Over recent months I’ve been involved in a number of conversations about how to encourage people in voluntary ministry. How do we excite people about the possibilities? How do we place the right people in the right positions? What motivates people to keep on serving once the initial enthusiasm has dropped off? Should we pay people to do certain jobs? Should we replace the idea of rosters with teams? What is the role of a ‘Serve’ or ‘Ministry’ Coordinator at church? Is it reasonable to expect every person at church to have an identifiable area of service? How do you remove people when they’re not paid, but they’re not really doing the job? Should voluntary ministries have contracts? How do you develop a mindset of multiplying the number of people in ministry? These are some of the questions we’ve been considering.
Connect: How to double your number of volunteers by Nelson Searcy caught my attention. Perhaps it would fill the gaps in my reading about voluntary ministry. Does this book have all the answers? In short—’no’! Is it helpful—’yes’! The strength of this book is its practical advice on mobilising and supporting people in voluntary ministry. Its weakness is that it’s not sufficiently explicitly grounded in the gospel.
Searcy has identified that churches with high levels of volunteers participating in ministry have good quality ministry systems operating. The ministry system is the mechanism or pathway that enables people to get into service and develop in their area of service. He argues that people are keen to get involved, but in some churches they simply don’t know how. It’s not clear what they need to do, who they need to talk with, what’s expected, or pretty much anything else. Good systems enable things to keep happening regularly so that the pastoral staff aren’t always starting from scratch. We don’t always notice when a system is working well because it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but it’s not hard to pick when the system is broken or non-existent. If we want to get people volunteering and serving in a range of ministries in the church then we need a strong system that helps mobilise them and sustain them in service.
Connect suggests four steps to creating an effective ministry system:
- Clarify your theology of ministry
- Create first-serve opportunities
- Cultivate a ministry ladder
- Celebrate and reproduce servants
Clarifying your theology of ministry
A strong theology of ministry will build ministry in the church, whereas a weak theology of ministry will limit it. It is more important and more powerful to call people to serve out of their response to God, than to the request of the Sunday School superintendent. This isn’t about manipulating people. It’s about giving people the opportunity to express their worship of God and to use the gifts that God has given them. Inviting people to serve is a way of encouraging their growth in Christ rather than a means of finding cheap labour.
Searcy’s church has built its theology of ministry around eight theological foundations. He doesn’t call us to follow them, but to determine our own. Their foundations are:
1) Ministry means to serve
2) Serving is an act of putting the needs of others before our own needs
3) The goal of the ministry system is to help people become more like Jesus
4) You cannot become more like Jesus Christ unless you learn to be a servant
5) Serving opens people’s hearts to God and therefore is part of worship
6) If people aren’t serving, they aren’t truly worshiping and growing in their faith
7) Mobilizing people for ministry is part of discipleship
8) The role of the pastor is to equip people for ministry
Searcy uses serving as a measurement for assessing the health of the church. He uses a 30/50/20 rule. He wants 30% of the church to be sitting on the sidelines, not serving. They are the pre-servers. He wants 50% of the church to be serving at least one hour per week. Perhaps leading a small group, on the music team, serving as a welcomer, etc. And he wants 20% of the church involved in some kind of evangelism or outreach ministry. He says we should feel free to adopt something else for the last 20%. To be honest I found this rule to be somewhat strange and arbitrary. I get the idea of people waiting to get into service, and I get the idea of some people’s ministry being external to the church’s ministry systems, but I think we should be working toward everyone contributing to the building of the body of Christ.
A first step into service
Connect suggests mobilising new servers into first-time service opportunities in two ways. The first way involves increasing the number of new people in existing ministry positions. The second involves recruiting people into new ministry positions.
There are various ways to create serve opportunities in existing areas:
- Put a time limit on serving. If you don’t provide time limits volunteers will burn out and you fail to create spaces for new volunteers. When leaders take time off it allows new leaders to get involved.
- Divide existing ministry areas into quarters. Work out how to turn existing ministry positions into four positions. This creates three new spaces for service and creates more teamwork.
- Create A-B-C teams for each ministry area. Get teams rotating, rather than serving weekly. They can rotate weekly, monthly, quarterly, whatever works. By rotating teams you open spots for people to step into and give people a regular rest. If you don’t think you can fill all these positions, Searcy challenges you to let go of the scarcity mentality. He believes people are out there looking for opportunities to serve.
- Plan a shadow day. Invite people who are currently serving to bring a friend to shadow them in their ministry for a day. This will give people a taste and many will want to do it again.
- Put on a ministry/volunteer fair. Make sure the details of every ministry position are clear, and provide a simple sign-up process.
- Use special events to encourage people to serve. Some people will be nervous about signing up long term, but willing to commit to a special event. This will get them started.
- Potential volunteers could be sitting on the sidelines out of fear. They’re hesitant to get involved because they don’t know exactly what they’re being asked to commit to. Make it clear.
The power of new beginnings
Getting new people involved in existing ministry positions is only approach. The second way to introduce people into ministry is to create first-serve opportunities by creating new ministry positions in which people can serve.
Firstly, identify needs in the church that aren’t being served. Work out how to address a need that isn’t being met. Consider who will be needed to meet this need. Work out how to present this in a compelling way.
Clarity is critical. What needs to be done? How many people are needed and for how long? If you are not explicitly clear then volunteers will quickly get disillusioned through lack of direction. This will also make it harder to mobilise people the next time round.
Here are two things to do when mobilizing people for a specific need:
- Create a one-time opportunity to meet that need. You don’t need to begin by mapping out a whole new ministry.
- Personally recruit people to serve. This doesn’t mean an announcement at church, a note on the church bulletin, an email to the church, or even an ad in the positions vacant section of the church website. It is specific and personal.
Once the need is established, the one-time opportunity is worked out, and people are personally recruited to serve, the next step is to cast the vision for continuing the new ministry. Once people have a taste of doing it, and enjoying what they do, and seeing its significance for the Kingdom of God, they are more likely to invest in its continuation.
Once the vision for the ongoing ministry is communicated, you can engage more ongoing volunteers for a specific length of term.
Searcy wisely suggests getting rid of the word ‘need’. It communicates we are unprepared, disorganised, or that the ministry is an area that people don’t want to serve in. It’s much better to speak of the ‘opportunity’ to serve.
He also addresses the issue of whether to allow people who aren’t Christian to serve in the church. His answer is definitely ‘yes’. He believes that many need to feel that they belong in the community before they come to believe what the community believes. He encourages churches to find or create ways that unbelievers can serve in the church that are okay. This won’t be in leadership, but people could be helping with food, making coffee, greeting people, and so on.
Preach about ministry and serving. Keep it on the agenda. Show what the Bible teaches about these areas. Give biblical motivation for involvement. Do this every year and at key times in the year. Before most ministries kick off for the year might be a good time. So might a few weeks prior to recruiting people into new areas for the year to come.
He also suggests attaching serving to membership and to participation in small groups, and holding people accountable. This means only people in small groups are entitled to serve in particular areas. Only church members are entitled to serve in others.
Make it easy for people to get involved. Remove all the stumbling blocks in the way of people wanting to serve. Signing up should be a simple and clear. Too often we make it vague or complicated. Involvement in children’s ministry will require more thorough screening processes and training.
He says to ask ‘How many can we mobilise?’ rather than ‘How few do we need?’. Get rid of the scarcity mentality.
Don’t turn away volunteers. If people have a couple hours to serve, then find something for them to do. The pastor’s job is to mobilise and equip people for service.
Lake and ladders
Rick Warren wrote in The Purpose-Driven Church that “Most churches say ‘discover your spiritual gift and then you’ll know what ministry you are supposed to have.’ Searcy believes the exact opposite—start experimenting with different ministries and then you will discover your gifts! Until you start serving, you won’t know what you’re good at.
Connect describes the idea of a ministry ladder. It helps to organise thinking about volunteers, different positions, and levels of volunteer engagement. When someone starts volunteering—no matter what ministry area—the next step is to help them identify and climb the right ministry ladder.
So with small groups, the lowest rung on the ladder is group member. The next rung involves them taking responsibility within the group. The next rung could involve them becoming a core member or an apprentice leader. Then becoming a leader. Then a mentor of leaders. Then a coach of mentors. Each rung brings more responsibility, more accountability, and more connection to the church. We might not like the idea of ‘climbing’ and ‘promotion’ implicit in the image of the ladder, but it helps people to see a pathway for ministry involvement. Clarity is the key.
We should also make sure people are climbing the right ladder. If they need to switch ladders, then let them. They need to discover how God has gifted them to serve most effectively.
Lessons learned the hard way
- Clearly define the ladder of a ministry before you let people start climbing.
- Have some positions on the ladder that people who aren’t Christians can fill.
- Create a clear position description that defines each rung of the ladder. Expectations must be clearly defined and agreed upon. Agreements prevent disagreements.
- Hold people accountable for their level.
- Be wary of people who want to climb the rungs of the ladder but don’t want to meet the requirements.
- Let people know it’s okay to switch ladders.
- Don’t let people climb to the higher rungs of more than one ladder. You don’t want them burning out.
- Challenge people to move to the next level. Yet at some point people will find what they’re best at—allow them to keep doing what they do well.
- Consider compensating High Capacity Volunteers. Perhaps pay them.
- Celebrate and reward each step taken.
Calling out the called
Consider how to encourage some people to consider vocational Christian ministry. I recommend reading Michael Bennett’s book—Do you feel called by God?—for a more biblical understanding of this area.
Ongoing recruitment and reproduction
Searcy has developed a formula for creating a steady flow of new volunteers at church:
GE + TL + CTR + AM + GN = Constant flow of new volunteers
Every step in the formula matters.
Good Experience (GE)
Making sure your volunteers have a good experience when they serve is important if you want to keep reproducing volunteers.
Define the time of commitment.
Challenge to Reproduce (CTR)
Regularly challenge people to keep growing their ministry area. Get them thinking of building teams and reproducing themselves.
Accountability and Motivation (AM)
Hold people accountable for the job they’ve agreed to do. Keep encouraging them in their service.
Good Network (GN)
Continually refill and build your network by following up on people who indicate an interest in serving. Build a list of potential servers. Take every opportunity to encourage people to serve.
Creating a culture of celebration
Searcy believes we don’t celebrate enough in church and suggests six occasions worth celebrating:
- When a volunteer serves for the first time.
- When a volunteer reaches a service milestone
- When a volunteer moves to the next level
- During the weekend service—praise people; pray for them; have someone share how they have grown through serving.
- When a volunteer is not expecting it. Surprise!
Where to begin? Clarify your theology of ministry. Get a ministry system clearly worked out and put into place. Begin encouraging people into service. Celebrate from the beginning!
To be honest, I have been a little biased against reading books by Nelson Searcy. I read an ebook previously that seemed to be an infomercial for about 8 different DVD courses. But I’m glad I put that aside and looked at Connect.
I do have a gripe. I’ve believe that any good approach to engaging people in ministry, must begin clearly and explicitly at the cross. People need to recognise that Jesus came to serve us, before they can appreciate what it means to serve him. This must not be assumed, otherwise it will be forgotten. So I recommend reading this book alongside or after John Hindley’s excellent book, Serving without sinking.
Secondly, my appreciation. This book is full of tried and tested practical suggestions for working with people in ministry. My experience has revealed that some people have given up trying to serve in church because they don’t know how to get involved. It is not clear. The leaders have not developed obvious systems for recruiting, equipping, encouraging and sustaining people in service. I’ve heard of people who have given up offering to help because their pastor does nothing to help them engage in service. This is sad news. I recommend we do an audit of our ministry systems. How visible and clear are they? Is one person the bottleneck to involvement? Are expectations spelt out carefully? Are there support structures in place? And you think of your own questions.
I was intrigued by the suggestion of breaking down ministries into different parts to offer more opportunities for involvement. At first read it sounded silly. Surely we should get volunteers taking up responsibilities that aren’t being filled. But it’s grown on me. Teamwork is so helpful in building ministry and sustaining volunteers. Sometimes people burn out because the task is either too big or too lonely. Developing teams can change this.
I certainly wouldn’t adopt everything I read in this book, but I appreciated the way that it got me thinking practically and particularly about engaging people in ministry. This is the pastor’s job description and I recommend we devote particular time and effort to thinking through how we build the church through its many members serving one another.