When Volunteers Aren’t Ready to Return

Volunteer recruitment is always a challenge, but the difficulty has increased as we come out of a pandemic. In most churches, about 50% of attenders are returning. Many who return are still not ready to serve in ways that put them in close proximity to others, especially children. Many are weary from changes in their professional and personal lives. Many have simply gotten out of the habit of commitments following a time when many obligations were paused. 

Yet our churches and ministries are reopening, as they need to. How do we handle reopening when so many people aren’t ready to volunteer?

    1. Pray. This is not just a Sunday School answer. We are dealing with spiritual issues and our number one go-to has to be to ask God for His help and His wisdom. Pray for those who are hurting or fearful. Pray for those who are willing. Pray for God to show you His path in equipping the church to serve.
    2. Be gracious and understanding. Due to the reasons mentioned above and a thousand possible others, you and your team will be told “no” a lot. When church members aren’t ready to serve, respond with much grace. Support their decision and refrain from judgment. How you respond now can greatly impact their willingness to serve in the future. 
    3. Reopen in stages. If only 50% of your congregation has returned, be cautious about trying to reopen 100% of your ministries right away. Consider what is most essential to open first. Some churches reopened elementary ministry first because they are easier to social distance and can function with fewer numbers of volunteers. Some churches open nursery first because the little ones have a harder time attending service with their families. Determine a step-by-step approach for your reopening rather than try to do everything at once.
    4. Restructure. We are all tired of hearing about our “new normal.” However, your ministry is going to look differently in this season. View this as an opportunity to get creative and do something different. In our church, we have always had an hour of kids’ Sunday School and an hour of kids’ worship. In this season, we are only doing kids’ small groups for elementary. Kids are encouraged to attend worship with their parents and we have adapted our services to include them. What can you do differently so that you can still provide effective ministry, yet adapt to having fewer volunteers?
    5. Rotate volunteers. I have always been an advocate of having consistency in your volunteer base as much as possible. Having the same volunteers serve in the same capacity each week provides the most stability. However, in this season I have had to learn to compromise here. People aren’t ready to “all in” commit. However, try offering lower commitment levels such as once or twice a month. Work your way back to consistency.
    6. Make the hard asks. Sometimes we feel bad asking people to serve, especially when we know that everyone’s life situation is a bit tumultuous right now. We may feel like we are bothering people or guilting them into serving. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are truly asking them to participate in kingdom work.
    7. Stay in contact with those who aren’t coming back yet. Your former volunteers who weren’t ready to come back, probably won’t stay in that space forever. Maintain relationships. Check in with them. Consider finding no-contact ways they could still serve such as writing cards or making phone calls. Keep them in the loop with communication. Most of all, check in and care for them. 
    8. Communicate with your leadership. Keep other church leadership informed of the challenges you face and how you are working to address them. Don’t whine and complain, rather share facts and concerns. Work together to establish reopening timelines and determine what is realistic for your congregation at this time. The more you strategically communicate with your senior leadership, the better understanding they can have of what is happening in your ministry and the better they can support you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

As with everything else in ministry these days, we are figuring this out as we go. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with your congregation. More than anything else, trust God that He has a beautiful plan for your ministry. 

Posted on September 3, 2020

Jenny serves as Minister to Children at West Bradenton Baptist Church in Bradenton, Florida. She is passionate about equipping the church to disciple children to follow Jesus. Jenny also  loves investing in other children's ministry leaders.
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  • You also do not know about the private lives of your volunteers. Some are the primary caregiver for an elderly parent or a spouse, or have underlying health conditions which mean that a positive diagnosis would be fatal. Some may be raising their grandchildren and a positive diagnosis with fatality could result in an orphan.

    “Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are truly asking them to participate in kingdom work.” I believe that kingdom work can be done in a variety of places and ways including raising (grand)children and being a caregiver for someone. What you are saying here is kingdom work under the auspices of this congregation comes before taking care of one’s own family during a pandemic.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    Jenny Smith offers very good advice but it is limited in its usefulness. She is wrong on one point. We are not coming out of a pandemic. We are still in the midst of a pandemic. Some areas may be seeing a reduction in their numbers of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Others are not. They are seeing the opposite. Those that are seeing a drop in the number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have not reached the end stage of the pandemic, They are simply experiencing a hiatus of the pandemic in their area. Outside the United States countries which thought that they had contained the virus are experiencing a resurgence of the virus. Nationwide and in most states the United States has not reached the level of containment that these countries reached. In many areas the pandemic has gone unchecked. The reality is that the population of the United States is divided over the seriousness of the pandemic and the measures that should be taken to contain the pandemic and to mitigates its effects. These divisions are hampering the country’s response to the pandemic with the result that in many areas it is out of control. We certainly should be optimistic and look forward to the day that we do reach the end stage of the pandemic. But we are not close to that stage yet and we need to be realistic in what we recommend to churches that have reopened or are reopening due to a drop or leveling off of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in their area. In my own county the number of cases has been steadily rising. Some weeks it has jumped; other weeks it has leveled off. One reason is that a segment of the population is following the recommended public health measures such as social distancing, quarantine, face masks, hand-washing, good ventilation, and the like. A segment of the population is not. Our local state university which has reopened for the fall semester with a mixture of online and in-person classes has taken a strict approach and to date has seen only a small number of cases in comparison to other universities which have experienced spikes in cases when they reopened and in a number of instances returned to remote learning only. The local school systems are weighing whether they should offer in-person classes as well as online ones. The latest research on the role that children play in the spread of the virus indicates that they play a much larger role than previously thought. Parents are not only concerned about their child contracting the virus but also infecting other members of the household. Teachers are also concerned about contracting the virus from their students. The situation in many areas is far more complex than some posts that I read on the internet would lead us to believe. Recruiting volunteers is going to be a problem for the foreseeable future and I do not believe that churches will come up with workable solutions to this problem until they recognize and meet the safety needs of those they are seeking to recruit to the satisfaction of the individuals whom they are seeking to recruit. Dismissing their safety needs as some church leaders are tempted to do is not going to work.

  • Thanks Jenny for your suggestions. We have actually been practicing several of them, Instead of providing children’s programming at both our Sunday morning services, we only provide them at one service. We will resume the other when our volunteers and families return. We started Middle School and High School Ministries earlier, because that is where we are strongest and they require fewer volunteers. Several of our previous volunteers are hesitant to return just yet, so we have recruited new volunteers who rotate a bit more than normal. And our Children’s Minister is keeping in touch with former volunteers with letters and special gifts. Thanks for reinforcing our current practices and offering new ideas!

    • Jenny Smith says on

      Great job, Randy and church! It is such a challenging season but I”m encouraged by your church pressing forward! Keep cheering on your Children’s Minister.