Ask a Young Clergy Woman: The Un-Volunteer Edition

Post Author: Askie

7605756464_3266e75ced_zDear Askie,

Do you have any way of getting volunteers to act like responsible adults? I’m a solo pastor of a small, suburban Presbyterian church; our staff includes me, a part-time secretary, and a part-time sexton. That means we rely on a lot of volunteers for everything from the small food pantry program to the youth group to coffee hour. The problem is that I spend so much of my time trying to recruit volunteers, and then they do things like no-showing, calling out at the last minute, or leaving early without warning. Sometimes I feel like this church is a three-ring circus, and I’m trying to put the whole show on by myself! Last Sunday, I got a call from that day’s volunteer Sunday school teacher, fifteen minutes before church – she had just remembered to tell me that she had visitors and couldn’t come to teach! I was able to get another teacher to cover. Then, at the end of coffee hour, I noticed that the coffee hour volunteer had already left without cleaning up. I couldn’t stand adding one more thing to the sexton’s work, so I cleaned up myself, even though it made me late for my daughter’s soccer game and I burned my fingers trying to clean out the enormous coffee urn before it was cool. I’ve asked the lay leadership how they’ve handled this in the past, and they weren’t really sure. I suspect that the last pastor covered for a lot of absent volunteers without complaining about it, but that’s just not viable for me. Any suggestions of how to get my little flock to take their volunteer commitments at church more seriously?

The Lonely Ringmaster


Dear Ringmaster,

Thanks for writing in. You’re not the only one. I think a lot of us struggle with inconsistent volunteers. The bad news is that there’s probably not going to be a perfect solution to your volunteer issues, Ringmaster. It’s one of those perennial challenges of ministry, and unfortunately you’ll probably be dealing with it for the rest of your career, although hopefully to a lesser degree! But your situation sounds like a particularly bad case, and there are certainly some things that you can do about it.

First of all, Ringmaster, you may need to step back a bit from your ringmaster role. As long as your congregation thinks of you as the person who is responsible for Making All the Things Happen, you’ll be stuck in a pattern where volunteers feel that it’s fine to drop the ball, because they trust that you’ll be there to catch it. There may be a tough time ahead, Ringmaster, as you guide them through a bit of a culture change. You’ll want your lay leaders’ support before you start shaking things up, though, so sit down with them, and talk about your role as pastor.

Managing volunteers is part of a pastor’s role, but ideally it shouldn’t be a huge part. Hopefully, your congregation can get behind the idea that you should be using your time for, you know, pastoring: preparing meaningful worship, faith formation and education, caring for souls, guiding and leading the church into the future, that kind of thing. Hopefully, they’ll also understand that you can’t focus on those things as long as you’re spending so much of your time chasing after congregants begging them to be the church, and washing out the coffee pot (yet again) when you’re left holding the bag. Once you’ve done what you can to get your lay leadership to understand what needs to change and why, here are a few concrete strategies to get the ball rolling:

  • Establish standards and hold people accountable: Write up a clear description of what each volunteer slot entails. Sometimes people just don’t know! Note what time people are expected to arrive, and how they’ll know when they’re done (“Make sure to clean out the coffee pot before you go”). List all of the responsibilities, even if they seem obvious to you. Tell them what the expectations are if they need to cancel – how much notice is expected? Do they need to find their own substitute, or will church staff or someone else do that? When volunteers fall short of the expectations, summon up your courage, tact, and self-differentiation and talk to them about it. Assume good intentions, offer grace, and make it clear that the church is working on this and you hope they’ll be part of the change.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate good volunteers: Hopefully you’re doing this already, but try to step it up! Make a discipline of sending several thank you notes each week, acknowledging the good and faithful work people do for the church. Mention volunteers’ work in your sermons. Teach about the biblical and theological significance of lay ministry. Organize an annual volunteer appreciation event. There are plenty of volunteers who are driving you crazy with their unreliability, but I bet there are at least a few that you can count on; tell them how much that means to you, and how much it means to the church! Lift them up as examples, and hopefully others will follow their lead.
  • Let things fail: This one is really hard for us as pastors, but can make a huge difference. Are you constantly checking to make sure everyone is doing what they’ve already agreed to do? Stop. Figure out what actually needs the pastor’s involvement, what things are essential to your work and the work of the church, and monitor those, but not everything. Maybe the tables and chairs won’t get set up for the potluck. Maybe the Sunday school will run out of glitter glue. Maybe there will be wilted flowers on the altar. Maybe an entire event will just not happen at all. Encourage your congregation to be the church together with you, and when someone drops the ball, let the church figure out how they’re going to handle it.
  • Delegate and give titles: From your letter, it sounds like you’re in charge of recruiting and managing all the volunteers for every program and every ministry. That’s not how it should be! Empower trusted lay leaders to take on some of that responsibility. For example, maybe one Sunday school teacher could become the “Sunday School Superintendent.” That person could be in charge of recruiting and scheduling teachers, planning the year’s program with you, getting necessary supplies, keeping all the volunteers on the same page, and reporting issues to you. Then, when there’s an emergency cancellation, there’s someone (other than you) who can handle it, and maybe even step in themselves in a pinch! Giving lay volunteers real authority and responsibility can be empowering, and can motivate your congregation to do the work of the church themselves, rather than relying on you to do it. And it frees you up to do more of the pastoral work you’re called to.
  • Grace abounds: People will still fall short, Ringmaster. There will be no-shows and dropped balls. People will call in sick at the last minute. I’m sorry to say that you probably haven’t washed your last coffee pot. As you work to change your congregation’s culture and create new systems that work, don’t forget to show your congregation the grace that undergirds our Christian faith. Offer forgiveness, and patience, and possibilities, and trust that God is working in them and in you to shape them into the church Christ calls us all to be.


Blessings for you in the work ahead,


Image by: Stewart Black
Used with permission
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