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Volunteer Motivations & the implications for church leadership

The church lives and dies not on the paid staff, but on the service of God’s people. Much research has been done in recent years looking at the motivations for why people volunteer. Church leaders would greatly benefit from considering these reasons and as they seek to encourage and motivate God’s people in their Christian service.

In 2004, Martinez and McMullin wrote an article entitled, “Factors Affecting Decisions to Volunteer in Non-governmental Organizations” that was published by Environment and Behavior. In their study, they uncovered 5 major reasons why people volunteer or don’t volunteer.

  • Efficacy“I want to make a difference” – People volunteer because they long to make an impact on the world and on the people around them. As leaders in the church, we are uniquely positioned to play to people’s desire to make a difference. What great impact or more lasting legacy could someone leave than to grow the kingdom of God on earth? Show the volunteers in your ministry the impact their service is making.
  • Competing Commitments“I’m so busy” – People get pulled in a million directions. When they consider your invitation to service, they are going to ask themselves how it fits in with everything else they have going on. You may have to tailor your volunteer positions to match the reality of what someone can offer you.
  • Social Networks“Is so-so going/involved?” – People get involved for the relationships. Either someone they know (family or friend) is already involved or they are looking to meet people. As the body of Christ, the community of believers, relationships are especially important. Be sure to foster relationships among your volunteers.
  • Lifestyle Changes“We’re having a baby!” – Changes in people’s lives will bring volunteers into your ministry and carry them away. Research shows that people are most open to hearing the gospel at points of transition in life – marriage, divorce, having a child, starting a new job or losing a job. Each of those transition points and lifestyle changes also are opportunities to engage new people in service and threats that could pull your existing volunteers away.
  • Personal Growth“What’s in it for me?” – For us as Christians, this is the dreaded question. We think it is selfish when people worry about what’s in it for them. But that’s not the point here. We’ve already seen that people are busy and have limited time to serve. Part of the criteria they will use to evaluate volunteering opportunities is how they will grow personally. People are looking for environments that will encourage them to grow and mature as individuals. As pastors, this is our task of discipleship. People should be growing in grace and maturing in Christ through their service. It is our task to make sure this is happening.

As Christian leaders, we are prone to thinking people volunteer because they are supposed to or because they have to. Sure, the biblical mandate upon all of us is to follow the example of Christ, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). We are commanded to serve. But even with that as the motive, people pick their where they will service based on the some primary factors. May we, as Christian leaders, be students of our people that we will recognize what factor drives them and how we can encourage them in their kingdom service.

Interact: Which of these factors is the biggest concern for you when considering a volunteer opportunity?


3 Responses

  1. In our case it seems conflicting commitments would have to be the point of greatest concern. If the “80% of the work is done by 20% of the people” rule holds true, which in the case of our local church it does, then the problem becomes managing the people who cross commit and often times over commit. People tend to volunteer like sprinter, not marathon runners. We get involved in one ministry to socialize, one because it serves a great purpose, another because it gives us self worth, and another because our circumstances have changed and it is the most convenient. The trick becomes recognizing these cross – and over – committed volunteers and discovering their gifts, their passion, and encouraging them to trim the fat out of their approach to volunteerism. It is a constant refining process, but how many pastors actually have a grip on what is going on with their ministry teams??? Most leaders have a “just get it done” mentality, and that will kill the same 50 people who have been “just getting it done” for 20 years. We don’t develop our middle layers of volunteers enough. We assign a leader, we get people to populate the ministry, but we fail to build the next layer of volunteers around that leader.

  2. From reading this site, I have learned a lot of practical information. However, I think most of it is rather inconsequential in comparison with the gospel.

    You’ve got a lot of practical stuff about people in the church doing things, leading, serving, etc. But really the most important factor is that the pastors have to feed their sheep. Period.

    If the flock is built up on the foundation of the gospel and well-fed on the God’s Truth, His Character, Who He is, What He has done, and What He promises and not just seminary lingo and discipleship guilt-trips, they will be equipped to do the work of the church in their own communities, families, workplaces, etc. And they will.

    Same thing with leaders. The reason why leaders quit is they get burned out — they pour themselves out but are not refilled. They get sick from being overextended. They plateau in their our own spiritual growth and knowledge of God. And there is no real accountability. No one should be serving out there on their own. Without accountability, mentorship and continual feeding, you are just setting up your volunteers and leaders for failure – crash and burn, etc. Look at the pastors out there who are going to be next century’s “Spurgeons”. They have heavy accountability to other pastors.The ones that are out there embarassing the church have no accountability. It’s the same with lay leaders. If you have no system of accountability and feeding on the Pure Gospel (Jesus Christ and Him crucified as revealed in the scriptures), you’re asking for disaster.

    To me, I see a lot of that missing from your website and your church’s web site.

    Jesse – Glen Olden, PA

    • Jesse – thanks for your response. I apologize for taking so long to get back to you. I was leading a missions trip and camp back to lead a week of camp. Time to get back at the blog. To respond, this blog is called “Radical Greatness” because the goal of this blog and the goal of my life is to explore radical ways to do great things for God so that Christ will be magnified. You are right that Jesus Christ and him crucified is central to everything. What we believe is indescribably important, and to that end, I encourage you to follow my next series of blog posts of the coming of the Kingdom. That said, the weakness I see in the church in America is strategic – the way we approach what God has called the church to do. My objective is to explore the methodology, always looking for ways to do great things for God. When I sound too clinical, it’s me trying to assess the church in light of the latest research in leadership. But, again, the goal is always to see Christ glorified.

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