July 7, 2021
Volunteer Ministry Reset: Practical Steps for Church Leaders
In all the excitement of regathering, the lack of people signing up to usher barely registers. A few Sundays later, during the prelude, someone asks why the candles aren’t lit on the altar. Suddenly you begin to recognize what’s happening: the church is experiencing a volunteer deficit.
This makes sense after 62 weeks of exclusively online worship. Some have gotten out of the habit of volunteering for various church ministries; others haven’t yet returned; still others may never return.
The reality is that parish ministry will look different in the coming months and even years in ways we have not yet fully realized. Yet this moment offers us an opportunity for a ministry reset, a chance to determine what is essential and, equally importantly, what is not.
What follows are some thoughts on how to proactively address this moment in ministry.
As we continue to regather as a church community, the parish I serve is facing a volunteer deficit. There are a variety of reasons for this and, from what I hear from colleagues across the church, it is a universal phenomenon impacting congregations of all sizes.
Of course it’s the summer, which means many parishioners are away. And many families haven’t returned to in-person worship in part because children aren’t yet eligible for Covid vaccines.
Still, this feels like an area Vestries should focus on and take proactive steps to address now rather than waiting until this becomes a ministry crisis.
For some parishioners, it’s a matter of not yet being comfortable interacting with others in pre-pandemic ways. For others, they’ve simply gotten out of the habit of, say, arranging altar flowers once a month. The past year and a half has also caused many people to reevaluate what is important in their lives and how they spend their precious volunteer hours.
And as we look to the future, it will soon become clear — based on how people want to serve — where the energy for ministry exists in this community. And where it does not.
Ministry Reset Button
While it’s easy for staff and lay leaders to get frustrated and feel overburdened, there is actually a great opportunity embedded in this moment for a fresh start. It’s time for us to press the ministry reset button.
The seismic shift between pre-and post-pandemic ministry has been revealing in so many ways. It’s helpful to reflect upon which ministries thrived during the pandemic, which ministries shriveled, and why? Was it simply circumstance or did the church’s mission stand in stark relief to much that, in retrospect, wasn’t actually essential?
Along with this ministry reset comes a chance to articulate to our congregations why volunteering in ministry matters. [I realize some cringe at the word “volunteer” when it comes to ministry, but I’m speaking broadly about people who donate their time to serve the church.]
Yes, the church has a mission to fulfill and it is only through the generous giving of time and talent from community members that this is realized. But that’s not all. Participating in ministry is both good for the church and good for the soul.
Serving in whatever capacity to which we are called brings us closer to God and one another. Theological reflection on the ministry of all the baptized feels particularly poignant right now, as we remember that, as Christians, we are called to love and serve the Lord. The local parish often provides the context through which we can do just that in meaningful and life-giving ways.
In addition, coming out of this pandemic, people are craving connection now more than ever. And we can help with that!
The Barnacle Effect
Church ministries, like barnacles on a boat, tend to pile up over time. If left alone, they continue to expand, which can be great but may dilute the essential mission.
This is a time to reassess the viability of parish ministries and determine which are truly consistent with the parish’s mission, and which have simply become unnecessary in the post-pandemic climate. The barnacle effect is easy to spot when you hold up the parish mission statement in one hand and put it alongside the full list of parish ministries.
Sure, some ministries are essential — we need people to read lessons and set the altar for communion; reaching out our hands to those in need is non-negotiable as followers of Jesus. But not everything we do is consistent with the ministry to which we are called as a parish community. That parish rummage sale that nets $2,000 but takes months of volunteer time and attention? Maybe not so much.
This doesn’t mean we would simply eliminate ministries beyond the scope of our core mission, but it invites us to focus our limited volunteer resources on ministries that matter. There may well be new ministries that emerge in the post-pandemic church. Here at St. John’s, for instance, we now have a Stream Team, made up of parishioners who live-stream our services, as well as Digital Ushers who welcome our online parishioners and visitors. We also have a thriving Anti-Racism Ministry which, while years in the making, gained particular traction following George Floyd’s death and the protests for racial justice that followed.
The other way to determine whether a ministry is worth holding onto is simply to gauge the energy and enthusiasm it generates. If a ministry really matters, people will be willing to take ownership and lead it. If not, it should perhaps fade away. Or be chipped away, to extend the barnacle metaphor.
The first step in this ministry reset should be transparency in communicating the reality of our volunteer deficit with the congregation. If people don’t know there are major ministry gaps, expectations around what they expect from clergy, staff, and key lay leaders will be unrealized. The true needs and urgency of the situation shouldn’t be a secret or withheld from parishioners because it fails to project a certain image.
The Culture of We
This is a critical moment to remind everyone that we don’t just go to church, we are the church. And whatever does or does not happen (coffee hour, gardening, feeding ministries) is collectively up to the entire congregation.
This involves clergy and lay leaders very intentionally cultivating a culture of we. In other words, in response to the question, “When will XXX (pre-pandemic service or ministry) be back?” the standard answer must be, “I’m not sure - what will you be willing to do to make it happen?”
Another important point in this ministry reset is to remember not to enable ministry. No one signs up to do altar flowers one Sunday? Don’t rush out to the florist, just don’t have them and explain why. Nobody signs up for coffee hour? Don’t head to the grocery store during the sermon to buy a bunch of Entenmann’s coffee cake, just don’t have it, explain why, and hand over the sign-up sheet.
Ministry Task Force
Administratively, I suggest convening a Ministry Task Force (MTF).
In the short term, this group will identify and begin recruiting volunteers for critical fall ministries (i.e. Sunday School teachers).
In the medium-to-long term, this group will be charged with conducting a Ministry Audit, touching base with ministry chairs to find out how their ministry did or did not function during the pandemic and discerning whether the current leadership will continue to serve in this manner.
This group will report its findings to the Vestry and regularly communicate with the parish about ministry opportunities. Ultimately, the MTF will help determine which ministries remain a part of parish life in the near term, and which ones will not, by making recommendations to the Vestry.
The MTF will also oversee a fall Ministry Drive (see below).
This Ministry Audit involves identifying all the pre- and post-pandemic ministries conducted by the church and categorizing them by area (worship, administration, outreach, etc). These would then be internally ranked based on what we believe is most essential and most urgent.
An important piece of the Ministry Audit will include reaching out to current ministry chairs to determine willingness to continue in a leadership role and to gain an accurate and current ministry membership list.
Conducted in conjunction with the fall stewardship campaign (or at some point in the early fall), should be a Ministry Drive. This recruitment project will invite every parishioner to engage in a ministry that fits their passions and interests. This isn’t just about filling roles, but inviting people into ministry that feeds their souls and exercises their gifts. This will need a dedicated chair or co-chairs.
The foundation of the Ministry Drive should be 1) serving in at least one of the church’s ministries is an expectation of being both a Christian and a parishioner at a particular parish; and 2) there is no shame in stepping out of a current ministry, especially if someone has been involved for many years, and seeking new ministry opportunities.
While congregations and denominations use various terms to describe these approaches to ministry, I hope this brief reflection will at least spur some conversation and action in your own context. And please be patient with yourself, your leadership, and your parishioners. It will take time to fully reemerge as a worshiping community and things will not necessarily look the same as they did pre-pandemic. That’s okay. For God is doing a new thing in our midst.