4 Strategies for Reversing the 80/20 Rule

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How can a congregation move beyond having a small percentage of congregants doing the lion’s share of the work? Lewis Center Director Doug Powe outlines four simple strategies to expand the pool of participants in your church’s ministry.


Many of us are familiar with the 80/20 rule. Twenty percent of parishioners typically do 80 percent of the work in congregations. This means no matter the size of your church the pool of individuals in leadership and ministry is limited. And burnout is an issue because you are constantly pulling from the same group of people. The challenge is increasing the 20 percent number. Here are some ideas.

1. Ask

It sounds simple, but the best way to get new individuals involved is to ask them personally. The tendency when seeking volunteers or new leaders is to appeal to the congregation as a whole. For example, the pastor or another leader stands up during worship and announces a need for Vacation Bible School volunteers. But no one responds to this general request, leaving the pastor or lay leader discouraged. Yet it’s little surprise that this kind of invitation so often falls flat. Most people hearing it believe it does not apply to them or that someone else will step up to the plate.

When we invite someone personally, that individual knows we truly need their participation. And we can craft our appeal around the person’s strengths and gifts. For example, “Ms. Smith, I know you love teaching computer programming. It would be great if you could teach programming as part of an activity planned for Vacation Bible School.” Instead of a general request for help, this is a very specific request that connects directly to Ms. Smith’s individual gifts, greatly increasing the likelihood that she will say, “Yes.”

2. Keep it Simple

When we are trying to get people to volunteer, especially for the first time, the simpler the request the better. Asking someone to sit at a registration table and sign in people as they arrive for a class is a lot different than asking someone to teach a Sunday School class. But it can be a first step in that direction. The easier we make that first step, the more likely it is that someone will take it. This is especially true for individuals with busy lives. When we ask them to take on something that sounds time-consuming, they are more likely to say, “No.” A simple task with a defined, limited time requirement feels doable. So, keep it simple!

3. Trust

Most leaders have a certain way they like to see things done. While it’s important for things to be done correctly, doing something correctly is not always the same thing as doing it in precisely the same manner as it was done previously. It’s important to trust that a new person will do something correctly, even if it is not done exactly the way it has always been done. If word goes around that someone will be looking over their shoulder or trying to micromanage their work, people will stop volunteering.

Leaders need to learn to trust new people to do things in their own way, while still holding them accountable for the end result. For example, Mr. Jones volunteered to teach Vacation Bible School and likes to use sock puppets to engage the children. As a leader you are unfamiliar with this style of teaching, but instead of telling Mr. Jones you would prefer that he stick with the tried-and-true method of storytelling, you share the learning goals for the week and let him do it his way. You trust his method, while making the desired result clear. More people will be willing to volunteer if you trust them to do it their way.

4. Celebrate

It is important to set aside time to celebrate volunteer service. Of course, our ultimate reason for volunteering is to participate in God’s work. But when the congregation sees volunteers receiving praise and recognition, it will help nudge them to join the ranks. No one enjoys feeling unappreciated. Take a few minutes in worship once a quarter to ask those who have volunteered in any capacity to stand and be recognized for their service. Showing appreciation will make a big difference in helping others to volunteer.

We all lament the 80/20 rule, but we rarely do anything to reverse it. By personally asking others to take on a specific task, keeping it simple, trusting them to do it their way, and showing appreciation for their efforts, we can increase the 20 percent. Think what a difference it would make for a congregation to move to 50 percent participation!


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About Author

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.


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