Volunteer-Savvy Leadership


Jake McGlothin, a staff member at Floris United Methodist Church in Virginia, shares perspectives on recruiting volunteers and keeping them happily engaged in ministry leadership. He explains the importance of the mindset he brings and the vocabulary he uses when asking people to serve. McGlothin says, “I want our ministry leaders to love what they do.”

Many church leaders struggle with the ongoing responsibility of identifying, training, and supporting ministry volunteers. In my work as director of missions and outreach at Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, I work with dozens of volunteer-led ministries to meet community needs. And I’ve learned that the mindset I bring and the vocabulary I use when asking people to serve really make a difference.

Needs or Opportunities?

When it comes to volunteer recruitment, I’m not a big fan of the word “need.” It’s not that needs don’t arise, because they do. However, “need” shouldn’t necessarily be the first word we use in volunteer recruitment. When “need” is overused, it can trigger a number of challenges.

“Need” implies scarcity. A scarcity mindset leads to statements like these: “We don’t have enough volunteers.” “We don’t have enough money.” “We have too few people singing in the choir.” But a scarcity mindset doesn’t align with the abundance of grace, love, and mercy that the God who created the heavens and the earth bestows upon us. If you consistently project scarcity in recruiting, it will spread in your congregation in other negative ways.

Ministry leadership should be challenging, but it also must be rewarding. I want my ministry leaders to love what they do.

The word “need” can also raise anxiety. When we say we need something, we usually need it now. Think of these statements: “I need to go to the bathroom.” “I need to find my keys.” “I need a doctor.” And using the word “need” consistently appeals primarily to people’s sense of obligation. A parishioner, hearing for the fifth time that you need volunteers for this or that ministry, may begin to wonder why you always need people. Is it because nobody likes the ministry? Do they see it as a waste of time? Or is it truly an emergency?

When it comes to volunteer recruitment and management, I prefer to use the word “opportunity.” The word “opportunity” is a more welcoming and invitational term. It communicates that the task or position is a means of growing in relationship to God and neighbor. It recognizes that our ministries and programs offer opportunities for participants to deepen their discipleship. It is more applicable to our work. By simply choosing the right word, your invitation will be more welcoming and well-received.

Avoiding Assumptions

When asking people to serve, it’s important to avoid assumptions about what they like and don’t like to do. I learned this working with our English as a Second Language (ESL) ministry. The leader, let’s say his name is Sam, would take all the registration forms home to enter information into a database. The thought of him doing this time-consuming data entry really bothered me. I thought he was wasting his time. But when I suggested finding someone else for this work, he said, “Data entry is a part of my ministry. This is an opportunity for me to get to know the students. I get to know their names, their countries of origin, and their occupations.”

I had brought my own assumptions to this conversation. I don’t like data entry, so I assumed Sam wouldn’t either. I assumed his time would be better spent doing something else, but he saw data entry as a valuable extension of his ministry. Seeing things from his perspective radically changed the way I work with volunteers. People like different things and have a diverse array of gifts. I’ve learned it’s important to present the entire range of responsibilities in a ministry position without interjecting my own biases or trying to mask or hide the things I don’t like.

No Open-ended Commitments

Some people avoid committing to leadership positions because they fear it is a commitment with no end. We all know people who have been in the same leadership role for years, even decades. Some may still have passion for what they do, but still end up resenting the church because they can’t seem to let it go. For other long-time leaders, their grip over the ministry becomes tighter and tighter until it is no longer the church’s ministry, but rather, a personal ministry.

Because burnout in ministry is real and devastating, I make sure our volunteers understand that I only want them to stay on if they still love it and not feel obligated to remain. I try to meet annually with my ministry leaders to see how they are doing and to talk about their ministry. I also ask them if they’d like to continue. When I first started doing this, people would get offended because they thought I was trying to kick them out. But they soon realized I had a genuine interest in knowing if they are still in.

Ministry leadership should be challenging, but it also must be rewarding. I want my ministry leaders to love what they do.

Related Resources:

About Author

Jake McGlothin

Jake McGlothin is the associate pastor of Gainesville UMC in Gainesville, VA. He previously served as pastor of Restoration: Loudoun, a campus of Floris UMC. He is the author of The Mission-Minded Guide to Church and School Partnerships (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

Cover of Discovering God's Future for Your Church showing a blank wooden signpostLewis Center video tool kit resource
Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.