Veteran children’s ministers share what really works when it comes to recruiting a great volunteer team

What if recruiting enough capable, eager volunteers for your children’s ministry was as simple as getting some friends together for a barbecue? Sound impossible?  Children’s ministers from all over the country think it can be that simple.  Now… don’t read simple as easy. It may take some work. But it’ll also mean not scrambling every fall to “fill the holes” in your children’s ministry.

The most effective recruiters are people who know that recruiting “isn’t just filling holes.” In fact, every children’s ministry expert we talked to for this article mentioned some form of that phrase. To be truly effective, the first thing to do is to forget about focusing on a certain number of volunteers you need to plug in. To help you shake the mindset of what recruiting isn’t, here’s a walk through of what recruiting is.

An Invitation

Jim Wideman, veteran children’s minister and author of Volunteers That Stick, says,

The greatest thing that all recruiting is, is an invitation to help people.

Wideman says that smart recruiters never apologize for giving people the opportunity to serve, because you’re presenting them with the greatest opportunity they’ll ever have aside from following Christ. By giving them the opportunity to serve, you’re presenting them with an opportunity to move forward and grow closer to God.

The spirit in which you approach recruiting is very important, according to Shelley Nelson, Early Childhood Director at Wooddale Church in Minnesota. If you seem desperate, you’re going to push away the people you’re trying to recruit. Instead, think strategically about an exciting way to invite people to join your ministry.

Take, for example, Sue Stuedemann of Elmbrook Church in Wisconsin. Under Stuedemann’s creative leadership, Elmbrook leads theme-based recruiting campaigns such as “Jump on Board” and “Planting Faith.”  These themes spread the word about children’s ministry in an exciting, wanna-be-apart-of-it kind of way.

Of course, if you were inviting people to a party, you wouldn’t just put out an ad in the paper. You’d personally invite the people you wanted to come to your party. As helpful as bulletin and pulpit announcements can be, the best way to recruit people is to ask them personally.

“People want to be asked,” says Wideman.  Sometimes people who thought they weren’t qualified to serve in children’s ministry and would never have responded to an ad in the bulletin jump in with both feet—when you personally invite them.

Ask yourself, along with Helen Ergen of Harvest Community Church in Wisconsin, “How many people out there that I haven’t asked are just waiting for a personal invitation?”  Then get out among the people (yes, that means taking the time to go to church) and draft them the way Jesus drafted disciples.

Focus on the Big Picture

When you accurately communicate your church’s big picture of a thriving children’s ministry, people want to be part of it. Stuedemann recommends summarizing the vision of your ministry in 30 seconds or less. If you can do that, you can portray the energy of your ministry to someone as you walk down a short hallway.

If you can cast vision well, says Bill Burke, executive pastor at Grace Chapel in Massachusetts, you’ll avoid the error of recruiting by duty or guilt. When people say yes because they feel obliged or guilty, they’re less likely to be invested in ministry and more likely to quit. Never stop casting the vision of your ministry. Few things encourage prospective volunteers more than helping them see how their service will have an eternal impact.

To be a truly effective recruiter, the first thing to do is to forget about focusing on a certain number of volunteers you need to plug in.

Redefine Your Church Culture

Many churches have ministries that unintentionally compete with each other for volunteers, rather than working to define the entire church culture as a place where people are encouraged to serve.

“The role of the church is to equip the people to serve and use their gifts,” says Burke.  If your church is constantly struggling to find enough volunteers, work with other ministry leaders to see how your church can do a better job of equipping, assigning, maximizing, and encouraging people.

This process may begin with a sermon on service, but don’t rely on that when you’re desperately seeking volunteers. If people expect to hear the same sermon every August, they’ll tune it out, warns Ergen. Keep your message— wherever it comes from—new and fresh so people will hear it and respond. And make sure it truly is a part of your church culture, not just a plea when you feel stuck.

Plan Ahead

Recruiting isn’t something you do once a year. It’s an ongoing process of regularly assessing how you can help people use their gifts and continue on their journey with God. If it’s the start of your ministry season and you’re struggling  to find enough volunteers, focus more on the start of next ministry season than on fixing the boat you’re in. “I don’t work on the church that I have,” says Wideman. “I work on the church that I want to have.”

Measure your approach.

If you have a “just-in-time, jam-people-in” approach to recruiting, you’ll never have a waiting list of volunteers, says Burke. But if you constantly seek ways—even if those ways are small—to draw people into your ministry, they’ll come.  Continually look ahead at your recruiting needs so you know where your ministry’s going and how people can play a role in that.

If you’ve been applying the “just-in-time technique” and you’re short of volunteers, Amy Dolan of Lemon Lime Kids recommends taking a step back and doing an assessment. Ask your current volunteers why they’re there, and ask people you know in the congregation who aren’t serving why they’ve made that choice. If you find a recurring pattern that relates to your ministry, it may be time for changes. If not, maybe you’re not casting your vision broadly enough. This step back can help you determine if the problem lies within your ministry or in your recruiting techniques.

Recruit all the time.

Take a year-round approach and consider ways you can draw new people in all the time. This will help you avoid the last-minute scramble and let potential volunteers try out a role before committing.  And when they do commit, you’ll have the ability to give them the best training available as they work side by side with an experienced volunteer.

Build Relationships That Last

“Retaining is recruiting,” says Stuedemann.  And one of the most important aspects of keeping the volunteers you have is building relationships with them. Communicating well with your volunteers helps build relationships. The more accessible you are to them, the more they’ll open up to you. If they feel like your friend rather than “just a volunteer,” they’ll want to stick around.

Nelson recommends making your volunteers the priority on Sunday mornings. Prepare as much as you can ahead of time so that connecting with your volunteers is your main focus. Have face-to-face contact with every volunteer. Even just a “Good morning!” can go a long way in making a volunteer feel appreciated.

EXPERT TIP: Right People in Right Places

It’s the start of the school year, and someone with a heart for preschoolers comes to you ready to serve. But you already have enough preschool teachers, and you’re really struggling to find a third-grade teacher. What do you do?  Put the person in the preschool room, say the experts.  A willing and excited volunteer is a rare and wonderful thing; putting that person in the wrong place will burn him or her.  If you put people in the places they want to serve in and are excited about, Ergen says they’ll be happy to serve—for a longer period. And happy volunteers mean a thriving ministry—which means more volunteers

Share the Load

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, this is for you. Dolan says that the bestkept secret of recruiting is that you don’t have to do it all by yourself. You don’t have to fill every single need as a solo act. Similarly, Burke says your current engaged and fulfilled volunteers are your best recruiters. They’re the ones who’ll communicate the passion, vision, and how they’ve been blessed by serving. Throughout the year, pour into key volunteers and equip them to bring others on board.

The more people you get involved in recruiting, the more volunteers you’ll find. If you need 100 volunteers, you may not know that many people to personally invite them. But if you have 25 key volunteers who invite four friends each, you’ve got yourself 100 new volunteers.

Look in Unexpected Places

Dolan advises keeping an eye out for people who you might’ve overlooked. She once found two great new volunteers by observing an energetic couple during children’s music in the worship service. She talked to them after service and invited them to take part in the music in children’s ministry every week—and they said yes.

One often-overlooked group of people is adolescents.  These older kids are the next generation of adult leaders.  If you mentor and train them now, you’ll have no problem finding adult volunteers in a few years. And for now, you’ve got some enthusiastic hands eager to pitch in.

EXPERT TIP: Make It Easy

You’ve worked and worked to recruit people and place them in the right spot, but just like clockwork every January, there’s a line outside your office of weary volunteers who announce they’re quitting. What do you do?  Group recently conducted a study to find out why so many  volunteers burn out. One top complaint volunteers reported was that teaching is too hard.  Most volunteers just want to pour into kids lives. Find ways—in your curriculum, requirements, training, and so on—to simplify your volunteers’ lives. Make it easy for them to serve.

Pray

This may be the last item in the article, but prayer isn’t your last resort—it’s your first. The only prayer request Jesus ever gave was to pray for workers (Matthew 9:38).  Weave prayer into every step you take toward recruiting volunteers. In fact, Ergen confides that prayer is her best-kept secret when it comes to recruiting. Through prayer, God has revealed people she should invite to serve in children’s ministry whom she hadn’t thought of before.

Recruiting is done by faith, not by need. Wideman believes that Philippians 4:19—“God will supply all your needs”—is at the core of recruiting.  Believe with all your heart that God will supply enough volunteers. Ready to recruit now that you know all the secrets? Then get on your knees and get to work!

Ali Thompson served for several years as a children’s ministry assistant, in charge of recruiting and shepherding teen volunteers.

Reprinted by permission, Children’s Ministry Magazine, Copyright 2009, Group Publishing Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539