Why Don’t People Volunteer at Church?


Mike Schreiner and Ken Willard say the key to getting a higher percentage of people involved is understanding the difference between volunteering and Christian service and between recruiting and inviting. They name five best practices for engaging people in meaningful ministry roles.

When you talk to pastors and ministry leaders you will likely hear that the 80/20 rule is alive and well in many churches when it comes to people serving. Twenty percent of the congregation are filling 80 percent of the ministry needs. How about your church? Of the people who call your church their home, what percent do you feel are currently serving? How can you get a higher percentage of your people in the game?

We should remember that serving is a spiritual discipline, and that encouraging growth in this area will help everyone grow as a disciple.

Volunteering vs. Serving

What is the difference between a volunteer and a servant? Volunteers can be defined as people who freely offer themselves for a service. They have a free choice to be involved or not. In many situations the expectations are low, and we hear comments such as, “I’m just a volunteer.”

A servant, on the other hand, might be thought of as one who performs duties about the master’s place. There is a higher level of commitment. Servant is the more biblical word. While we want to offer some volunteer-type positions for people to get their toes wet, our goal should be to move everyone toward an attitude of servanthood. We should remember that serving is a spiritual discipline, and that encouraging growth in this area will help everyone grow as a disciple.

Recruiting vs. Inviting

What is the difference between recruiting and inviting? One way to see the difference is to understand where our focus is in each situation. Have you ever heard a pastor or ministry leader beg, plead, or even threaten the congregation during a service in reaction to filling ministry positions? Not at your church of course — but at another church. Someone gets up and says something like, “We really need people to sign up today to help out in the youth ministry.” Or maybe, “If we do not get two more people to work in the nursery right away we are going to just stop offering this service!”

Who do you think typically responds to those types of announcements? You’re right: those who are already serving! The people with a servant heart and those who are already serving, or in some cases overserving, are usually the first people to jump up and serve more. The focus in these types of recruiting is on the needs of the ministry, the positions we need to fill, our church.

With inviting, our focus should be on the individual. How has God uniquely gifted them? Where are they on the serving pathway? Recruiting focuses on finding someone to fill a job, and inviting focuses on the gifts of the individual. Most people feel great when someone truly notices how they are gifted.

Some Best Practices

  • Don’t just ask another warm body to fill a need. This is not beneficial in the long run to anyone.
  • Focus on the individual, not the task. When we go into a conversation with a long list of our needs, it will leak through in some form and taint our intentions.
  • Share your personal passion. What excites you about serving? How have you grown as a disciple due to serving?
  • Offer a specific opportunity when the time is right. “Because of the way you make people feel welcome and at ease, I think you’d be in your element serving on our hospitality team.”
  • Tie the role to the big picture. Help the person see how that specific ministry serving opportunity supports the overall mission of the church.

This article is adapted from Stride: Creating a Discipleship Pathway for Your Church (Abingdon Press, 2017) by Mike Schreiner and Ken Willard. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

Mike Schreiner

Mike Schreiner is lead pastor of Morning Star Church in Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, and coauthor with Ken Willard of Stride: Creating a Discipleship Pathway for Your Church (Abingdon Press, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

Ken Willard

Ken Willard (kwillard@wvumc.org) is the director of discipleship, leadership, and congregational vitality for the West Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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