Fast Ideas for Recruiting and Retaining Volunteers
Ideas from churches at the Cultivate Conference to recruit--and keep--more help.

I'm live at the Cultivate Conference '09 in Chicago today (see my other updates on Twitter: @MattBranaugh). This gathering of a couple of hundred church leaders primarily focuses on communication inside and outside of church walls, but one of the breakout sessions in the morning looked at how to recruit and retain volunteers to fulfill various roles, including graphic design work, web development, and other strategic communication roles that churches often don't have the budget to cover.

Jami Ruth from Granger Community Church and Blair Farley from Mariners Church hosted the workshop. Here are several ideas worth noting in your church's efforts, courtesy of Jami and Blair (and some of the conference participants who shared ideas):

Recruiting and Retaining Volunteers:

* Jami said Granger hosts ministry fairs and "volun-tours," which give congregants glimpses into the various ministries–and volunteer opportunities–available at the church.

* Many churches already do this, but it bears repeating: Jami and Blair both emphasized the need to do volunteer-focused Sundays a couple of times a year. The senior pastor should recognize volunteers and talk about the vision of the church, and the integral role a volunteer plays in the work to fulfill that vision. One audience member said many people commit to causes and community, so in these Sunday events, it's vital to show the cause, and the community served (or built) through them.

* Blair said too many churches focus on asking people to do a volunteer task. Instead, he said emphasis should be placed on developing people into volunteers through personal invitation, training, and then the assignment of a duty. "If you think of it as development and not task fulfillment, it shifts the focus of what you're doing," he said.

* Jami suggested giving "on ramps and off ramps" for people when you ask them to do a volunteer role, providing specific start dates and finish dates. "Oftentimes they continue past that, but we give them an out," she said. The reason: The prospect of an endless commitment discourages many from committing at all.

* One audience member suggested churches communicate how everyone can help with handling tasks that are required of everyone in the church family. For instance, when Park Community Church (the host of Cultivate today) previously met in rented space, volunteers were tasked with setting up chairs before services and stacking them afterward. The pastor, in a desire to ease the burden on volunteers after the service, would tell congregants, "You don't need to know your spiritual gift to pick up and stack your chair."

* For those churches who are worried about burning out their regular volunteers, one audience member suggested engaging directly, and face to face, with each of those volunteers on a regular basis and offering them the chance to say no–or to step away from their duties for a break. It ensures regular communication between both sides, and it affirms the volunteer's worth when he or she sees a church leader regularly checking on their well-being.

* Celebrate volunteers through some big events. But do a number of things in between those events to celebrate and thank them, too. Some ideas:

- Handwritten, personal thank-you notes to a different batch of volunteers each week;

- Use photos of volunteers in action during services, in slide shows, in common areas, on the church's website, even the pastor's blog. When you have a particularly exceptional photo of a volunteer, frame it and give it to them as a thank-you gift;

- One audience member, a pastor, said he spends one hour each week visiting the Facebook and Twitter accounts of his volunteers to write thank-you messages on the publicly accessible areas of their accounts as a public way of acknowledging and supporting the work they're doing.

* When asked about how to recruit new volunteers, Blair said Mariners finds new volunteers only by starting something new. It works like this: Develop strong volunteers in the existing ministries offered by the church. When the pastor and staff are ready to start something they believe God has called the church to do, they pluck some of the best volunteers in those existing ministries to tackle the new initiative. The staff or lay leaders of those existing ministries then are tasked to find new, untapped volunteers from elsewhere in the congregation to fill the spots vacated by those drafted for the new ministry.

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