Why Can’t We Recruit Volunteers?

Why can’t we recruit volunteers?

I don’t know a parish–or non-profit of any sort–that isn’t short on volunteers. Some have more of a volunteer deficit than others, but it seems to be universal…or at least the norm in the United States.

If you are reading this article, I don’t have to tell you how difficult this makes parish life. Volunteers are the lifeblood of most parish initiatives. And if a parish has a hard time recruiting volunteers, things either don’t get done or they get done by fewer people, who end up burning out. A more subtle result is that the parish staff, instead of investing in discipleship and mentoring others into deeper discipleship and leadership, spend all their time recruiting and facilitating the bulk of the administrative work so volunteers can step in for a few minutes and serve, and then leave. Unless the staff have unusual talents for administration, this is rarely appealing or life-giving. So they get burned out as well. Good times, good times.

The question is: why don’t parishioners volunteer for parish work?

I’m going to propose a big answer, a mid-sized answer, and a small answer. Consider these possibilities within your parish experience. And any resemblance to “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is entirely coincidental. 

The big answer to the question “why don’t we have more volunteers”? Often because we don’t have lay disciples willing to make disciples. I spend a lot of time in my work hammering on this point, so I won’t do it here–but we need to invest in discipleship before we expect people to joyfully volunteer for love of God and love of neighbor. If we don’t invest in discipleship, people are volunteering out of custom (it’s what we do here), or duty (I owe it to the parish), or self-enjoyment (I see my people here, and I enjoy that). With our confirmation candidates and youth, it is often out of requirement (to fulfill service requirements or earn points for a summer camp, etc.). Some of these reasons aren’t entirely bad, but they aren’t the best by a long shot, and they are rarely sustainable. In any case, growing mature and joyful disciples is the best way we can recruit healthy and broad-based volunteers.

The mid-sized answer is that the service is profoundly unmeaningful. Usually what is offered is not connected to the reason people joined the faith. It’s true that some of the things that need doing are not exciting works (event clean-up, stuffing envelopes for communications, planning meal prep for festivals, etc.). But if you want people to give back, give them work that suits their talents and spirituality. A person who has a charism for hospitality–if you link that with love of neighbor and invite said person to that work, you will get a volunteer. Or someone who enjoys teaching, invite him or her to teach. (Note the word “invite,” not “sign up.”) Here’s a crazy idea–what if we asked each person in the parish what work he/she would most like to give to the parish and wider community, rather than create apostolates or festivals or formation programs and then expect the parishioners to line up and support it? Sometimes it works, but most of the time you need to recognize the gifts and charisms of the people you have to work with!

Finally, the small answer, and the answer that may be the stumbling block that halts us before we even get to the “larger answers”: we’re all convinced we are too busy. Or to put it more precisely, we’re too distracted, and it feels like being too busy. 

I have no doubt that we actually are very busy. We live in a reality where many couples are both working outside the home (or working a side hustle on top of full time work), and if they have kids, are in school or daycare. Couples are often prioritizing their little off-work time for the kids over church volunteering. This isn’t a bad thing in itself–there is a lot that is right about this. So sometimes the volunteering needs to be adapted to family life.

But there is a lot of busyness that is a busyness of the mind. Beyond family economics, adults are also available to their workplace 24/7 through a smartphone. And beyond work…social media and texting tends to be an almost infinite time drain. There is always another swipe, another scroll, and before you know it, you have spent 20 minutes (or 120 minutes…) on a small handheld computer that you intended to look at for a brief minute.

It’s easy to say “well, put it away,” but not so easy to do. That siren “ping” could be a family member. A job text. Breaking news. Most people will pick it up, check it, and then continuing checking the phone (why do we even call it a phone anymore?) for a few minutes until they return to…whatever they were doing. It’s like many adults have a little cattle prod on them that says “Do this. Look at me” up to 100 times a day. It’s an incredibly distracting way to live.

What if we are not so much busy as we are distracted? But we are convinced we are too busy to take on anything else…Including volunteering?

What can your parish do to address the need for volunteer service and help against the realities of true busyness, false busyness, unsatisfying service, and a lack of meaning for volunteering?

This article is part of our Starting Conversations series. Consider sharing it with your parish team, council, staff for open dialogue on this and other issues parishes face in transforming to apostolic mission.

Photo credit, Creative Commons license.

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