You all face this question in whatever church ministry you lead. How do we recruit and keep committed people volunteering in our church? Our culture of mobility and distraction means church attendance for even the most adherent is likely to be about twice per month. You have ministries that require deliverables on a 52-week basis. The train doesn’t seem to stop for long at each week. Music, altar, childcare, youth, refreshments, and even parking in some cases all need attention. Beyond these, there are mid-week charity projects and special events around the church calendar. How are your Easter and Christmas seasons treating you lately? All of our plans succeed only by having people in place, trained, and committed. These activities all are applied almost as a template on the scattered lives of our people who schedule soccer games, family crisis, and work commutes before we can even open the church calendar. Our culture says that we then should be more efficient. Some refuse this for old-fashioned we’ve-always-done-it-this-way squabbling. But, what if we see that people are the product as well as the process. Shouldn’t we find a system to solve our dilemma of recruitment?

Factory Vs Family: The Secret To Recruiting And Keeping Committed Volunteers

Our nation is built upon systems. We changed the world with automation, factories, and communication technologies. Some might say Abraham Lincoln won the Civil War by using a messaging technique not so far off from our texting to each other. He utilized the newly built telegraph wire to run his war from a basement. Getting up-to-the-minute information has been with us for over one-hundred-fifty years. At the onset of automobile technology came along Henry Ford who used standardized parts and pricing to put autos in the hand of the average person. The genie of industrialization can never be put back into the bottle. Whether we shop at Walmart or even our local grocery store, we buy goods from a great distance made with the same ideals that built a structure capable of winning world wars and sending a man to the moon. We are bound to a factory mindset that is ingrained in us. Systems, by the way, do work! But, are they human? How does our bent to trust systems possibly weaken our resolve to develop people? I base these questions on a very pointed statement: People are both the product of our ministry as well as how we do ministry!

I apologize for the use of business terms, but that is where we are as a culture and the language we understand. Our product, “disciples”, are people. However much we focus on the process, we must first agree that our mission as Christians, and as the Church, is to invite people to follow Jesus and live out and share the good news of that invitation. We can become addicted to the machinery of running an organization, strategizing vision, and growing our bottom line, but without the focus on the idea that the church is a family, all our efforts might as well be applied to making silly apps that distract us on our smartphones while we wait in line at Target. There has been much said about systems, and we do need to consider these. However, systems only work if those systems are as human as the humans we put into them. We have a few barriers to overcome, but we can move from factory to family if we are courageous enough to think backward at times. Let’s explore the inherited culture a bit.

God empowers people, not programs, systems, or structures.

Management is a science. Management is designed to program a result with techniques. I am not a businessman, but having worked in large organizations with budgets in the seven figures and volunteer teams in the hundreds, one cannot survive without management skills in some settings. Systems can be life-giving. They bring order. But, they are not the goal, nor are they anything but tools. I remember conferences firing on all cylinders about structure. Something can only grow as large as the structure allows. This is indeed true. Jethro basically gave his son-in-law Moses a pattern for the appellate court system we enjoy today. More people can be heard, personally, by creating such a system that breaks things down in layers. Deception occurs when we allow the success of programs to be seen as the source. I don’t remember who said this, but it seems better to have good leadership and bad management than the opposite. Leadership is about people, ultimately.

Since we mentioned it, let’s explain the Jethro Principle. In Exodus 18, we find Moses’ father-in-law comes to pay a visit after Pharaoh was defeated and the people of Israel successfully migrated. What a story to tell! Jethro heard about the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea and God’s voice to Moses. The second day of the visit Moses begins his all-day-long hearing of disputes and teaching about God. Jethro asks about this and seems to put his face into his palms. “You are going to wear yourself out!” says Jethro to Moses. Jethro then begins to explain a structure to hear cases. He advises Moses to divide people into thousands, hundreds, fifties, and finally into tens. Some things then can be answered within the first layer with ten people! That seemed a lot better than hundreds of thousands waiting to hear directly from Moses. That day Moses was able to “endure” a long life. He took the advice.

This proves that a system is a good thing. Moses could not lead a large group all on his own. People would not have the leadership. But, it was not a duplication of who Moses was. Moses was a special prophet. It was an empowerment of nearly one person out of ten to speak for God and lead in the midst of the people. Tribal structures work. Management studies these things and if we are not aware of them, we will hurt our chances of successful leadership. But the one thing not to miss here is who Moses chose. He chose trustworthy people–people who would not be swayed by a bribe but remain true to God’s Word. In our ministries, do we empower people like this or do we keep control over every little issue and work long hours to the point of burnout? When a structure is about empowering people, we then begin to see God use those people.

People are made in God’s image. Believers are empowered by the Holy Spirit. Dealing with people means we first accept the amazing creation they are. People are not tools to use for a system, a cog in the wheel, or a number to count. People are to be loved, challenged, and developed. That takes more leadership and less management. While the skills of management are worthy, we use them by first honoring God by seeing people as God sees them. The reason the Jethro Principle works is that it is about empowering people at a smaller level, not because it allows things to become huge around a single leader. Even the largest of created living things are built on the unit of a cell. People might be that cell that duplicates in a structure creating a huge sequoia tree. Are people too small for us to see the glory of God in them? Do we value the ministry at the level of 10s and 50s as much as the ministry in the 100s and 1000s? People are what matters in a structure like this.

Power and control is the enemy of volunteerism

If a structure is designed for efficiency for us as the leader, then we are looking to keep control. We are the roadblock, just as Moses was in Exodus 18. I remember a pastor of a large church who insisted on micromanaging a t-shirt design. As the one on staff to oversee graphics, I had in mind to empower a team of volunteers to take this on. However, the pastor insisted on making even minimal changes, delaying the project and keeping me from other work and any qualified volunteer at bay. It did not matter that I had recruited people who could do better than I–or the pastor. What mattered was that the pastor’s vision for the details of one t-shirt was more important than empowering the talent of volunteers–who arguably would create a better t-shirt. And, for a pastor of a large church to spend time on that t-shirt, it meant he was not tending to other items.

We graduate small issues to the big desk all too often. We have people in our church who can and should make decisions for our church family. While we have higher levels who teach and dispense theology, there are people who are better suited to run a project like a t-shirt. If he could see it, Jethro was face-palming this pastor I mentioned. As leaders in the church, kicking the habit of the drug of control opens the door to volunteer growth. Keeping the reins on the smallest of issues not only inhibits the base of volunteer activity, it makes a pastor or leader very tired.

Some of us are great at empowering at the 10s level. We would never do a t-shirt! But, we may be poor at the level of 1000s or 100s. Empowering volunteers to lead nearer to our level is indeed trickier. If the issues of theology, church direction, and outcomes are part of the equation, we indeed need to be careful to vet and train who we put into place. However, we must put a structure and system in place that not only gives power at the lower levels, but at the mid-levels as well. Many smaller churches stay small because of this inability to trust people with heavy commitment and responsibility. The more we grow is based on how little we personally control. The choice is to control or empower–manage or lead! Choose wisely.

How do you equip and lead, rather than manage and control your people?


So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

– Ephesians 4:11-13 

We need a new system, right? How do we move from one way of thinking to another? Equipping takes a process and new way of thinking for many church leaders. Why? We are taught that one person has a vision and it is our role to align people to that vision. While it is true that God gives leaders direction; it takes a community to confirm and create a full picture of the vision of that direction God gives to leaders. How do we equip HIS people for works of service? There are three steps to equipping our volunteers. First, we develop them. Secondly, we employ them. Lastly, we challenge and encourage them along the way.

Development of people is all about the relationship. We must lead relationally, in other words, to develop our people as volunteers. It takes recruiting and inviting to build a team. If no one is there to lead, you likely are not leading. So develop and grow by inviting people into a relationship with you as one who is an equipper. If we look to fill a slot, we create a big back door. A relationship means we offer value to the one we recruit–not just asking them to work for us. How many people have you invited to serve this past week? Do you have relationships that allow you the permission to ask and invite?

Employment of volunteers is about where an individual fits. Who are those who I lead? What experiences, strengths, and gifts do they have? What are their individual stories and how has God shaped them by those? Spending the time in a relationship means after we recruit and invite them, we actually wisely place them. Sometimes this can be trial and error or administratively crafted. Regardless, grace has to be there to see that in the end, a volunteer is acting out of who they are, not just our need. We should be less about controlling where our holes are and more about empowering people to be as God made them!

We need to coach, and coaching is about challenging and encouraging these saints in the process of their service. It takes time, not only to grow the numbers in your ranks, but to find out where they fit and to keep them on the path of how God has uniquely shaped them. Being a shepherd means commitment in time. It is about uncovering potential and giving permission and courage for people to take steps. This takes a challenge. Inviting people to own their issues and step up to the task is what being a shepherd is all about. A manager just gets people to behave a certain way. A leader allows a person to make the right choices on their own. In their book, Understanding & Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer, Jonathan McKee and Thomas McKee say the following: “‘Manager’ is the position, not the method. ‘Coaching’ is the work of the manager.” Be a coach!

Volunteers are your church’s knowledge workers!

A knowledge worker is someone who wants to make decisions. Knowledge workers want to be empowered. They want to volunteer, but they want to influence how the volunteer project should be accomplished. Many volunteers today are professionals and want to be treated like professionals.

– Jonathan McKee, Thomas McKee

No one wants to simply be a cog in a machine or a person aligned with a vision. When people are led well, they mature, and that means they are more stable and less likely to break the momentum God has for your church ministries. People burn out when we get comfortable having them fill a role we need them to fill while they may be capable of doing far more than we give the time to imagine. The one you have as your bass player might make a good director of tech ministries. Again, the drug of control knocks our thinking out of balance.

In defining roles here, the goal is to see leadership and volunteers in their proper functions. Volunteers are what make a church run. Staff or other leaders know this. What we don’t know is how to motivate and properly align. How does a volunteer thrive? What makes him or her stay motivated when the task wears on them?

I am going to list three verbs that, when in balance, work well to keep the volunteer machine humming. Or, more importantly, these may help you diagnose where your people need support and challenge. For instance, if you have many who think their role is to “be in charge” or to “display talent”, then my hope is that you can move your team to a better place. Motivation has to be led, and leading is embodied in service.

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

– 1 Peter 4:10-11

Serve – Let’s be about the “one-anothers.” Maturity means that ministry does not serve me, it serves the recipient first. If I am a worship leader, I may enjoy singing and have a special connection to God, but my role is to be sure others worship before I do. This allows me to evaluate my participation as a volunteer being about others first. The opposite of this is fodder for your team taking a dive into in-fighting, politics, and ineffectiveness.

Solve – Let’s give permission. Leaders think they have to solve everything, but giving direction is not solving, it is creating issues to solve. When we empower our volunteers to take charge of solving the presenting issues, we can move things forward a lot faster, and people are motivated because they have permission to do ministry. If there are sound issues, a pastor says “Fix the issues.” Then the team can collaborate to solve the “issues” better than if that pastor himself goes behind the sound console and attempts to do so. Too much direct control will leave you with a demoralized team.

Reproduce – Let’s charge the whole team to recruit. While developing the team in numbers is perhaps the goal of the leader, the people who do work shine when they reproduce. What has to be fought is that sometimes a member will love what they do so much that he or she forgets others need to learn the task as well. In fact, if they run a lighting board, they might want to take a week off. Your bench has to grow, and your people have to learn the art of mentorship as a priority. Otherwise, you will live in the “play not to lose mode” and panic that you might lose key members. That culture creates instability, and that is a sign of spiritual immaturity in your group. Reproduce more than simply working the task. Remember, people are both the product of our ministry and the means of how we accomplish our ministry.

Motivation is backwards in reality!

One of the reasons why control is such a bad thing for us is that we are designed by God to lead. It took an anthropologically based economics book to help me understand this principle in full color. Our motivations are quite backward from what a lot of factory-influenced thinking tells us. That thinking is based on our core culture. Our nation was built by the power of the factory, moving us from rural farmers to city dwellers who punched the clock. Let’s not go back to the factory where putting out widgets faster and cheaper is the goal. The motivation for a successful factory simply doesn’t work.

We might be surprised at how people are actually motivated. We think more praise or financial reward works, but it is not all about money. I am going to share what author Daniel Pink in his book Drive says about “Taylorism” and how we need to shed it in the workforce. I would say that we use this same 19th-century science of leading an assembly line as our model for leading our church and volunteers. We are the experts; the volunteers fill slots. We are like Alfred Hitchcock who would keep his actors in the dark and call them cattle. Where a factory is good for making widgets, the intangibles of ministry do not require efficiency. This also means we have to change the way we lead.

Taylorism is a scientific management method developed to make that efficient factory hum. There are a lot of things about Taylorism we can celebrate. We have standardization, for example, where parts or processes can be duplicated. The issue is that if you paid a factory worker a bit more for working faster, they would surely go for it. After all, maybe all you are doing is putting on a screw. Daniel Pink explains that in our knowledge worker economy, this motivation fails. If you create graphics, producing more per hour will not come by higher pay–up to a certain point, you have enough and need other motivational factors to improve performance.

Interesting findings came out of an MIT incentive experiment that rewarded top performers and ignored lower performers. As long as the task is with mechanical skills rewards work. Anything above rudimentary cognitive, a larger reward led to a poorer performance by the conceptual and creative thinker. Higher incentives actually crashed the top performers. Pay people enough to live, and it took the issue off the table. They found, as Daniel Pink reports, higher performance and personal satisfaction comes from three leading factors.

The first is giving the employee some autonomy. If you want engagement, self-direction is better. One day of autonomy brings out tremendous innovation. The company Atlas in Australia found that allowing this caused people across departments to solve issues that management structures prevented. The research and development of Atlas were greatly enhanced. Imagine if you allow a volunteer to run with a t-shirt project, an event dinner, or a charity program? Having autonomy motivates.

The second factor is gaining mastery, or our urge to get better at what we do. Linux, Apache and other online code were created by volunteers who wanted to master their craft. The result is that many emails you send from big corporations are handled by code written by volunteers! When is the last time you scheduled training for your volunteer team? I have found that one of the biggest barriers to recruiting a volunteer is when there is little training offered. If we can help people master something, they will be internally motivated.

The last of our motivators is giving a greater purpose. As leaders, when we give vision it is not an external wave of influence but the invigorating enlightening of the heart and passion of our people. Intrinsic motivation is how we are made! God knows this, as our creator. We know that rules for the sake of rules are an affront. They do not motivate us. But, to be called to something greater will pull us into conscription. We will sign up for the front lines if we must! Give me something to die for; then I can live for something. As believers, our mission must inspire. Are we reminding our people enough about why we do what we do?

A family is better than a factory!

When it comes to a ministry model, if we use business techniques, we better use ones that are current and working. Our high-tech world has created the knowledge worker. But, the real secret is reaching further back to the Creation. We were created as a family! We invite people into a family when they choose to follow Christ, not a drone-like life on the factory assembly line. The adventure of our calling to live out the Gospel should excite us. Just as we learn as parents, we don’t seek to control our kids, but teach them to accomplish much in their own right. That gives us the most pride. In a family, we give away, we sacrifice, and we love. Surely, that is a better model for how to lead and grow volunteers in our churches.

About The Author

Rich Kirkpatrick

Rich is a writer, blogger, speaker, musician, father and husband to his best friend. You can check out his latest book, The Six Hats of the Worship Leader, on his website, RKblog.com

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