One of the most important characteristics of great leaders is that they are not afraid to empower the people around them. Derek Sanford, the Lead Pastor of Grace Church in Erie, Pennsylvania, embodies this as well as any leader that I have had the chance to be around. The culture of Grace Church exudes the collaborative genius built from years of embracing this vision of empowerment. In this article, Derek provides three keys to staffing your church with volunteer leaders. It’s a small taste of his book Untapped Church — which quite frankly is one of the best books on church practice that I have read in a really long time.
—Dave Rhodes, Director of Church NEXT
I think the church has gotten staffing all wrong.
Over the past 50 years, the staffing approach for most churches in America has slowly, but dramatically drifted away from a biblical model. To be fair, the Bible doesn’t contain a lot of prescriptive commands about how to organize a church, but there are plenty of transferrable principles that go largely ignored when the pressure is on to bring on the next youth pastor or tech director.
When it’s time to hire, the pastor, board, or search committee often begin with the tried-and-true strategies of modern business recruitment. It starts with an email to the pastor’s personal network, maybe a ping out to the denominational headquarters with a job description and a desperate plea, “we’re in need of a worship leader, pronto!” If that doesn’t work, the search might move to recruitment websites – Indeed.com, churchstaffing.com, churchjobs.com, I’mdyingoverhere.com, “we’re looking for a skillset and hoping for a fit.” Churches with a more robust budget can default to hiring a talent search agency who will hopefully convince Sally-the-video-gal to move her family from the Bible Belt to the Snow Belt to pursue God’s sacrificial calling on her life.
And why are we hiring in the first place? Well… so that more ministry can happen, obviously! The answer to church momentum problems is always to hire more staff. In big churches, we need to keep the machine going. Every hole needs to be plugged and every role filled. In small churches, we can’t take the next step until we make that next hire. The pastor is already overwhelmed, and we’re paralyzed until we can bring in the perfect associate.
But maybe there’s a better way. And maybe the answer is right under our nose.
But maybe there’s a better way. And maybe the answer is right under our nose.
Sure, the pandemic changed the game for a lot of churches and pastors. More pastors are exhausted. The workforce has changed. Employees are calling the shots. Salaries have gone up. Church finances are unpredictable. People are coming back to in-person worship, but many churches no longer have the manpower to juggle all the ministry opportunities that are in front of them. In light of all these factors, I believe there is a better and more biblically faithful way to staff our churches.
Back in 2011, I had just taken over as Lead Pastor at Grace Church after serving in associate roles since 1995. As I stood at a white board during a staff retreat, I had an aha moment. We were strategizing for our next season of ministry, feeling frustrated again that we had more good ideas than people to pull it off. That’s when it hit us: The greatest resource we have as a church is not our kid’s ministry or worship music or Bible reading plans, our greatest asset is our people. They could do things we couldn’t do and reach people we couldn’t reach.
So, that year we started inviting high-capacity volunteer leaders to join our staff and lead significant ministries without pay. We took the lid off so that our volunteer leaders could rise to any level in the organization that their capacity and capabilities would allow. Our effectiveness with this model has ebbed and flowed over the years. But at present, our full staff is made up of approximately 2/3 unpaid volunteer staff and 1/3 paid staff. We have had volunteers supervising some of our pastoral staff, volunteers running entire multi-site locations, and volunteers overseeing teams of up to 40 other volunteers… all because we gave people responsibilities that matched their capacity. Many of our volunteer staff work for the church between 10 and 30 hours each week.
We came to realize that our church had been untapped. The word untapped means “available, but not used.” I suspect there exists a lot of untapped potential in churches all across America. And a lot of church leaders who have overlooked the potential because of a panicked search for the next big hire outside the church walls. Other church leaders just assume people will say ‘no’ to an invitation to serve on staff with no pay. I thought so, too, but boy was I wrong. Our first round of invitations produced a 100 percent success rate. I went into each conversation with some trepidation, but I walked out of every meeting with an enthusiastic ‘Yes.’ We were on our way to building a culture where high-capacity volunteers can ascend to any level of church leadership. You may ask, “But how do you find and enlist those untapped people?” If I were to boil down my advice to the most basic building blocks, I would offer these:
3 Keys to Staffing Your Church with Volunteer Leaders
1. Choose wisely.
The advantage of elevating volunteer leaders from your church vs. hiring from the outside is that you get the benefit of observation. The Bible seems to offer two main categories of qualifications for leadership: Fruitfulness and faithfulness. Both qualities are very difficult to judge from a distance. In Acts 6, the apostles staffed the food pantry ministry with “seven men of good repute, full of the spirit and of wisdom.” That’s a pretty good description! Reputable, godly, and wise. Notice these are mostly character traits and not just ministry skills.
Some pastors look across the landscape of their congregations and don’t see any obvious candidates for a high-capacity role in the church. They say things like, “Everyone in my congregation is too busy.” Or “Everyone in my congregation is too spiritually immature.” These sweeping statements fail to acknowledge one basic truth: God knows how to make churches. He brings the right people to the right church at the right time. He doesn’t expect pastors to do the job alone. That was never his plan. Instead, everyone is a priest.
So, get more curious in your looking, get more creative in your imagining, get more developmental in your approach with inexperienced leaders. In every church, I’m convinced that there are at least one or two people who will fit the bill. Available, but not used. Our team regularly does a brainstorm where we put names on a white board and consider, “Who are our next high-capacity volunteer leaders?” Some of the best candidates for volunteer leadership roles are business owners, retired people, teachers and coaches, stay-at-home parents, and people who have a job that allows them to control their own schedule. These days remote workers, some of whom shaved hours off of commute times each day, are also poised to serve.
2. Make ‘the ask’ a big deal.
Imagine that you were bringing in a candidate from another part of the country and trying to convince them to accept a paid assignment at your church. You would roll out the red carpet, you would plan ahead for your conversations, prepare a proper job description, take them out to the best restaurant in town, make their spouse feel special and included. You need to approach volunteer asks with that same intentionality. It’s not a cattle call from the stage, it’s not a text message, or an email, or a “Let’s grab 10 minutes in my office after the service on Sunday.” Make it special. The atmosphere of the ask needs to match the responsibility of the role.
When you’re preparing to make the ask, you’ll be tempted to fall into some recruitment traps. You’ll want to say no for them before the conversation even starts. You’ll think of all the reasons they can’t do this right now. You may also be tempted to soft sell them on the role. To say things like, “This won’t take much time at all,” or “You’ll be able to squeeze this into your normal schedule,” or “You could do this in your sleep!”
For true leaders, soft sell phrases are not motivating. Leaders want to hear that there is a big problem to solve, a dilemma to figure out, and that it will take their best time, their best energy, and some personal sacrifice to pull it off. But in the end, there will be a kingdom-sized payoff! Don’t soft sell the ask, because true leaders prefer a challenge.
We’ve found that brutal honesty is our best friend up front in the invitation process. If the person is right for the role, they will appreciate the honesty and it will set the proper tone going forward. When you present them a simple job description, be honest. When you estimate the number of hours it will require of them, be honest. When you describe the staff culture they’ll be stepping into, be honest. When it comes to your own strengths and weaknesses as a leader, be honest. We have found that anytime there is fuzziness in communication or expectations up front, it leads to dysfunction later.
3. Set them up for success.
One of the most important moves we made was to transition our staff to a volunteer-friendly schedule… beginning with staff meetings. We moved our afternoon meeting to an evening meeting so that people with other jobs could attend. At first, the prospect of an additional evening commitment was stressful for our paid staff, but soon they experienced how much the positives outweighed the negatives. We were inviting in so much more manpower and adding so much more leadership amperage to our team that the payoff was huge.
It was also critical to transfer authority to new volunteer leaders publicly. Not necessarily in front of the whole church, but there are groups of people who will benefit from hearing about this new leader and their new role from an existing pastor or authority figure. So, call together the team and say something like, “We brought you together for an exciting announcement — Kristen has agreed to a role on our staff that will involve leading this team. Here are the reasons we think Kristen is the perfect fit for this role. And even though Kristen may not be getting paid, she is a full-fledged member of our staff, so you can look to her as your staff leader. I couldn’t be more excited about the impact she’s going to make as the leader of this ministry. I would ask you that whatever respect and authority you have given to me in the past, please give to her going forward. She has the full authority to make decisions as it relates to this ministry. If you have any encouragement, or suggestions, or problems, you should take them directly to her.” And then you give Kristen a chance to address the team and cast some vision for what she hopes the team will accomplish together. This transfer of authority has proved crucial for setting our volunteer leaders up for success.
There have also been logistical shifts we have made to try to help our volunteer leaders succeed. All in an attempt to blur the lines if not completely erase them between paid and unpaid staff. We give them business cards and staff name badges, we list them on all our pages where staff are listed, we give them workspaces and phone extensions, we include them in performance reviews and ask them to fill out vacation request forms. It’s important that they are treated like a full-fledged staff person and not “just a volunteer.”
My prayer for every church is that we would be a beautiful expression of the body of Christ.
My prayer for every church is that we would be a beautiful expression of the body of Christ. With each body part doing its work. That the priesthood of all believers would be in full effect in our time. That we could avoid leaning on secular hiring practices that too often look for skill while overlooking biblical qualifications for leadership. Maybe this moment in history – with post-COVID factors, financial factors, and workplace factors – would be the perfect time to re-imagine how we approach staffing in the church. Maybe the answer is right under our nose… volunteer leaders who are untapped, available but not used.