Kids supporting a food drive table

Eight Transformative Steps to Getting Volunteers at your Parish

In a previous post, I asked why we have such a hard time recruiting volunteers in parishes. It’s an article meant to be discussed, so perhaps find your parish team (staff, or leadership, or core volunteers) and have that discussion before moving to this article.

But this article should be good news–there are ways to recruit volunteers that are healthy, effective, life-giving, and embody the mission of the parish. They aren’t short cuts (let’s be honest, we LOVE the short cuts) but they don’t all require infinite amounts of time. And they work! So without further ado: how to have a parish full of volunteers.

  1. First: Address the vision. Leadership, tell everyone the parish will strive to be known as the most generous church in the area. Do this over and over. What should you be overhearing on the street, at the store, in the gym? “They help everyone, they love everyone. Catholic or not. Because of their love for God and neighbor.”
  2. Second: Address the mission, the “to do” that gets us to the vision: look at volunteering as service, and propose it as such…from the pulpit and beyond. We are called to love our neighbor, and serve one another. This is the only reason we should volunteer at or with a church–because serving God by serving others connects us to our purpose and mission as Catholic Christians. But we need to make that clear.
  3. Third: Start creating a new culture–foster an expectation that service is part of the life of discipleship, and provide real opportunities. Its what people who follow Jesus do, not out of duty, but out of gratitude for what he has given us. Now: keep in mind there are people there who cannot serve in parish ministries, often because of family obligations or work (which supports family). Parents serve their family. That is service. It needs to be honored as such; and it will have to take priority. But in as much as you can create and promote certain family-centered acts of service, do so: that fulfills a real need. Consider a service project that occurs right after mass and ends with a potluck. Or a Saturday service day dedicated to families, that offers good childcare for the very youngest.
  4. Fourth: Spiritually feed the people. Yes, that may be happening already, but service does take effort and work. People need to be fed more to offer that service, or else they will be offering service for the wrong reasons (ideological, or ego-driven, or custom). So work on your parish’s level of discipleship through small group spiritual multiplication, deeper catechesis and retreats and missions.
  5. Fifth: Help people discover their God-given charisms. There are many versions of this, and people tend to deeply appreciate self-discovery as an impetus to growth and deeper faith. I think the Catherine of Siena Institute does a fine job helping people discover their charisms, and challenging all of us to claim what God has given us to offer to our parish, family, and life experience. People who know how God has gifted them are encouraged to act of those gifts! You have a charism of hospitality? Lean into that, lead the ushers and welcome stations! A charism of mercy? Jump into the service that connects personally with those in need!
  6. Sixth: Rip up the sign up sheets. I know these are convenient, but people need to be individually invited to serve. Seriously, see if you can use sign up sheets only 10% of the time. At least make that a goal. If you say you don’t know the people well enough to invite their service, then work on getting to know people. Maybe the whole parish needs that first: to get to know each other (another blog post). Indeed, meet people and ask them what kind of service brings them satisfaction and joy, and make a note of that.
  7. Seventh: Making service personal makes it meaningful. Many parishes fulfill their service commitment by raising or donating money. While it is true that different service organizations truly need funding and the money is well used, it can’t be people’s only experience of service–and honestly, it isn’t service. It’s financial support: important, necessary, but not the same. Find some way to make service available that is personal. Habitat for Humanity building, food shelf or the free farmer’s market working, soup kitchen serving, nursing home visiting, at risk tutoring, service week away or at home work. One question we can ask is “what can we do for our community? and what does our community need?” and move from there.
  8. Eighth: If you don’t have volunteers for a church event, cancel it.* Really. Maybe it’s the people’s way of saying it’s not the event they need or can support. Or maybe it’s your sign that the parish needs to shore up what it means to be a disciple of Christ–you can always bring the event back, but you could lose disciples once and they’re gone. Take a canceled event not as a failure, but more time to work on the vision, mission, and cultural transformation of the parish to one of joyful service.

This sounds like a lot. But you can go a long way on all of these in one year and be a healthier and more mission-focused parish for the next ten. Enjoy the journey! See you on the other side.

*Except Mass. You can offer Mass with just a priest if necessary, but that is the one and only exception. Maybe you don’t have musicians because people hate the music. Maybe you don’t have catechists because people think the program is not worth it. Etc. Take the time to reboot, reinvest in discipleship, get to know the people, and you will discover the answers to these questions.

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