Attracting, Not Extracting, Volunteers

Replacing obligation with “join us” language

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I audit a lot of church communications: newsletters, bulletins, websites, and E-news announcements. The most common messages begin with, “We need …”

“We need volunteers for Vacation Bible School in two weeks! If you can volunteer, please contact …”

Some version of this message gets shared during the worship announcements. It is often laced with pleas for help and undertones of shame: “If we don’t get more volunteers, we won’t be able to host VBS this year.”

And then we wonder why no one will volunteer anymore.  

The church has spent years building programming on messages of obligation. As institutional loyalty wanes, this no longer works as a method for volunteer recruitment, but this type of recruitment is harmful for reasons beyond simply having warm bodies to fill positions for programs we have run forever.

Obligation messages and organizational-need-based recruitment damage relationships with the church. Think about it as a relationship “withdrawal.” Withdrawal language sounds like, we need … we don’t have enough of … we are running out of … if only they would. When we (as the church or organization) want or “need” someone to volunteer or do something for us we are making a withdrawal from the relationship. If we haven’t made an equal or greater amount of relationship “deposits” then we damage the relationship and people begin to pull away or respond from a place of resentment. 

Withdrawal language usurps the call to respond to Kingdom offerings with joy and delight. Offerings that form our own faith and the faith of others. Responding to this call means our people are invited into faith and work that matters.

What about this instead? (in your bulletin, etc.)
Consider this example announcement for bulletin or newsletter: 

Three months after Vacation Bible School (VBS) last year, 95% of our VBS parents told us their children were still singing the songs they learned around the house and in the car. What a gift that the ministry of Vacation Bible School latches on to the hearts of our children to help form their faith. We were also delighted to learn that 88% of our parents said their children now ask to pray together before their meals.

These amazing outcomes happen through the faithful and caring dedication of our VBS volunteers. Last year Dana helped coordinate the crafts area. “I was given everything I needed to prepare a craft for each day, which made it easier for me to say yes, but I am coming back this year to volunteer because of the conversations I had with our children as they crafted,” said Dana. “I learned about their day. We built trust. We had fun, and I learned as much from them about Jesus’ love as they learned from me, I think.”

We invite you to consider joining Dana and others to help form the faith of our children so they can practice it at home, at school, and beyond. We are hosting a VBS Information Session on Sunday after worship in the teen room. We will be ready to answer your questions, so you have the information you need to decide if God is calling you to this transformative ministry. Contact _________ for questions at _______________.

Reframe messages toward work that matters

There are a lot of organizations and teams pulling at us these days for time, energy, and resources. Our schools, scouts, sports teams, dance teams, and on and on. The church is one of many options for people to choose from as a place to dedicate time and resources. It can feel like we are competing, but we aren’t competing with these other options. Instead, I’d like to suggest that we are competing with our own ability to offer relevant and transformative programming. We are competing with our ability to message the power and purpose of the ministry we offer.  

As a part of my daily work, I get to read hundreds of faith stories each year. No one ever says, “My faith changed because I was guilted into helping with crafts at VBS.” Instead, what I hear time and again are stories of how faith was nurtured through relationships, acceptance, pastoral care, singing joyfully, and serving alongside others in their church to help share the love of God with the world. When I hear these stories, I know the church is still relevant and God is still up to something. I know the work we do matters.

Next steps

The following steps can help you build a stronger and more “relationship deposit” focused message. Help ensure your community that their work and volunteer time serves to transform lives and build up the kingdom of God. 

Step 1: Build a calendar or map of the key components of your ministry that require volunteer recruitment each year. Examples might be Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, choir, etc. 

Step 2: Develop a simple and short survey that asks participants to rate the value(s) of each of these programs. Be sure that your questions aren’t leading to the answer you’d like to hear. 

  • Example Question 1: If you are the parent of a child or children who attended Vacation Bible School, please rate the change that has happened in your home since on a scale of 1 to 10:
    • 1 = We talk about faith much less than before
    • 5 = No change in how often we talk about faith
    • 10 = We talk about faith much more than before
  • Example Question 2: What benefit(s) do you want your child to receive from attending Sunday School?
    • Learning about faith
    • Being part of a safe community
    • Making Friends
    • Spending time in an intergenerational environment
    • Other:_______________
  • Note: Send surveys at the same time each year. Keep your questions consistent. Keep them on point with what you are trying to measure. This will help ensure you aren’t receiving reactionary responses. 
  • Data usage: Use what you learn to message for recruitment, but also to improve your programming where your scores aren’t as positive as you would like them to be. 

Step 3: Collect impact stories and quotes from volunteers and participants (or parents) to include in your recruitment messaging. 

Step 4: Draft messages that highlight the impact your work is having on children, youth, families, and adults. Use “join us” language. Extend invitations into the transformative work that God is up to in your congregation through your people and programs.   

Work that matters

The church, the ministry we share to help form faith and build disciples is still relevant. People are hungry for belonging and welcome. People want to be a part of something that matters. Let this fuel you to a place of joy and pride for what you do each day in your faith community.

  • Mitzie Schafer

    Mitzie Schafer, ELCA Deacon, CFRE is a graduate of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. She is the host of the Center for Generosity Podcast and consults full-time with GSB Fundraising. She is the creator of the CAGA Impact Storytelling Model for Engagement and helps clients with impact storytelling, communication, annual fund, strategic planning, board development, and planned giving programs. Schedule a free consult or learn more at www.mitzieschafer.com or www.gsbfundraising.com.

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