Maybe it’s only me, but I don’t often encounter bombshell statistics, providing some radically helpful new insight. Not often, but not never.
When they align with lived experience or shine the light on an insight we need, then statistics become extremely helpful. That’s what caught my attention when encountering the following statistic in a learning experience with the faculty from the Hartford International University, formerly Hartford Seminary.
I attended a webinar in April 2022, wherein researchers shared recent data points from the 15,278 religious communities (mostly churches) they are following over time. Before the pandemic, this large sampling of churches in the United States reported 44% of their people were volunteering in and through their churches. Then, by April 2022, that percentage shrank to less than half, with 20% volunteering.
Yes, read it again if you need to. Less than half of those who volunteer to serve in and through our churches are willing to do so post-pandemic.
I mentioned statistics that align with lived experience. This statistic does (again, there are exceptions). Rather than trace the numerous contributing factors, I want to offer observations about two places this shrinking volunteer base is emerging in church life.
First, nominating committees are keenly aware of this. When they contact disciples in their churches, inviting them to serve in or through the church, they receive more than twice as many “no” answers as before the pandemic.
Second, clergy, church staff and lay leaders are feeling the pinch of this new dynamic. Because they love their churches, many of them step up to fill in gaps in service, believing this to be temporary. Yet, most of us know how churches tend to function, with it being more difficult to step away from a position than to start serving in a position.
“If your church has seen a drop in volunteering, you are not alone.”
Insightful people recognize this “stop-gap” approach to church functioning contributes to the low-grade fatigue in many churches while also contributing to burn out. If your church has seen a drop in volunteering, you are not alone.
The two church responses described above are reactions really, unsustainable over time. Instead, this is an excellent time to strategize, to discern our spiritual guidance for relating to the volunteer shortage. To that end, here are three suggested responses your church and its leadership may consider.
Recognize the discipleship issue embedded in the volunteer shortage
Consumers or citizens? Members of an organization who occasionally volunteer or disciples of Jesus who constantly serve? Here’s a brief (perhaps pithy) way to say this: Members volunteer; disciples serve.
During the pandemic and now in this post-pandemic church context, it’s clear that far too many of us tend to drift toward a consumer mindset and member identity (“rights and privileges” of membership). Volunteering is optional when that’s who we understand ourselves to be. Conversely, when our identity is formed in the way of Jesus, then we know we are disciples with serving as an integral part of who we are.
One word of caution: There can be a secondary gain regarding organizational development by talking this way. We risk using our theology for recruiting volunteers to fill slots, employing guilt trips to that end. That’s not discipleship either.
So let’s be clear on our motivation. Disciples are always serving since that’s part of disciple identity, sometimes serving in churches while other times serving in the community. The bottom line is that our Christian formation activities are always works in progress, needing a tune up in the post-pandemic church.
Maximize this season of reevaluation to clarify your church’s ‘why’
Churches are in a season of reshaping. In fact, people are reevaluating most everything in their lives here in post-pandemic land, including their faith and their churches. Given this, savvy churches recognize the need for a compelling church narrative. In this current context, only compelling versions of church are likely to move forward in mission and ministry.
So, why does your church exist? What’s the anticipated outcome for those who are part of your church? When your church is “successful,” how would you know? Perhaps these questions can get your church leadership started exploring. These are some of the questions we at Pinnacle help churches explore regularly, so I can tell you they will help you focus in on your purpose right quick.
From my perspective (which isn’t prescriptive), I’m hopeful churches claim the calling to partner with God toward helping us form in the way of Jesus. When we identify this as central to our calling, then we are positioned for the next response.
Refine and align your church’s activities, pursuing essential and compelling church
Some of us remember when churches had the luxury of continuing programs and activities that were interesting perhaps but were out of alignment with their purpose. We are so far beyond those days now — without capacity for staffing and running superfluous activities.
“When we try to continue church with the pre-pandemic paradigm, the volunteer shortage remains a problem.”
For churches that believe transforming people into disciples of Jesus is central to their calling, what actions, activities, programs, ministries or other endeavors contribute to this purpose? Now is the time to gain clarity on this, followed by aligning your church activities and teaching.
One year from now, when we can say we are greater disciples of Jesus than we are now, what is it we will have done in or through our churches that helped this happen? Answer that question and you are on the way to aligning church with your church’s purpose.
This response, aligning church activities with church purpose, directly addresses the volunteer shortage through streamlining or downsizing your church’s menu of activities, along with its structure. Therefore, it takes fewer people to “staff” your church.
When we try to continue church with the pre-pandemic paradigm, the volunteer shortage remains a problem. When we align our activities and structures with our purpose, then the disciples in our churches are serving in relevant, mission-congruent ways, minimizing the previous problem.
May we courageously embrace the growth and transformation opportunities available to us as we go.
Mark Tidsworth is founder and team leader for Pinnacle Leadership Associates. He has served as a pastor, new church developer, interim pastor, renewal pastor, therapist, nonprofit director, business owner, leadership coach, congregational consultant, leadership trainer and author. Ordained in the Baptist tradition, Mark is an ecumenical Christian minister based in Chapin, S.C.