Vicar shares universal volunteer lessons

15 December 2018

Volunteerism isn't exclusive to sport, the whole world runs on it. 

In the below article, Vicar Fraser Dyer shares his tips on successfully working with volunteers.

Although Vicar Dyer's experience is with volunteers in a church setting, his lessons and tips apply to volunteering around the world...including in the sport and recreation sector. 

His tips include; get to know people really well, learn to collaborate, help people understand what success looks like, and work in partnership — all of which can be applied universally. 

Original article is from the online e-volunteering journal, Volume XVIII, Issue 1, October 2017 - January 2018.


I’ve worked in some dreary training rooms in my time, and the one that belongs to the Diocese of Southwark (South London, UK) combines the very worst features of them all—airless and charmless, with migraine-inducing lighting, back-breaking seats, and a sad refreshment trolley stocked with a few cheap teabags and instant coffee. 

On this particular occasion, seated in front of me are about 20 curates, freshly-minted clergy in the last lap of their training. After five or six years of training, someone has sensibly decided they should learn about the subject of working with volunteers before they take on a parish or chaplaincy of their own. 

Word has percolated through the church hierarchy that somebody who used to be someone in volunteer programme management in the UK is now a Vicar, just along the river from Diocesan House, languishing in a semi-gritty inner-city parish of the kind that makes-or-breaks priests in this part of the world. That would be me. 

And so I find myself standing in front of my colleagues, wondering what I can usefully convey to them in 90 minutes about an issue that will preoccupy them daily for the whole of their ministry: how to work effectively with church members to deliver the mission and ministry of the church. 

“There are,” I begin, “no volunteers in church.” This is the sort of impactful and attention-grabbing opening that I feel sure will have them sitting on the edge of their seats from the start. 

They stare back at me dolefully.   

You can’t blame them. What I said is only partly true. Some churches do run proper volunteer programmes in order to staff projects such as food banks, community cafés, lunch clubs or charity shops. These are discrete and distinct volunteer involving activities to which you can apply all the usual good practices in planning, recruiting and supervising volunteers. Go straight to Volunteer Management 101, do not pass GO, do not collect $200. 

But what about the rest of church life? Sunday worship, for example, requires the active participation of about 20 people, even in a small congregation like ours. They do everything from setting up for the service, handing out hymn books, driving elderly people to church, arranging flowers, ushering, taking up the collection and counting it afterwards, reading the scriptures, leading prayers, running children’s activities, serving at the altar, making tea and coffee, washing up, stacking chairs, and putting everything away. In bigger churches you might also have people singing in a choir, running a Fairtrade stand or bookstall, hosting a welcome desk, coordinating rotas, and so on. Aren't all these people volunteers? 

And that, as they say, is the nub. 

For while people are technically volunteering their help, they mostly do not self-identify as ‘volunteers.’ Their route into participation begins with coming to a service, and their wider involvement creeps in slowly and evolves organically. Mostly, people wait to be asked before lending a hand. People come to church to attend divine worship, find fellowship and learn. One hopes this inspires them to take action, because faith without action is like a date without a kiss. It lacks conviction. 

In many churches, a small number of people do much of the work leaving the majority to coast along, religious consumers who are happy to watch the movie and eat the popcorn. They’ve already been asked to dip into their wallets and purses for the privilege, so it can come as a surprise that they might be asked to operate the projector, pick up the trash, hoover the aisles, check tickets, straighten the curtains, and staff the concession stand. But somebody has to. 

The internal jobs that keep a church functioning are only really a stepping stone to enabling the real outward-facing work of a church in its community—the kind of initiatives that can make a real difference to the lives of local people. But without accomplishing one it is very difficult to do the other. 

For those who do help out, they do so as an expression, or extension, of their faith, not because they are ‘A Volunteer.’ Which makes the whole business of volunteer management in churches somewhat tricky. 

Office Holders 

There are some key roles in churches that do feel like volunteering—Secretary, Treasurer, Churchwarden, Pastoral Assistant, Lay Reader—and they usually come with defined roles and responsibilities. These are positions where people carry responsibility and are expected to have real ownership and take initiative in their role. That is quite a different thing from those members who are happy to help with a task, but not carry responsibility for an area of work. When an office holder role becomes vacant one looks for a suitable replacement, hopefully with an idea of the qualities and skills required and measuring up who might best suit that role. 

Except, of course, you are only able to recruit from an existing constituency comprising the current congregation. It is not a case of who we might bring in to fill this role, but who’s the best option amongst the folk already here. And that can sometimes mean making do with someone who isn't ideal, but is at least willing. This then puts a great deal more emphasis onto how people are nurtured and supported in their new role (which is fine as long as they acknowledge they might be in need of such support). 

In this regard, churches are little different from many membership-based clubs and societies. Office-holders are drawn from the small pool of current members. And when it comes to the wider workload of the club, it is sometimes a condition of membership that one undertakes certain duties. My partner, for example, belongs to a sailing club where all members are required to undertake six ‘duty sessions’ during the sailing season. This might include cleaning, maintenance, marshalling, organising, cooking, or serving lunches. Churches1, however, are open to all. And while it might be suggested that regular attenders lend a hand, it cannot be made a condition. 

In secular parlance, within a congregation there is no clear distinction between ‘service-users’ and ‘service-providers.’ There will always be some members of the congregation where the priority is in meeting their needs. Others will focus on meeting the needs of others, or on the church community as a whole. And, just to complicate it further, someone who is a ‘service-user’ in one regard may be a ‘service-provider’ in another. Indeed, we aspire to ensure that everyone reaches the point where they both give and receive. All of which makes a nice neat set of role descriptions rather redundant. Each person is an individual with their own set of needs and gifts, and finding ways to integrate them cannot easily be standardised. 

Soft Skills versus ‘Management’ 

Before being ordained, I had run volunteer programmes for a couple of national organisations in the U.K. and had also spent the better part of 20 years working nationally and internationally as a trainer and consultant in volunteer programme management. People say to me, “Your background must be a real asset in church ministry.” To which I reply, “Nothing prepared me for this.” 

Working with volunteers who don’t see themselves as volunteers—who often lack clear roles and boundaries, whose commitment and attendance is variable, and who are mainly happy to let others do the heavy lifting—is a long way from the well-structured, planned, and strategised volunteer programming that I had taught. 

Add to this declining church attendance (and the attendant drop in resources), an ageing population, time-poor working people, and rocketing managerialism on the part of the church hierarchy (with a consequential rise in bureaucracy) and the pressure really bites. I know many colleagues in the voluntary sector share exactly the same pressures. 

I wasn't only going to need management skills. Ministry would instead test my capacity to motivate and inspire through building quality relationships with people and trying to carve a way through the messiness, rivalries, clashing egos and passive aggressive behaviours that are often a feature of congregational life. In short, I was placed so far out of my comfort zone that I might as well have been on a small moon in another galaxy. 

What I’ve Learned and What I Recommend 

I haven't got this cracked yet by any means, but here’s what I’ve learned so far. 

Get to Know People Really Well 

It is only in understanding people well that one can begin to understand what they might be able to offer. This isn't just a question of skills and experiences, but knowing their back stories, their reasons for coming to church, their hopes and expectations. Drink tea, eat cake, and fathom the potential of each individual. 

In my early days, ever the management consultant, I fondly imagined myself conducting a skills audit. I very quickly found that any type of overt managerialism would alienate and annoy a big chunk of the congregation, and that no one system fits all in an incredibly diverse body of people. So I do it by stealth instead, holding informal conversations over time. 

People’s willingness to do certain tasks and not others is tangled up with the complications of their life and cannot be a tick box exercise. One woman in our congregation had mouth cancer which was treated by removing part of her tongue. Her speech is now badly affected and not always easy to understand. She is determined to continue taking her turn in leading prayers during the service, even although people don’t always understand what she is saying. I think she is inspirational in her spirit and courage, and she brings something to our services that nobody else does. She doesn’t tick the box when it comes to public speaking, so it’s just as well I threw the tick boxes away; otherwise, look what we’d have missed. 

Learn to Collaborate 

I look for people to build partnerships with. It is no way to run a church (in spite of a long culture in some circles of what used to be termed ‘one-man ministry’ and in others ‘Father knows best!’) that church leaders—of any gender—try to do everything themselves. Some do out of ego, others out of desperation, but if the congregation is not participating it isn’t a church. 

When I get a sense of what a particular person might have to offer, I will say to them, “Can we have a coffee sometime? There is something I’d like you to help me think through.” One conversation that began this way led to a parish weekend and a discussion group that otherwise wouldn't have happened. What starts as a chat with one other person can begin something that draws in one or two others; the next thing you know, you have a planning group to get something off the ground. 

This is a gentle way in to collaboration that begins in an organic and natural way. And it’s exciting when you don't know where the conversation will lead. The outcome can be activities or projects that are a genuine expression of the kinds of people within the church, rather than an idea the Minister has had which s/he now needs to chivvy other people into helping with, however suitable or not they may be. 

One recent study, described in a 2017 article in Church Times, shows that clergy who are able to work collaboratively are more likely to see their congregation grow. The study suggests that clergy who are ‘collectivist’ in their approach are not only more willing to draw on the skills available within the congregation but will work to empower others to undertake activities. This not only chimes with a similar shift in thinking by leaders in business, but also with the teaching of one of the first church leaders in the early days of the Christian faith. St. Paul describes that while all church members are part of a single ‘body,’ each person has a role to play that interconnects with and serves the rest of the body (1 Corinthians 12.12-31). His writing urges members not only to discern what their own gifts are and use them, but to respect and appreciate the different skills that others might contribute. 

Help People Understand What Success Looks Like 

Good delegation should enable the person undertaking a task to know when it has been done properly. I find this doubly true in church—when articulating the difference a person will make, describing observable outcomes, building in checkpoints to catch up on how it’s going, and taking time to debrief afterwards can all help to build clarity and confidence as well as ensure a job well done. But it tends to run counter to the culture of ‘niceness’ in church life. The instinct is to be less rather than more directive in such circumstances, in case it puts people off. But in fact clarity and boundaries usually help people feel more secure rather than less so, although there is always the odd ego that will take it badly. 

I also like to make sure people understand why I think they would be a good person to take something on. It's such a turn-off to be asked to do a job by a minister who is clearly desperate for help, whereas a demonstrable effort to match the right person to the right job shows you have taken an interest and used your acquired knowledge of the person in a thoughtful and individualised way. 

And I try to introduce people to others who can show them the ropes. A sense of belonging is a key factor that draws people into the church and keeps them there. Doing jobs together is the best way to get to know others and begin to enjoy that sense of belonging. 

Work in Partnership with a Church 

It may be that you’d like to engage a local church or faith community to undertake some volunteering for your possibly secular project. How best to go about it? Here are my suggestions: 

  • Assume the minister is stressed and over-worked. Not all clergy are, but it’s a reasonable assumption to start with. That means you’ll stand most chance of engaging their interest and support if you make their participation as easy as possible. 
  • Offer to come and speak to the congregation, either during or after worship. 
  • Be crystal clear about what you’re asking the church to provide: volunteers, premises, funding, resources, time commitment, length of project, etc. 
  • Explain what you are bringing to the project. Reassure people about the support, training, orientation, and briefing you offer, as well as other resources or supplies. 
  • Think through whether your cause is a good fit for a church. Projects that tackle poverty, illness or disability, prisoners, the environment, justice and peace, and so on, all chime well with Christian teaching. 
  • Set them a challenge. Particularly when it comes to fundraising, an achievable goal that is easy to exceed with clear outcomes can work very well. 

Here is an excellent example of that last point. One charity challenged us (and other faith communities from different religions) to raise £120 to buy 12 mosquito nets for families in malaria hotspots. We raised over £400 simply through people handing me donations on their way out of worship. The charity resourced us with a mosquito net and some luggage tags. We wrote prayers on the tags during the service, and tied to them to the net, which we left displayed as a visual reminder of the campaign. 


Many of the strategic approaches to volunteer management don’t automatically apply in churches, because people tend to view church attendance passively rather than actively. They come to church to receive something rather than to give. It takes time to help people understand participation in church life is about giving as well as receiving, and a softly, softly-taken approach will lend itself better than bureaucratic managerialism. 

However, it is vital to understand which roles will benefit from more conventional approaches to volunteer management (such as office holders or those volunteering for a discrete church programme), and those for which a more relationship based and collaborative approach will work better. 

Individualisation rather than standardisation is the key. And the more one is able to work collaboratively, the more engaged and attractive the church will become. 

By Fraser Dyer

Original article is from the online e-volunteering journal, Volume XVIII, Issue 1, October 2017 - January 2018.

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