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3 Confessions Of A Reformed Volunteer Recruiter

by Zach Below


I worked in full-time ministry for about 5 years straight out of college. Then, due to geographical changes, opportunities and a number of other factors I spent the next 10 years working in the marketplace and volunteering in the local church. Now, at age 35, I am once again in full-time ministry.

Let me tell you; as a volunteer I would not have wanted to work with my 20 year-old self. That kid was foolish. He had no responsibilities. He had no life experience. He had no idea what it was like to juggle work, parenting, and everything else on top of that.

I see things much different now. I know I don’t value volunteers the way I should but I have learned a thing or two since my early ministry days. Here are 3 things I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self about his hard working volunteers.

1. Some seasons in life are really hard

That 20-year-old me had no idea what it was like to live off of short bursts of sleep. He was kid free and newly married. He could binge watch Netflix 7 days a week. He had no idea that waking up to a newborn crying every three hours is maddening. Especially when that newborn wakes up his 2-year-old brother in the room next door.

Our churches are full of parents who manage kids while working 40 hours a week and volunteering with the PTA or t-ball or any number of other good activities. Some seasons of life make it hard to stay awake past 6 p.m., let alone take on another volunteer role at church. I would tell my 20-year-old self that some seasons of life truly make it hard to add consistent church service in the mix and that we are putting many of our families at risk of service being life-draining instead of life-giving. Recognize the season, offer opportunities accordingly.

2. Full-Time Ministry is a Privilege

The next thing that younger thinner me needs to know is that full-time ministry is a privilege. I know it doesn’t always feel like it, but it truly is. When I was working in the market place, it felt like I had zero time for daily self-reflection and growth. I tried to find time, finding pockets of 15 minutes here or 10 minutes there, falling asleep as I read a couple pages of something in bed at night. It felt like my mind was held captive to my job and church responsibilities and the scraps that were left got to focus on my own spiritual growth.

That is a sharp contrast to full-time ministry. I am so thankful for my time in the marketplace because it made me truly appreciate the large blocks of time I get for self-reflection, visioneering, and study. My 20-year-old self-squandered that time. I would tell him to always remember that ministry is a privilege.

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3. Offer Me an Out

As church leaders, we let people fail for to long. I only know this because it happened to me as a volunteer. I took on a director role right in the midst of one of those truly hard seasons of life. I wanted so bad to be faithful and to do a great job, but I just couldn’t—at the time I just didn’t have the capacity. It led me to feelings of guilt and shame and it just continued to spiral downward every time I told myself, “I’m going to do better this time” and subsequently failed. Thank God that the pastor finally confronted me on my struggles and graciously offered me an out. We talked about my guilt and I felt like a burden was lifted off my back.

My 20-year-old self just secretly judged volunteers like that. There was no compassion, no confrontation and discussion; he just silently drudged on about, “why in the world is ___________ not doing their job.” I would tell that guy that people really are trying. They want to do a great job for the ministry and the church; sometimes they simply can’t pull it off. Offer them an out. If they take it, reaffirm them because I guarantee they need it. If they don’t take it, have enough guts to have a crucial conversation about why things aren’t getting done.

If you are a volunteer, what do you wish your pastors knew about your service? If you’re a church leader, would you tell your 20-year-old self anything about volunteer recruitment and retention?

One thought on “3 Confessions Of A Reformed Volunteer Recruiter

  1. Avatar

    Zach, great article! Thank you for sharing what you have observed and learned over the years.

    Regarding parents with a full schedule and little sleep I have always thought it was a mistake for churches to focus on having parents with kids volunteer for nursery duty or children’s church. They are pulling nursery duty EVERY day. Especially my friends with 5 & 6 kids! Many times it is just the wife that ends up working in the nursery or teaching. (Not calling out guys here, just an observation) Do you know anyone who ended up watching only their own kids while on nursery duty? They may as well stayed home. I did my volunteer stint in the nursery when my 2 kids were little because I thought it was my “duty” not because I felt that was where my gifting was. It was just what you did. That is an extremely narrowed focus on the part of churches in their role to facilitate believer’s biblical directive to serve. Sad some miss this but great thing is – God is in the nursery too! ( http://ministry-to-children.com/god-is-in-the-church-nursery/ ) However, maybe someone else is at a stage in their life where nursery is not a “duty” but a joy. Even better, a chance to serve the younger families who may need a refuge at church from the everyday demands of parenthood.

    Now, 23 years later, one of my other observations has to do with the training of volunteers. If your church does not have a training program for your volunteers or at a minimum a clear job description for each role, even nursery workers, get one. Doing a job for free does not mean you desire success or positive impact any less than if it was a paid job. I have talked with volunteers who felt they were failing because they were never told exactly what it was they were supposed do and the desired outcomes. Just recently, a young mother put in a midweek kids club leadership role talked about how she felt she was drowning/floundering because she had no idea how she was supposed to be running things. She assumed that because she felt that way she was obviously doing something wrong and the kids were suffering because the program was not being run correctly. Of course, the kids were doing fine and had no clue but that’s not the point. Will she be back next year? Will she encourage or discourage others from joining the program?

    Finding and retaining volunteers can be a full time job in any non profit organization. My own church and others I know have struggled with one issue or another in the search for volunteers for years. Is your church struggling more than normal also? Maybe it’s time to take a moment for self evaluation and see what you could do better in aiding those we serve to be able to serve better.

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