Volunteer steps

In times of lean staffs, your church can become volunteer-centered

Five steps in making your church a more effective volunteer-led congregation.

By James Higginbotham

With the recent economic downturn, some churches are closing their doors due to lack of money. Many are choosing to downsize their facilities or abandon their multi-million dollar buildings in an effort to stay open. Churches are often forced to lay off staff members, some of whom were recently hired. Now, churches are trying to find out if it is possible to keep the 
church running smoothly while running with lean staff.

One church that has been running with a lean staff for many years is Calvary Austin [ www.calvaryaustin.com ]. They currently have five staff with about 1,000 members. During their early years, the church existed in a low income neighborhood, generating lower-than-average offerings from its membership. Running with a lean staff was essential to cope with their increased growth.

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From volunteer baristas for their onsite coffee bar to volunteer-based building maintenance, they learned that not all church activities had to be performed by the staff. When volunteer resources were not available due to time or lack of specific skills, they contract to local businesses. This not only extended their skill set beyond the membership, it offered opportunities to get to know local businesses and invite them to weekend services.

Volunteers reduced labor cost

As they began to outgrow their current building, they started a building campaign to raise funds for a new location. The cost of the new building, renovations and materials were beyond their means, so they again turned to their volunteers for help. They purchased a building previously occupied by a grocery store and converted it into their new church building using their volunteers to reduce the cost of labor.

Utilizing more than 200 volunteers, they converted one-third of the building into their new church location in just six months. Tasks the volunteers performed included project and volunteer coordination, financial tracking and reporting, preparing meals and babysitting for work crews, landscaping, painting, demolition, stage setup, media setup and cleanup.

While they have experienced additional growth during this time, they still utilize a lean staff and depend heavily on volunteers to accomplish much of their church operations.

Using volunteers well

How did they do it? Let’s examine five steps you can take to become a volunteer-centered church.

1.) Have a well-defined vision. A volunteer centered church requires that your volunteers know and understand the vision of your church. Volunteers are often occupied with a career and family, so having a focused vision will help them to know if the work they are doing for the church is contributing to this vision.

Create a short, memorable vision that helps focus your volunteers. The more complicated or wordy the vision, the more likely they will forget it. Make sure the vision is easily visible and permeates throughout your printed materials, sermons and signage.

Volunteers have short memories. Be sure to communicate it often, as volunteers are busy and need to be reminded on a routine basis. It will also help them to make better decisions during their day-to-day volunteer work, as they will use your vision to guide them.

2.) Limit your programs. The natural desire for a church is to attempt to address every opportunity that comes its way. The result is a drive to add more ministry teams and staff to tackle these opportunities. The problem with this approach is that it isn’t a scalable solution. There are always more opportunities than you can handle and never enough money or people to go around.

Limiting programs allows your volunteers to select from a limited list of serving options. While it may seem that more programs mean more opportunity for volunteers to signup, marketing research indicates that more choice can paralyze rather than encourage decision making. Restricting your programs makes it easier for volunteers to find a way to use their skills while still providing plenty of opportunities to serve their church.

3.) Invest time with your volunteers. Staff members are often inside the same building and are able to spend time together on a personal level, creating camaraderie. While volunteers should be focused on the tasks at hand, they desire the same fellowship and personal growth as your staff. Your job as staff is to create this kind of environment not only for yourself, but for your volunteers as well.

Encourage your leaders to create quarterly team meetings that are casual, allowing volunteers to share in recent successes and discuss upcoming projects. Have them spend one-on-one time with volunteers over coffee outside the normal work time. Reward your volunteers often with praise and small gifts from the church, such as a gift card to their favorite restaurant or handwritten thank you note.

4.) Provide guidance and opportunities for growth. Volunteers need guidance from their staff and leaders during difficult times, but they also need room to grow. Every volunteer brings a unique mix of personal experience and talent to the church. Find the balance between micro-managing your volunteers and failing to give them the support they need.

A great way to create this kind of balance is to break larger tasks or projects into smaller milestones. Each milestone should have a small list of tasks to accomplish toward the larger goal. At the end of each milestone, review the tasks accomplished, provide some feedback, and discuss the next milestone. These smaller milestones can provide great teaching and discipleship moments, help the church improve their volunteer process and ensures that volunteers are on the right track.

5.) Constantly develop and train volunteer leaders. Raising volunteer leaders is essential for churches with a lean staff. These leaders will be directly involved with their team’s day-to-day effort and will know the volunteers that are excelling or require special ministry needs. They can also identify candidates for future leadership positions within the church.

The most effective way of developing volunteer leaders is through consistent training. Finding or developing a core set of training materials will provide the foundation they need during difficult leadership situations. It also demonstrates the staff’s desire to invest and support their leaders.

Servanthood focused

Finally, remember that a lean staff must learn to be servants of its volunteers. Don’t let your staff perform all of the big projects and leaving the leftovers to the volunteers. Instead, let the volunteers own the projects.

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This may require more time, training and course correction, but it will create a more creative and independent volunteer base as time goes by. Plus, it will reduce the burnout of your lean staff.

James Higginbotham is the editor of www.VolunteerCentered.com, a website focused on helping churches with volunteer management, leadership and recruiting.


Learning from lean staffs during lean times

With many congregations facing tighter budgets as they weather the worst economic recession in decades, a survey earlier this year of U.S. church leaders by Christianity Today International and Leadership Network shows that a small percentage of churches are able 
to continue doing ministry while keeping staffing costs — the single-biggest expense for nearly every church — well below national averages. Lean Staffing survey of 735 leaders 
of Protestant and evangelical churches shows that one in seven spends less than 35 percent of its annual budget on staffing costs.

Responses included churches of all sizes, from attendances of 50 to 20,000. Among 

  • Lean staff churches do a better job with volunteers and lay leadership development.
  • Lean staff churches invest a noticeably higher percentage of their budget beyond the
  • walls of their church.
  • Growing churches spend a smaller percentage of their budget on staffing costs, so
  • they’re “leaner” than plateaued or declining churches.
  • Staff costs become leaner with size — as overall weekend worship attendance increases, but not dramatically so.

Historically, churches in recent years spend, on average, about 45 percent of their total budgets on staffing costs — and sometimes more. The Lean Staffing study separated 539 respondents to generate the “lean staffing” comparison: 15 percent of that group spends less than 35 percent on staff, while the rest spend between 35 percent and 65 percent. The study used 35 percent or less as a benchmark since it represents a sizable decrease from national averages and helps with statistical comparisons. A 46-page report on the survey results is available for free at store.churchlawtodaystore.com/lestsure.html— RK


Knowing more about volunteercentered.com

VolunteerCentered.com is a website that provides in-depth articles on volunteer leadership, management and recruiting. They also offer a variety of resources, including a free eBook on volunteer recruiting.

In addition, they offer consulting to churches that desire to improve their administration, church building campaigns, technology and volunteer management processes.

Full-time staff members and church volunteers will find a number of resources to help make a positive impact with volunteers and community.
— JH

“The most important problem involves the impact on the mission of the church. Without at all intending it and with the best of intentions, many churches by lacking female perspective in leadership may be limiting the effectiveness or reach of the work God intends for them to do,” she says. Her book is based on extensive research and she brings years of corporate human development work to this book, and related previous ones.

2 Responses to “Volunteer steps”

  1. Sharon

    We are working on pulling together a volunteer policies and procedures manual for our regional governing body. Any good samples or list of things to cover would be most welcome.

  2. Ron Vincent

    I am interested in the number of pastoral staff members relative to regular attendance as a measure of how lean the staff is or is not. I would also like to see the number of support staff the church has. Given the salary vairations that can occur based on church size and region, were actual head counts considered in finding lean churches?

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