Over the last several months I’ve had the opportunity to visit churches, consult with churches, and work at a couple of churches. I’m guessing I’ve had the opportunity to see the inner-workings of more churches in the last year or so than most folks get to see in a lifetime. Here’s one conclusion that I’ve arrived at: Many churches don’t get volunteers. You’d think churches, of all institutions, would have this one figured out. But many don’t. With that, I’m going to offer a series of posts this week on volunteers in the church.
The series begins with an interview with Ritchie Miller, the senior pastor of Avalon Church in McDonough, Georgia. Of all the churches I’ve worked with in the last number of months, Avalon has the highest percentage of people serving in volunteer roles. With that in mind, I decided to ask Ritchie for the inside scoop. Here’s what he had to offer:
TONY: First of all, tell us a little bit about Avalon Church.
RITCHIE: My wife, Kim, and I started Avalon Church eight years ago with nine couples. From what I have learned about church planting, we did lots of things wrong. We met with our core group for only five weeks, and then we launched the church. In the first two years, we met in four different locations. After I started getting some coaching, we began to grow. We still meet in a rented facility.
I am not too fond of trying to describe our church in terms like “contemporary,” or “emergent,” or “missional,” or “attractional.” We are trying our best to be a church that is committed to living out the Gospel in word and deed while creating a safe place for people to experience God’s grace and to live in rhythm with God through a lifestyle of repentance. Hopefully that does not sound too corny or like we are trying to fit into a particular church subculture.
TONY: How do you explain that high commitment to serving at Avalon?
RITCHIE: That is a great question. Our weekly attendance average for 2009 is 1,419 and we have 602 active adult volunteers. That does not include the middle and high school volunteers. That’s about 42% of our average attendance. I think there are a few things that help us get as many involved as we do:
- It’s a part of our discipleship strategy. People always ask what we do for discipleship. We believe that being a disciple is more than just sitting and learning facts about the Bible. So we simply expect people to serve as a volunteer in a ministry. It is a value we hold high.
- We talk about it a lot. We work on a communication plan that emphasizes certain things on a regular basis; giving, baptism, small groups, volunteering, etc. I talk about it in my sermons, and we have an organized plan to communicate these ideas throughout an entire service on a regular basis.
- We keep it simple. We decided a long time ago that we would not have 500 ministries but that we will have only a few that we do well.
- We try to keep easy entry points into ministries. We have beginning levels for volunteering in every ministry, and we try to keep it simple. We try to make a clear job description for every position that is short and easy to understand.
- We emphasize the recruitment process. Every staff member and every ministry leader knows that recruiting volunteers is one of their main jobs.
- We try to keep it fun. I think that serving God is fun, and we try to celebrate and have fun doing it.
TONY: Has your strategy for encouraging people to volunteer changed at all since you planted the church?
RITCHIE: It definitely has. When we were first starting, I thought that the best way to recruit volunteers was to talk about our needs from the stage. That was a disaster. I am not sure we ever got anyone to stick as a preschool volunteer because we told people about our shortage of volunteers. We don’t ever do that now. We talk about big picture things like the importance of volunteering. We show video testimonies of the positive changes in people’s lives. We celebrate the wins. And I preach about it, but we never use the stage to try and recruit people for a particular ministry. We have also simplified the process of getting information to people on our “communication cards” and on our website.
TONY: Volunteers are obviously important for the church, but why do you consider serving to be important for the individuals who volunteer?
RITCHIE: Because of what it does for them. It changes their life. They can’t be a growing, maturing Christian without it. It connects them to friends and the church. It adds value and meaning to church membership. I think it creates fellowship at the highest level when you serve shoulder-to-shoulder with someone else to reach others and minister to them. It brings unbelievable joy.
TONY: What encouragement would you give senior pastors who are wanting to raise the value of serving in their churches?
RITCHIE: Keep it simple. Preach your announcements. Celebrate with your people and make it exciting and easy to serve. I have heard lots of pastors say that they do not think people are committed today. I disagree. I think people are willing to give their time to a worthy cause when: (1) it is clear how they can get involved, (2) it’s clear what the value is, (3) they feel like they are making a difference, and (4) you celebrate with them.