Stopping Attrition of Volunteers

Stopping Attrition of Volunteers
D.E. Williams

For several years Karen attended the business and professional women’s Bible study at her church. Eventually she began to serve as a leader for the small group discussion times. Because she taught first grade during the day, she gave her one evening a week with adult women priority as a time of refreshment and rebuilding. When the Bible study leader asked Karen to take over administration of the entire program, she readily agreed to do so. Karen’s talents blossomed as she discovered new ways to express her immense creativity. She instituted an ambitious program to encourage the women to memorize large portions of Scripture, melting down initial resistance with her enthusiasm and encouragement. Attendance increased, with the initial core of women feeling comfortable enough to invite their co-workers and neighbors. Karen recruited more group l

The one area in which Karen did not wish to assume responsibility was the actual Bible teaching. The regular instructor understood this and did not press her. During one year, however, the instructor faced some family emergencies, which necessitated many periodic absences from her post. Karen, with great fear, had to fill in at the last minute. After stumbling a few times, she discovered that her individual style of teaching, although quite different from the regular instructor’s, still ministered to the women. After that particularly difficult year she told the instructor, “I think I learned more when you weren’t here than when you were! As much as I appreciate your teaching, it was very important for me to learn that I could teach, too. I also had to learn that I couldn’t teach like you do, and it’s fine for me to be different.”

Then Karen had her long-awaited first child. She decided to take a break from teaching first grade for several years. She now had the freedom to attend the daytime Bible study composed mostly of mothers with young children. Although her talents could certainly be used there, her presence had been essential to the evening group. The evening Bible study teacher found herself overloaded with family responsibilities that mandated a year off. Furthermore, one of the key group leaders, an older woman with immense warmth and wisdom, greatly loved by the women in the group, had to leave the church. Within a short time, an active, thriving ministry had shrunk to less than a third of its former size, its very existence in question.

When churches work so hard to enlist, train, and place volunteers into service opportunities in the church, they should do all they can to keep them on the job. Volunteer turnover in some churches may be as high as 25 percent a year. For a church with a volunteer staff of one hundred, this means that twenty-five new volunteers must be found each year to replace those retiring, resigning, or taking different positions. A new volunteer must be found nearly every other week just to keep up with the present requirements in such a congregation, and that does not account for growth or possible new ministries.

Why is retention of volunteers a problem? Why do people quit even after they have found satisfaction in a volunteer position? What causes this change of heart? Have they lost interest in serving the Lord in the church? Have their circumstances changed? Do they have problems with their ministry positions and feel the only way out is to quit?

Perhaps all these questions help focus on the reasons why retention of volunteers poses a problem. Attrition of volunteers complicates the recruitment task and in many cases seriously affects the work of the church. It takes time to know and trust people. If volunteers and leaders of the various ministries are replaced too often, a sense of frustration and concern arises.

Let’s look at some of the reasons for attrition and several suggestions about what can be done to reverse this serious trend.

Lack of Appreciation

Have you ever worked for a supervisor who never let you know how well you were doing, who appreciated his employees, but it was not his style to say so? Perhaps he was like the man who never told his wife he loved her. When questioned, he responded that he told

her he loved her the day they were married, and if anything changed, he would be sure to let her know. Not many of us want that kind of relationship.

Compliments and Encouragement

Here is a basic principle of ministry all leaders must understand: The success of leaders depends on the success of those working with them. Success is a positive word to indicate that leaders can accomplish what God truly intends for them in an effective and faithful way. Leaders sincerely want those serving with them to be successful so that the work of the Lord and the church will go forward. That’s how biblical leadership works. It requires much more than merely showing appreciation, but without it, people will not serve as they could.

One time, while leading a workshop at a Sunday school convention, Dennis emphasized the importance of showing appreciation. One man asked if by showing appreciation we deny folks a future reward from God. Dennis stood stunned, wondering what kind of Bible interpretation could bring one to such a conclusion. Yes, the Scriptures do indicate that Christians will receive rewards according to their labor, but that hardly relieves their responsibility to affirm brothers and sisters in present life. Appreciation offers just one way to help people be fulfilled in their ministry positions.


Leaders show appreciation to people by being available when they serve. Too many people enlisted to serve are placed in a position and left on their own for weeks, even months, at a time.

One church had a difficult time keeping volunteers in the early childhood department. It seemed that each week there were several last-minute “emergency” calls for volunteers. Somebody discovered that the workers felt left alone, thinking that the leaders did not know or care about what they were doing. In this large church the pastor preached at two worship services, making it difficult for him to visit this department and encourage the workers. He did care about the volunteers, and their assumption was entirely wrong, but lack of contact led them to feel isolated and unimportant.

Perhaps the pastor could visit a planning meeting and show his appreciation. Even if he had to come into the worship service late once in a while, it would be good to stop by the department and show how much he valued its ministry. Leaders need to be present where people serve and look for opportunities to give words of affirmation. One of the most important leadership challenges is to help people understand that their work really makes a difference.


You cannot carry out effective supervision from behind a desk. Pastors, ministers of Christian education, Sunday school superintendents, ministry coordinators, and members of the Christian education committee all need to be visible.

Ministry supervisors should personally greet every worker in his or her area of responsibility each Sunday. We need to show how much we really care. Be alert and sensitive to possible needs and do what you can to meet them. Offer suggestions when requested and remind your colleagues of forthcoming events such as training opportunities and special church activities.

Weekly one-on-one contact affords a wonderful way to show appreciation, and it is a powerful mode of communication.

Regular Meetings

Supervision also involves meeting with volunteers on a regular basis. Sit down together, pray together, share dreams together, and work to make the ministry the best it possibly can be. Encourage volunteers and suggest how they can improve their ministry. Use these times as equipping and training opportunities. More on this in chapter 6.


You can show appreciation by writing notes and cards throughout the year. The end of the year is a special time when people have performed a task especially well or when a class has received special recognition. Some leaders even keep a list of birthdays and special events and send cards regularly.

Use announcements and notes in the Sunday bulletin, the church newsletter, and other publications to show that you consider every ministry important. Every effort is most beneficial.

Some churches plan an annual appreciation banquet served by the board or staff members or, perhaps, by people who have benefited from the ministries of those being recognized. Make sure the guests of honor are not asked to work in any way at the banquet.

People do not serve in churches for monetary gain, but churches can certainly give some kind of gift or award to those who have faithfully served during the year. Consider a gift certificate from a Christian bookstore, or scholarship assistance to area training events
such as Sunday school conventions, community Bible school programs, and seminars.

However you do it, show appreciation to workers and keep people excited with their ministry. Public affirmation provides genuine motivation. More important, it’s biblical.

Misplacement in Ministry Positions

Notice how intricately and brilliantly the human body is designed. Nothing can do a hand’s job nearly as well as a hand can. Those who lose the use of their hands often find other body parts, especially the foot, can replace some of the functions of the hand but not with the same efficiency. Star Trek fans may have noticed an interesting fact. As creative as their writers and designers are, the vast majority of beings that the Enterprise crew encounters have the same general build as the Creator-designed human body. It works very well.

According to the Scriptures, God planned for the church body to function like the human body, with the hand doing a hand’s work and an eye doing an eye’s work (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12). Unfortunately, it is not often easy to discern elbows from wrist joints when working with complex and sin-scarred human beings. Marlene Wilson expresses her amazement at the many different ways individuals define personal challenges or achievement.

Here is an exercise I have used extensively in groups to illustrate this fact. Have all participants think of the one job they have had (volunteer or paid) that they liked the best and the one they like the least. As people share their answers, they are surprised to discover that almost everyone’s favorite job is someone else’s least
favorite, and that there is someone who enjoys almost any job (even fund raising, teaching teenagers, bookkeeping, cooking, filing, and long-range planning).

This exercise also is helpful in freeing leaders to be more effective and creative delegators. People can understand why they are reluctant to delegate what they themselves enjoy doing. But they fail to realize how often they hesitate delegating what they dislike doing because they feel guilty about “dumping” it on someone else. What they begin to realize through this exercise is that the tasks they dislike may very well be someone else’s favorite thing to do. If they would only become more inventive in sharing their work and in finding ways to invite more people to participate, they would see that there is a right person for every job.’

This is interesting and a good idea for group onsion with your volunteers.

We have already explained the helpfulness of the ministry survey. As you look over your ministry needs, you might consider categorizing them into types of jobs.

General categories can include the following:

1. Maintenance activities: those that involve the physical appearance of the building and grounds.

2. Clerical support: these days will probably require some computer or word-processor knowledge.

3. Personal contact responsibilities: a wide category encompassing those who assume visitation, counseling, and teaching ministries.

4. Performance tasks: for those who have had training in music, drama, leading worship, etc.

5. Planning activities: the type of committee work that sees to it that the church runs smoothly.

After you define ministry categories, think about the people whom God has entrusted to you to equip. Talk with them, help them see and articulate their goals, their hopes, their dreams. Be careful not to box them in, nor to assume that just because they do a task for regular employment their volunteer work should follow the same patterns.

Douglas Johnson writes:

This common assumption that persons who make their livelihood in certain professions are willing to use their expertise in a volunteer manner for the church is not supported by fact in many instances. Several persons accept occupation-oriented, volunteer work because they feel they should. Others do not do any volunteer work because they are not willing to be limited by their profession. Persons arc in occupations due to early life choices. During the intervening years, interests have developed and hobbies have expanded that are more fulfilling than the occupation. The person has grown in ways other than their life’s work. These ways are keys to happiness and fulfillment for the person now.

When we place volunteers in areas for which God has gifted and equipped them, we minimize the probability of burnout, disenchantment with the church, and disappointment with the ministry.

When we discover people improperly placed, we must go to them and admit the problem. Using the ministry survey, look for a place of service in which they can serve effectively according to their gifts and calling. Make the transition as smooth as possible, but do not ignore the problem; it will only get worse.

Carl George offers some very practical suggestions for recognizing, enlisting, and affirming workers in the church, suggestions closely related to the issue of spiritual gifts.
1. Study the subject of spiritual gifts in depth.
2. Learn to recognize people’s gifts from their criticisms and suggestions.
3. Make it a practice to affirm the gifts you see.
4. Ask for help in the church according to gifts discemed.5

Personality Clashes

Sometimes human relations problems seem more difficult when in churches and Christian organizations. Some folks say Christians should let the grace of God work out these problems and not try to deal with them on their own. Certainly church leaders do not have time to deal with every personality problem among their workers, but wisdom precludes placing workers together who do not get along very well. The team approach to ministry is crucial, for personality conflicts may prohibit the possibility of good teamwork.

Try to match people who can work together effectively. When problems arise, they should be dealt with immediately by using biblical guidelines. Do not allow volunteer staff problems to continue week after week or you will be in danger of destroying morale and negatively affecting the people whom the volunteers serve.

Meeting together on a regular basis, sharing and praying about each other’s needs and concerns, and sensing a common vision for the ministry can help minimize personality clashes among volunteers.

Often it appears that people not directly involved in a ministry seem most vocal in their complaints and feelings about others. There is a principle here: The more we involve people in significant ministry and the more they sense the urgency of that ministry, the fewer personality clashes come up to destroy valuable ministry time.

They say that in military combat, those behind the major lines of battle do most of the complaining, while those up front focus their efforts on working together to win the battle. In fact, their very survival depends on teamwork.

Inadequate Facilities and Equipment

Though lack of resources is not the major reason for attrition of volunteers, it does contribute to the problem. People do not need the finest, most expensive classrooms in which to teach the Word of God, but neither do they want a shoddy, dirty, poorly equipped facility.

A church communicates how it feels about a certain ministry by the way it provides for that ministry. Volunteers understand this quite well. Of course, sometimes a church cannot afford to do better, but it can make certain that rooms are clean and in the best possible condition. Perhaps it cannot afford to purchase all the possible curricular materials, but it can and should supply some.

Careful planning should correct many of these problems. Survey the needs and make a list of everything that should be done with regard to facilities, equipment, and resources. Set up a schedule to purchase and distribute necessary items. Some things can be done immediately, like cleaning up a room. Others will take longer, like painting, securing adequate chairs, ordering curriculum materials, or purchasing overhead projectors and screens. Such items should be included in a budget with a definite schedule. People tend to be more patient if they know that the church wants to correct the problems. Too many disappointments will lead to eventual resignations, so keep these important issues before the church leaders.

Inadequate Training

People lose interest in ministries that they do not know how to perform. An entire chapter of this book addresses this critical need of training, but we mention it here as well.

Sometimes seminary students are assigned to interview a Sunday school superintendent or the teacher responsible for securing volunteers in that church’s educational ministry. After asking how people are found and recruited, the student asks about training. Often at this point the interviewee gets nervous and uncomfortable. The common response is that there has not been time to schedule a training time or perhaps that the curriculum materials are easy to use and self-explanatory, Of course, some churches do provide training for their volunteers on a regular basis.

Without training, the attrition rate will rise, because people are not prepared for the tasks they face. Training offers a basic way to keep volunteers on the job, and that training should take place both before they begin the ministry and while they are in the process. See chapter 6 for additional information on equipping and training.

Lost Peer Fellowship

This problem usually occurs with volunteers in the early childhood and children’s departments, though it can he found with youth volunteers and even those who serve adults.

As social beings, all of us need relationships with others. Remember the important element of fellowship found in the mission statement suggested in chapter 1. The church needs to provide fellowship opportunities, not only because that is scriptural but because we need human contact to be fulfilled in our lives.

This problem appears when volunteers spend all their time with a selected age group and lose contact with those their own age. A youth director discovered this when a group of church leaders came to his home for a surprise birthday party. Conversation was difficult, because the group did not act like teenagers. He tried to liven up the group with games and activities, but they did not respond. He finally realized what had happened. He had lost the ability to relate to his peers because he spent so much time with young people.

Often people leave an adult Sunday school class to teach children or youth. But that adult class or fellowship group can keep them as “associate” members and invite them to participate in the activities of the class, though they might not attend the teaching time on Sunday morning.

If people teach every Sunday, they need a class or group during the week in which they can participate as learners, too. This will provide another opportunity for that important adult contact.

If people miss the worship service (usually because of a children’s church program) they will need to be informed of announcements and activities that make it possible to have these important fellowship contacts. If you tape worship services (or at least the message), why not give free copies to all volunteers unable to attend.
Providing this balance for volunteers is essential so they can be fulfilled in both their ministries and their need for fellowship.

Think again of Karen at the beginning of the chapter. What might have kept her in that important leadership position and enabled the women’s ministry to continue effectively? Even if the regular instructor did show appreciation and there was no evidence of a serious personality clash, the strong possibility exists that effective training and peer fellowship were both missing ingredients. We cannot afford to be out finding new Karens every month or even every year. Careful attention to the six problems identified in this chapter will go a long way toward stopping the attrition of volunteers in your church.

Application Activities

1. Analyze the percentage of volunteer turnover your church experiences in a year. Is it higher or lower than the normal 25 percent?

2. With a group of leaders, brainstorm the reasons for turnover of volunteers in your church. Compare the reasons you list with those presented in this chapter. In what areas are you doing a good job and in what areas do you need improvement?

3. Look carefully at reasons given for the turnover of volunteers in your church. For those over which you have some control, offer several specific suggestions on how to correct the problems. (You really have no control over people moving from a community or serious illnesses which require resignations.) This critical exercise can help your church not only keep volunteers serving but keep them fulfilled in ministry.

4. To what extent does your church express appreciation to volunteers who serve faithfully week after week? Select some of the suggestions for appreciation in this chapter or add to the list and plan to implement some of them with your volunteers this year.

5. Are you aware of volunteers in your church who are not doing a good job in their ministry? Analyze the reason or reasons to determine if they need more training and supervision or if they may be serving in the wrong positions. Regardless of the cause, what steps will you take to empower the workers in making the ministry more effective and satisfying to them? Utilize the recommendations provided in this chapter.

6. What personality clashes do you see in your church? What can be done to resolve this common problem? Do people spend more time complaining than serving? What can you do to get volunteers focusing more on the ministry than on each other and their particular disagreements?

7. Complete a facilities, equipment, and resources inventory for your educational ministry. Make a list of needs and desires. Develop a priority listing, indicating which things can be done immediately and which things will need to be scheduled for future action. Set up a timetable, with workdays scheduled along with proper financing. At what point in time will you have this important area where you want it to be?

8. Analyze your educational ministry to see if people who serve are missing out on important fellowship opportunities with their peers. If this is a problem, use some of the suggestions provided in this chapter to try to make it possible for volunteers to be part of a social group as well as the group they are teaching.