Q: My congregation is struggling to find strong candidates to replace “retiring” and burned-out volunteers. No pool of applicants is waiting at the door. In my generation, many of us were “grabbed by the collar” and yanked into volunteering. How do we identity and recruit new volunteers today—for tomorrow?

A: Committed and motivated volunteers are the lifeblood of congregations. They are major contributors to the vitality of congregational life. Yet it is increasingly difficult to find willing congregants who have the time and commitment. We live in a busy society—longer work hours, little discretionary time. Many adults seeking spiritual solace and guidance say, “I’m searching. What can you do for me?” Along with curiosity, openness, and confessed need, consumerism has entered congregational doors: “Do unto me because I really don’t have the time or commitment to do unto you.”

Clergy and congregational staff are overextended as the congregation’s expectations grow. The demand for meaningful and engaging religious services, as well as social and educational programs, is a steady drumbeat. Venerable volunteers, the “FFWDAW” (“faithful few who do all the work”), the ones who can always be counted on, are aging and burning out. Soon we will not be able to rely on today’s faithful few.

Changing the Language
The need for volunteers is as strong as ever, but the times, the people, and the culture have changed. Congregations must manage an enduring need in a new context with a new approach. Our ideas about volunteers, volunteering, and community must change. The tried-and-true methods—“Gather ye volunteers where ye may”—succeeded in bringing us to this point; but they no longer work. To adapt to new circumstances, we must learn, reflect, and reconsider.

Language, the construct by which we create reality, is a good place to begin learning. To volunteer is to make a freewill offering—the Latin root meaning “to wish” or “to will.” We often think of volunteering just as we think of charity (from the Latin caritas, meaning “love” and “regard”)—one gives out of love. “To volunteer” is to make a contribution based on the perception of a need and a degree of affection toward that need. If motivated, one makes a freewill offering of time, money, or both. The traditional logic assumes: I join a congregation. A leader or member asks me to volunteer for a task. If I have the time, the motivation, and some affinity (interest, affection, skill) for what is asked of me, I may offer myself as a volunteer. Or I may not.

To change this reality, we must change the language that creates it. Rather than “volunteer,” let’s experiment with “steward.” Rather than “You request, I comply” (or not), let’s move the congregation/congregant relationship from the “you/me/consumer” context and place it in the context of spiritual journey in covenant. A steward (from Old English) is “keeper of the hall,” one whose responsibility is “to perceive, to watch out for.” Covenant, a mindful promise between all congregational members and staff, describes the practical means and the experience of living with others in community with God.

Opportunities for Stewards in Convenant
What questions and opportunities arise when we look to congregants, clergy, lay leaders, and professional staff as stewards in covenant with one another?

1. For me, a vision that “we are all in this together” emerges. A publicly shared and affirmed vision and mission identify for the whole congregation its unique gifts and purpose. Do congregations generally have this sense of “who we are” and “what we are about”?

2. I regard stewards as congregants with innate talents, life experiences, and skills. What do my fellow congregants bring to the task of “perceiving, of watching out for” the welfare of the whole community? I wonder if the sense of calling that speaks to clergy could speak also to congregants-as-stewards, so that one offers to the community from one’s gifts and not solely to fill a job slot in the congregation’s activities.

3. Finally, how does the congregation wish to live the day-to-day responsibility and reciprocity that covenant assumes?

These questions provide opportunities for an approach that no longer segregates the need for volunteers from the purpose of the congregation or from its sense of community. We begin such an approach by seeking to answer the first two questions in the Book of Genesis, inquiries that speak to our spiritual journey and our covenant with God and one another: “Where are you?” and “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Jerry Garfield served as an Alban Institute field consultant, providing coaching on ways to strengthen the partnership between clergy and lay leaders. He consults with congregations, as well as regional and denominational bodies, about leadership, strategic planning, and clergy transition.