Six Insights for Leading Lay Volunteers at Your Church

One of the greatest blessings in churches today and throughout history is the number of men and women who gladly and often sacrificially give of their time and energy to do ministry in local congregations. Indeed, churches across the world would not function as they do without the giving spirit of these lay volunteers. Paid staff alone are not sufficient to do all the work of ministry in any church.

Simultaneously, one of the greatest challenges for leaders in churches today is the recruiting and retention of these lay volunteers. Indeed I have had several conversations with church leaders who have seen significant successes and blessings with the mobilization of laity in their churches. I am particularly grateful for the insights given to me by Jess Rainer of Grace Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and Eric Geiger, who recently served at Christ Fellowship in Miami.

These two men, as well as several other church leaders, shared similar stories about their challenges and victories in lay mobilization. In this post, I share with you six insights I gleaned from several leaders who have been successful in recruiting and retaining lay volunteers.

  1. Training is critical. In one of our recent studies, almost all the pastors surveyed affirmed the importance of training lay volunteers. Sadly, the same study showed that only about one-fourth of those pastors had any strategy for training volunteers. Training creates ownership that results in motivated and giving volunteers. I am excited that LifeWay will introduce in just a couple of months a new and incredible resource to help churches across the world train their laity effectively and inexpensively.
  2. Affirmation should be ongoing. Most lay volunteers don’t get involved in church ministries for the attention or the affirmation. But when leaders affirm their work, it communicates to the volunteers that their work in ministry is important. People want to know they are involved in something that makes a difference. Affirmation gives them that very message.
  3. The relationship between the laity and paid church staff should always be a partnership. Church leaders should continuously communicate that all work of ministry is a co-laborship. There is no organizational hierarchy where the laity submits to the church staff. One group does ministry as a calling and vocation. The other group does ministry as a calling and unpaid service. Both are vital in the life of the church.
  4. The form of communication with laity is critical. As much as possible, vocational church leaders should spend face-to-face time with lay volunteers. They should learn how those volunteers like to communicate. For some, a text message is fine. For others, they want to hear a live voice. But all of them need some personal interaction with the paid church leaders.
  5. Start lay volunteers with bite-size responsibilities. Don’t overwhelm them with a task or ministry that appears daunting. See how they respond to smaller, well-defined tasks at first. From that point, leaders can discern if the volunteers can take on more ministry responsibilities.
  6. Communicate with clarity and specificity. Many lay volunteers quit out of frustration because they think their assignments are neither clear nor specific. Don’t assume volunteers have the same level of insights or knowledge as those whose daily work and responsibility is at the local church. It is better to over-explain and to be redundant than to assume the volunteer has significant prior knowledge about the ministry assignment.

How is your church doing in mobilizing laity to do the work of ministry? What are some victories and success stories you could share? What are some struggles you have experienced?

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Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer

Thom S. Rainer is the founder and CEO of Church Answers, an online community and resource for church leaders. Prior to founding Church Answers, Rainer served as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Before coming to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism. He is a 1977 graduate of the University of Alabama and earned his Master of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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What say you? Leave a comment!

Louise — 10/08/13 3:30 pm

I've served numerous churches as a paid staff member and as a volunteer. By far, being a volunteer has been the most frustrating and painful. If I didn't love God and His people with everything in me and feel an intense call of God to win/disciple the lost, I would move to a cabin in the woods, seek God as a monk, and try to avoid dealing with church foolishness. I've had numerous experiences where specific staff never returned phone calls or emails. There is one church that my husband served as part-time staff for 4 years. The pastor was very good about returning calls/emails. Once we became volunteers at that church, though, the staff person who oversaw our area would hardly give us the time of day. At another church of 1,000, I had to copy the senior pastor whenever I emailed the Staff person who oversaw the area of ministry I was a leader in, or that Staff person would never respond back. (Sad, that the Senior Pastor had to put pressure on him to do something he should have done without pressure.) Often staff neglect to include volunteer leaders in decisions made in regard to their ministry. My whole budget was cancelled for one outreach ministry I had been recruited to lead, because of a church building program. I had no money to run it or promote it. (Sad, I had 100 people from the community participating in this outreach program. ) At the same church, I led a Wednesday night Bible electives ministry and the pastor and his associate made the decision to combine everyone into one group, without involving me or notifying me (I read about it in the bulletin.) After 10 years, we left that church and no one ever asked why. It seems like it should be common knowledge that people need to know about a class before they will attend, yet some churches make it very difficult to publicize a class. Before the Wednesday ministry was changed, the pastor had made decisions that cut out most avenues for promoting classes in the church. No inserts in bulletins, posters around building, and there was no info station, so the only place left was to put flyers, on the inside doors of the bathroom stalls. In another church, a new staff member took over the media department. He didn't trust a volunteer experienced marketing person/writer to put together updated flyers of discipleship classes, so a year went by with nothing to provide people. The website, only showed some of the groups. (How long does it take to fix a template or type up/print a flyer?) Result: Group attendance suffered and it was hard to build new groups. Better to use a volunteer, even though that volunteer might come up with a different design that you would. (Staff member: Don't complain about limited time when you aren't using the people resources He provided you.) The church I attend now doesn't track attendance or believe in taking surveys. They have a revolving door and have lost most of the youth and young couples. It's too bad the staff don't seek out faithful volunteers to receive insights. The volunteers are the ones who are sitting in the pews, talking to those around them, before and after service. The staff seems too busy dealing with the urgent and organizing the next worship service./event to really listen. Well, now that I got that off my chest, I will continue to fight the good fight!

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comment_post_ID); ?> Thank you Ed for sharing your insights into the Church Growth Movement. I have my reservations with Church Growth models because it has done more damage than good in the Body of Christ. Over the years, western churches are more focused on results, formulas and processes with little or no emphasis on membership and church discipline. Pastors and vocational leaders are burnt out because they're overworked. I do believe that the Church Growth model is a catalyst to two destructive groups: The New Apostolic Reformation and the Emerging Church. Both groups overlap and have a very loose definition. They're both focus on contemporary worship, expansion of church brand (franchising), and mobilizing volunteering members as 'leaders' to grow their ministry. Little focus on biblical study, apologetics and genuine missional work with no agenda besides preaching of the gospel.
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comment_post_ID); ?> Thank you for sharing such a good article. It is a great lesson I learned from this article. I am one of the leaders in Emmanuel united church of Ethiopia (A denomination with more-than 780 local churches through out the country). I am preparing a presentation on succession planning for local church leaders. It will help me for preparation If you send me more resources and recommend me books to read on the topic. I hope we may collaborate in advancing leadership capacity of our church. God Bless You and Your Ministry.
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