When I was in elementary school, we attended a small, rural Methodist Church in Lineville, Alabama. One year, I remember the Vacation Bible School director asking me if I would play a role in the opening and closing skit. I was only 9 or 10 years old, but to be invited was such an honor. I thought that role was reserved for the older teenagers or adults. But they saw that I might have gifts in that area, and so they asked me directly to get involved. (They also bribed me with Fritos corn chips that I got to eat during one of the skits, which I thought was cool!) I don’t remember anything else about that VBS, or the Sunday School program, or even the person who asked me. But I remember feeling important enough to be asked. Years later, and I’m still making a fool of myself in front of kids at VBS.
We have all heard the statistic that there is something like 20% of a congregation that does 80% of the work. I guess this is true, as every congregation I have served seems to struggle with inviting people to serve in ministry. No matter the size of the congregation, there will always be those who are most committed and most willing to volunteer their time and talents, and others who can’t, won’t, or just haven’t been asked. Leaders in the church, myself included, like to use the wide net approach in gathering volunteers. We think if we phrase a bulletin announcement just right, people will line up at the door to help out. Then we’re surprised, frustrated, and annoyed when no one answers. These days, we think if we send a mass e-mail, people will respond. It seems easy enough. But I’m noticing that even my e-mails are getting fewer responses. I think it’s because people know it’s impersonal, and they are hungry for the relationship that comes with serving.
So I tried something different this year for our Vacation Bible School. I asked people individually, some face-to-face and yes, even via email. But surprisingly, I got the most volunteers I have ever had for VBS. With that in mind, here are a few tips in asking for volunteers.
1. Pray. God knows our greatest needs before we even ask. We forget the most crucial step in asking for volunteers is to ask the One who created them with the very gifts you need. I’ve been astounded by the people who walk through the door of the church with the exact expertise we have needed at a certain time. Prayer also offers some time to be thoughtful about who to ask rather than the usual knee-jerk reaction when we need to fill a spot. God will often stir your memory so that the perfect person will pop into your head. Also, if you pray and no one emerges, perhaps the role doesn’t need to be filled at this time and God is calling for something else.
2. Know your pool. Before you even think about asking someone, you have to get to know the people you might ask. Many people say, “It’s because you’re the priest, and that’s why people can’t say no to you.” This is somewhat true, but not because I have some mysterious priestly hypnotism that forces people to say yes, but that as the priest who’s been here for almost 5 years, I now know everyone pretty well. I know their gifts or at least a general idea of their gifts, and I know who’s over-committed, who really can’t help because of a family or personal crisis, or who just will never offer their gifts. I try to take time to get to know people well before I ask them to do anything. If you find yourself not knowing who to ask, ask someone who knows the pool well. There are folks in every congregation who are human catalogs of the personalities and gifts of your church. Take some time to flip through your church directory, find someone you don’t know well, and take them to lunch after church. Then, six months later, when you’re looking for someone to make breakfast, and you previously had a conversation about how they make the best waffles in town, you’ve already established a relationship with them in order to ask.
3. Get personal. Sign up sheets and bulletin announcements are good in that they tell people you have a need, but they rarely attract the amount of people you need or the gifts that will fit the ministry. In order to find that best fit, you have to ask people personally. It takes longer, but it will be well-worth the ask. Also, if you ask someone face-to-face or via email, and they tell you no, they usually will tell you why, and you can understand much better instead of being angry because no one responded to that mass e-mail.
4. Ask for small things first. If you can ask for a one-time commitment like helping one day at a parish clean-up day, people are generally pretty open to helping out. Or if you have a specific task that doesn’t require a lot of time, you may find someone happy to lend a hand. Once you do this a few times, and bigger roles and opportunity emerge, then you’ve gotten experience in asking for the small stuff, and now you can ask for a larger commitment like serving on Vestry, teaching Sunday School, or being a Eucharistic Visitor.
These are just the first four ideas to consider. Next week, I’ll conclude with four more thoughts on how to ask for volunteers. If you have other ideas or stories of how the above tips worked for you, please add them to the comments below!