Recruiting Volunteers in the Small Church

Recruiting Volunteers in the Small Church
By Rick Chromey

0nce a professional football coach took aside his recruiter after a strenuous, late-summer practice. The recruiter’s lousy picks were rapidly ruining the team, so the coach wanted to share his distaste for the recruiter’s job performance.

The coach had the recruiter watch a game film of college prospects. After watching a few minutes, the coach began, “Does our team want a guy who gets knocked down all the time?”
“No sir,” the recruiter replied confidently.

“That’s right. Does our team want a guy who gets knocked down and then gets back up?”

Figuring the coach was making a point, the recruiter answered no.

“Right again, my friend,” the coach shot back, obviously gaining momentum. “Now, does our team want a guy who’s knocked down and gets back up, is knocked down again and gets back up and is decked a third time and gets back up?”

“Yes, sir!” the recruiter exclaimed. “That’s who we want!”

“Wrong!” the coach yelled. “I want the player who’s doing the knocking down!”

Like football recruiters, youth leaders need to find the right people. But too often we’re like the recruiter in the story we don’t know what to look for.

Sometimes we’re so desperate we recruit anyone who’ll sign up. Or we recruit people we personally like, even if they aren’t the right people. Or we might recruit lots of people, all with the same gifts. So our youth ministries are like football teams made up of only quarterbacks or tackles.

In other situations, we look around the congregation and conclude there’s no one who can do the job. So we do the work ourselves. In each case, the result is we work with an incomplete or imbalanced team.

How do you recruit a strong youth ministry team in a small church? It’s not always easy. Most active church members are involved in other leadership roles in the church. Thus, finding adults who can commit significant time to youth ministry can be difficult.

But recruiting volunteers is also rewarding. By taking time to enlist quality volunteers, you not only see the effect their ministries have on the teenagers in your youth group, but you also give them opportunities to use their talents and abilities.

Why People Don’t Volunteer

Before we discuss the “hows” of recruiting, we need to understand why it’s sometimes hard to find willing volunteers. The list of reasons people have for not doing volunteer work is often long. They mention family conflicts, lack of skills, other responsibilities and on and on.

But regardless of how long the list grows, most of the reasons fall into one of three categories:

Reason #1: People aren’t asked. You might be surprised how many people would gladly contribute to the youth program if someone would ask. Yet they sit on the sidelines while we rely on ourselves and a few burned-out helpers who complain that no one’s willing to pitch in.

Youth workers in small churches don’t seek volunteers for a variety of reasons.

• We think we can do it alone. In his book “Great Ideas for Small Youth Groups,” Wayne Rice describes the problem this way: “One inherent danger of a small youth group is the tendency to think that because the group is small, it can be handled by only one person. This isn’t true. Regardless of how small a youth group might be, it provides an ideal setting for the development of a team ministry – a group of willing adults who do together what none of them can do alone.”

• Recruiting is hard work, and it takes time-time we don’t think we have. We justify to ourselves that it’s easier and quicker to do the work ourselves than to find and train someone else to do it. But this attitude is shortsighted.

Jesus could have spent all his time healing or doing other direct ministry. But he recruited and trained his disciples to continue his ministry when he was gone. His leaders didn’t fall apart when he left-they changed the world.

One particularly busy fall, Janet had trouble finding time to recruit volunteers for her small church’s annual youth group retreat. As the weekend approached, she decided it would just be easier to plan the whole event herself. So she found a retreat site, designed the program, did the publicity, contacted a guest speaker, prepared the food – everything.

Everything seemed to be going well until that weekend. So many kids had signed up they had to take two cars. The other driver got lost because he didn’t know how to get to the retreat center.

When everyone finally arrived, Janet had to do everything – leading sessions, solving problems, making the speaker feel welcome, even cooking the food. The other adults who volunteered at the last minute were willing to help. But they didn’t know anything about the retreat’s focus. So Janet left the event frustrated, tired and mad at her own shortsightedness.

• We feel insecure. Once my youth leaders asked if they could take over the group’s programming. My first thought was: “You guys can’t lead the group like I can. You don’t know as much.”
But after I peeled my deflated ego off the ground, I realized that my response was reactive. They knew what to do – maybe better than I did. Allowing them to take leadership in the youth program freed me to pursue other ministries.

Giving other people responsibilities also gives them control. New people have new ideas-some of which might seem threatening. Sometimes we feel safer if we keep all the responsibility and control to ourselves. But while that approach may be comfortable, it’s not healthy for the church, the youth group or ourselves.

Sometimes we also feel insecure asking other people to do jobs we don’t understand. We’re afraid we won’t be able to answer people’s questions about the work. So we don’t ask.

• We don’t have a long-range vision. Either we’re so busy with day-to-day programs we don’t think beyond the next meeting’s program, or we don’t think we’ll ever reap the benefits of any planning. So we may say to ourselves, “Well, I’m only here for a little while. Why should I spend all my time training when I could be working with the kids?”

But the question is the answer! Someday you’ll probably pass the youth program leadership to other people. When that happens, will you leave a strong ministry that meets the kids’ needs? Only if you recruit and train strong volunteers.

Recruiting and training a solid core of volunteers is a long-term process. The efforts rarely pay off quickly; instead, the training is an investment for the future.

• We think we’re the only ones qualified. My reason for not recruiting volunteers was always: “Well, the kids need me. If I let someone else do the job, the kids will start turning to that person instead. And that’s not right, because I’m the youth minister!”

Such pride cost me many excellent volunteers. Youth ministry isn’t a solo act. It’s team ministry. Working together is the only way to provide a well-rounded, lasting ministry.

• We don’t know how. Often in small churches, youth leaders haven’t learned how to recruit volunteers and delegate responsibilities. Many volunteers have always been the ones who are assigned tasks, not the ones who assign them to others. And youth workers with training usually have learned to do various jobs, not to empower other people to do them.

Reason #2: People don’t have time. Everyone’s busy these days. Many people are overcommitted to tasks of work, school and home. And active members of small churches are usually involved in numerous ministries, adding to their busy schedules. As Steve Burt writes in Activating Leadership in the Small Church, “Small church folks often feel like the outnumbered Alamo volunteers-overworked, underpaid, asked to fight overwhelming odds in a no-win situation.”‘ When we ask them to volunteer for the youth program, they often plead they’re already overcommitted.

In his previous church, Chuck was a committed volunteer youth worker. But when he moved and joined a small church, Chuck suddenly found he was needed in numerous church ministries. Within a year, he was elected deacon, had served as church treasurer and was a Sunday school teacher for the young couples’ class. When the youth leader asked Chuck to help with the youth program too, he had to say no. He simply didn’t have any more time.

Lack of time may be a legitimate reason for not getting involved in youth ministry. Youth ministry is a major commitment, and unless someone can dedicate himself or herself to the program, that person may not be an appropriate volunteer.

But you can provide ways busy people can participate in the youth ministry. Here are three examples:

1. Ask the person to make youth ministry a priority for a future year. Just because someone can’t commit to youth ministry now doesn’t mean he or she wouldn’t be interested in the future. Get a commitment now so he or she will keep the calendar clear next time.

2. Ask people to volunteer for smaller tasks. Many people-particularly young adults-prefer volunteering for jobs that don’t involve months of commitment. Find ways to divide tasks into more manageable chunks. For example, instead of asking Sharon to coordinate refreshments for the year’s meetings, ask her to provide refreshments for one month. Instead of asking Carl to do a devotion for every youth group meeting, invite him to lead devotions at your fall retreat.

3. Tell people exactly what’s expected. Sometimes they don’t realize a particular job won’t take much time. If you provide realistic job descriptions that show exactly what time commitment is involved, some people may see they do have time.

Reason #3: People are afraid. The final reason people don’t volunteer is fear. This fear takes several forms:

• Fear of commitment – Small churches are notorious for trapping people for life once they’ve committed to a responsibility. If Margie becomes a youth sponsor, everyone assumes that Margie will always be a youth sponsor. As a result, many people shy away from any commitments.

Therefore, it’s important to spell out clearly what’s expected of volunteers and to limit the time of service. A volunteer job description (such as the “Sample Volunteer Job Description” on page 90) is a good tool for easing this fear.

• Fear of kids – In small churches with older memberships, some people think they’re too old and can no longer relate to kids. “I’m not as young as I used to be,” moans a woman in her 50s. “Kids want youth leaders who really understand their world.”

Sometimes a small group can be even more frightening for these people than a large one. They realize they won’t be able to keep a distance from the kids-they’ll have to relate to kids on a one-to-one basis.

While kids do need leaders who relate to them and their world, teenagers also need adult leaders who are mature and understanding. The best youth leaders are people who – regardless of age – are willing to listen to and support young people. By introducing these people to teenagers in a nonthreatening environment such as an all-church picnic or dinner, you can show them how interesting it can be to get to know your kids.

• Fear of rejection-“What if the kids don’t like me?” Some adults don’t want to risk rejection by working with teenagers. They’re afraid kids will laugh at their mistakes or say things about them after the meeting.

What these adults need to hear is that kids notice less about how perfectly you run a program and more about how much you care about them. Once again, in the small church, relationships are much more important than having a polished program. Sure, they may kid you about your foibles. But a good sense of humor will make the teasing enjoyable.

• Fear of inadequacy-“I don’t know if I know enough to teach or lead a Bible study. What if I get in and can’t hack it?” Some people feel unprepared for the tasks youth workers propose. They feel they’ve failed if only one or two kids show up for a meeting they’re leading. And they may fear that the approaches they remember from the “old days” wouldn’t work with today’s young people.

This is a legitimate concern for potential leaders-particularly those without youth ministry experience, which is common in small churches. Four responses to their concerns can ease the fears:

1. Assure the potential volunteer you’ll provide resources and training. Then provide them through workshops, books and magazines. Introduce volunteers to the inexpensive resources in the resource listing on page 164.

2. Always be available to answer questions and offer support.

3. Create a “volunteer in training” program in which you match a veteran with a novice. For one year, have the new person work with the veteran in different jobs. Then he or she will feel more confident when it’s time to take charge.

4. Work with other local churches to provide training. (See Chapter 8 for more on networking.)

Sample Volunteer Job Description

Thank you for taking the time to involve yourself with our young people. Your commitment and dedication will no doubt influence youth group members. Yes, your time and talents will be taxed. But your efforts won’t go unrewarded. Here are a few expectations we have of you as a volunteer youth worker:

We expect you as a youth worker…

• To help provide a well-balanced, well planned program of activities, learning and fellowship.

• To participate in all youth ministry planning and training events. Regular planning meetings usually take place on:

• To be prepared for all youth group activities, meetings and programs in which you have responsibilities. If you can’t attend a particular program, you’ll be expected to find a substitute.

• To be willing to personally involve yourself with the young people in your group through regular phone calls and visits. You’re their minister!

• To serve wholeheartedly – with a Christlike mind and actions-for two years.

• To pray for the church, the youth ministry, the young people and the leaders.

In return for your commitment, you will receive . . .

• Inclusion in all youth ministry activities, events, planning and programming.

• Training and resources in youth ministry to equip you to carry out your responsibilities.

• Assurance that you’re being lifted up in prayer for your efforts with the youth program.

Other agreements and expectations:

Youth leader’s signature:

Volunteer’s signature:


How to Recruit Volunteers

Recruiting volunteers in a small church is quite different from recruiting in larger churches. On the one hand, everyone knows everyone else in a small church. That can make it easy to find the right person. On the other hand, church leaders tend to rely on a handful of people, often ignoring the hidden talents of other church members. Or they simply find the youngest couple in the church, and assume those people would be good youth leaders-which may or may not be true. And sometimes group members’ parents are the only ones asked.

How can you overcome these recruitment problems in small churches? In an article in GROUP Magazine, veteran youth worker Les Christie suggests six general ways to recruit youth ministry volunteers:

The public-appeal method – This well-worn method has many variations. Ask for volunteers from the pulpit, explaining the need and asking volunteers to see you after the service. Write appeal notices in your church newsletter, suggesting people call you if they’re interested. Beg for help on your knees in front of adult Sunday school classes. Hang up “wanted posters” to attract people’s attention. Shove fliers under windshield wipers in the church parking lot. Do anything to let people know you need help.

The problem with the public-appeal method is that people never know if you’re talking to them. A generic “Hey, we need help!” causes few hands to fly into the air. After all, people reason, somebody else will step forward, so why should I? So no one volunteers, and the prodding is wasted.

Sometimes, though, public appeals do work. Some of my best volunteers have been people who responded to a poster’s plea or a newsletter’s nudge. So you probably shouldn’t abandon the public appeal; but don’t rely solely on it either.

The telephone method – Need a volunteer? Open the church directory and start calling-randomly.

This method can be discouraging, but it can work well. It’s more personal than a letter or poster, and you can discover people you might never have considered for youth ministry.

Be careful about calling at bad times, such as mealtimes. And have a job outline in front of you as you talk.

The volunteer-recruiter method – The best person to recruit new volunteers is an active volunteer. An active volunteer knows the job first-hand. This person can report the frustrations and difficulties of being a volunteer. On the flip side, he or she will also share what motivates them to continue youth work.

I find this method particularly effective. Lay volunteers tend to know the congregation better than staff people do. They know the people who volunteered for youth work five and 10 years ago – people who might give it another try.
The come-and-find-out method – Mary was a potential youth worker at a small church in California. The youth minister had asked her several times to volunteer, but each time Mary said no.

Recently the leader made her pitch again. But this time she gave Mary an option. “Just join us this week for the youth group meeting,” she suggested. “If you don’t feel comfortable after watching a meeting, I’ll leave you alone. But I think you’d be great for the group.”

That week, Mary went to the meeting. Almost immediately she realized that working with the youth group was something she should’ve done a lot sooner. It was nothing like she expected.

Having potential volunteers experience your program is a great way to attract attention to the need. Many churchgoers don’t volunteer because they never see how they are needed.

The church leadership method – This method essentially relies on church leaders to develop a pool of potential names. And it can work well. Sometimes church members tell leaders they’d like to work in a particular ministry. Your request for names can jog the leaders’ memories.

Augment the leaders’ personal knowledge by conducting an interest survey, such as the “How I Can Help” survey on page 94. Keep the results on file, and refer to them when you’re looking for volunteers.

The one-to-one method – The final method is the most personal, and it can be one of the most effective, particularly since everyone knows everyone in a small church. Personally contact potential volunteers, explain the job and ask them to join your youth ministry team. People feel honored when a leader makes a request in person. And they often accept the challenge. However, be sure people have an opportunity to turn you down when you use this approach. Otherwise you could have a reluctant, uncommitted volunteer.

Each of these methods can have its place in your recruitment plan. Some people will be attracted by a poster; others won’t respond until you personally ask for their help. Thus, the best recruitment method is to combine several methods to attract volunteers.

When You Find the Right People

Someone once said, “The church is full of willing people: Some are willing to work, and the others are willing to let them.”

Recruiting volunteers in a small church is finding volunteers who fit the first category. It does little good to tell potential volunteers youth ministry won’t take much time or energy. It will. But when you find people who’ll accept the challenge of working with young people, your ministry – and theirs – will flourish.

How I Can Help

Instructions: Please complete this survey for our youth ministry program. Completing this survey doesn’t sign you up for anything. Rather, it gives us a pool of names to work with in the future. We’ll contact you when the need arises. Thanks for your time.




I’m Interested in serving the youth program in the following ways (check all that apply):

* Serving as a volunteer youth leader (preferred age group?)

* Hosting youth group events

* Helping prepare meals for special events

* Preparing and serving refreshments at youth group meetings

* Helping with secretarial work such as typing letters, mailing publicity, filing papers

* Being a driver for youth group activities

* Accompanying music for youth group programs (what instrument?)

* Leading a home Bible study for teenagers

* Transporting teenagers in my neighborhood to the church for youth group activities

* Making a special monetary contribution to the youth program
Specific ministry you’d like to support (if any):
How much you’d like to contribute: $

* Other ways you’d be interested in working with the church’s youth ministry program:

(Permission to photocopy this survey granted for local church use. Copyright 01990 by Rick Chromey. Published by Group Books, Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539)

Article “Recruiting Volunteers in the Small Church” is excerpted from “Youth Ministry in Small Churches”. Written by Rick Chromey.

“This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”