matching, another key part of the volunteer system is equipping, or providing encouragement and support. The term equipping refers to Paul’s call to leaders “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12, NRSV). Dan Enwistle suggest there are four keys to effective equipping.[5]

Apprentice your volunteers.  In the Middle Ages, artisans such as blacksmiths and cobblers trained upstarts using an intentional process that typically lasted seven years. The apprentice served alongside the master, who provided instruction and guidance. The apprentice learned by doing. The effect here is that of the slow cooker or crock-pot, not the microwave oven. Demonstrate how it’s done, and let it simmer.

Use a team structure.  The problem with the solo approach is that we end up doing too much of the work ourselves. If you feel stretched too thin, you may have a “span of care” issue: too many activities, not enough hands on deck. If you are launching a new project without a team in place, it risks collapse. If the size of you long-standing committee or team has dwindled over time, you risk burnout. Pay close attention to forming and sustaining the team.

Train for the work.  Once you have a team in place, think about attending a training conference together, watching a instructional video, or visiting another congregation that does what you do. Observe and ask questions. What worked? What didn’t?

Develop leaders.  Rather than simply training the person to complete a task, leadership development aims at developing the whole person. For instance, church-operated food pantry may recruit new volunteers from its customers and train them to stock shelves or clean the floor. From among the shelf stockers, those who show interest and possess leadership potential may be invited to serve on the board. With proper guidance, this customer-turned-volunteer might develop into a trusted leader. Leaders may come from anywhere.

Discovery and recruiting bring new persons into the volunteer system. Equipping deepens their involvement and sustains it over time. In any case, community projects are best undertaken together. That is not to rule out serving the community by volunteering individually for program sponsored by a local agency outside the church. Yet even here it pays to keep track of those who volunteer, share the news with other congregations, and count their service when measuring the church’s ministry.

[1] Jeffry Odell Korgen, My Lord and My God: Engaging Catholics in Social Ministry (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), 17.

[2] McEachern Memorial United Methodist Church, “Local Outreach,”, (accessed April 13, 2018).

[3] Sue Mallory and Brad Smith, The Equipping Church Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 244-346.

[4] Mallory and Smith, Equipping Church, 287-288.

[5] Dan Entwistle, Recruiting Volunteers (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 39-50.

Photo: Lindsay Frumker, 5.15.12. Flikr Creative Commons.


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