Hidden behind many churches’ bold mission statements is another quest that absorbs both staff and boards’ time and energy. It is the quest for the “holy grail:” the perfect volunteer. One of their most common complaints is that too few people do too much of the work. Nominations struggle, appeals fail, and even spiritual gifts inventories don’t seem to translate into active volunteerism. There was a time when volunteers were abundant in the church. Now they seem like an endangered species. What happened? And what can we do about it?
It’s helpful to know what the “holy grail” looks like. Every non-profit has its unique list, but here are the top ten qualities of a perfect volunteer:
These characteristics do not just magically appear. They are the result of cultural conditions. You just don’t plant a tree and automatically harvest delicious oranges. It requires the right conditions and careful cultivation. These have changed over the last seventy years.
First, cultural conditions in America have changed. The biggest change is that it is harder to find truly “selfless” people. Starting with the boomer generation and inherited in greater degrees by subsequent generations, the primary motivation to volunteer shifted from “selflessness” to “self-fulfillment.” While volunteers may make sacrifices for the mission, there must be something “in it for me.’ And mere institutional “appreciation,” isn’t it. Volunteers today expect opportunities to learn new things, develop new and deeper relationships, and see and feel the Holy Spirit in action. Volunteering has to have a personal benefit, not just a social benefit.
All these benefits of volunteerism take time, and there is less and less of it. According to the census, the average American will move 11.4 times in their lifetime. When I run ComparativeInsite reports in urbanizing areas, the average residency of church members over 65 might be fifteen years, and the average among community residents under 45 might be five months. If volunteers are going to learn new things, develop deep relationships, and see the Holy Spirit in action, you’d better get going!
There are other changes in cultural conditions. The aging generations are less energetic. Younger generations are less reliable. There is abundant passion for any number of causes but less focus on achieving sustainable change. The individualism that is increasingly rampant in American means that more and more people resist accountability. Seventy years ago, accountability meant an opportunity to improve oneself. Today it means judgmentalism. We used to automatically trust people to function within the boundaries of civility and respect. Today, volunteers are always looking over their shoulders, anticipating abuse and denigration: more polarization, less volunteerism.
Second, the careful cultivation of volunteerism has dramatically weakened. This is particularly true among churches. Volunteers are like deer sniffing the wind. They are extremely sensitive to hypocrisy and run away at the merest whiff.
- If churches say they want real creativity but only reward tweaks to tradition, they run away.
- If churches say they value flexibility but only reward obedience to rules and regulations, they run away.
- If churches say they encourage teamwork but consistently favor seniority, volunteers run away.
- If churches say they love volunteers, but fail to protect them from controlling, critical members, they run away.
- If they say they live in harmony but are continually bickering and quarreling, volunteers run away.
- If churches say they are results-driven but bog volunteers down in procedures and policies, they run away.
- If churches say they are passionate about the mission but are mainly defensive about institutional survival, they run away.
If churches want volunteers, they must cultivate a culture of volunteerism. When churches fail to cultivate trust, it becomes clear that they really only want a dutiful foot soldier rather than a “perfect” volunteer.
It may be time for your church to do a “volunteer audit.” The changing cultural conditions in America are challenging enough for growing volunteers, but churches that fail to cultivate volunteerism will suffer the most. The fact that “too few people are doing too much work” is a symptom of a deeper spiritual malaise. And if we have learned nothing else from the pandemic, it is that people will distance themselves from anyone who is obviously ill and won’t admit it, or from anyone whose habits threaten their health, and they refuse to change.
The good news is that churches that embrace an intentional system of disciple-making are also cultivating volunteerism. The flow of disciple-making is to connect with seekers and then move them along to shape their lifestyles in the image of Christ, mature them in the way of Christ, mentor their calling in the mission of Christ, equip them to be servants of Christ, and then free them to follow wherever Christ leads. That’s volunteer empowerment.
The other good news is that while time is not on your side, the internet is. The hybrid church will drive volunteerism in the decades to come. Even if people move 11.4 times in their lives, the church can continue to help them learn new things, deepen relationships, and see and feel the Holy Spirit working around them … wherever they are. This is not just good for the individual church (which can still involve volunteers virtually). It is wonderful for the Christian movement. The volunteers you cultivate may not directly benefit you, but they will benefit ministry partners everywhere.
I welcome all questions about using MissionInsite for ministry planning and leadership development. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.