Getting Church Volunteers Back after COVID
Churches all across the country are struggling with volunteers. These challenges are caused by pandemic-related problems that have been present over the last two years. Most churches shut down for some at the beginning of the pandemic. As they returned to meeting in person, churches quickly realized that not everyone came back. Those who were attending once a month realized they could watch online or not at all. And now churches have to figure out how to recreate their volunteer force, sometimes starting with nothing.
Church Attendance and COVID
Whether we like it or not church attendance has changed. Before COVID-19, if a person wanted to “go to church”, then physically went to a church building. Now, a person can watch a church service online anytime and anywhere. This means that some congregants who faithfully attended physical services almost every week, may choose to stay home and watch online from time to time. Churches have to acknowledge that this change will impact volunteer availability within the church. In response to this change, churches must be ready to offer more flexibility and may need to rethink their volunteer needs overall.
Volunteering after COVID
As your church begins to make plans to begin in-person services again, go ahead and contact your volunteers. Although some may be excited to jump back in to help, many will feel cautious. Churches also need to understand that coming back to church after COVID-19 is a process for families. Understanding this three-phase process can help your church navigate the restarting of your volunteer programs.
Phase 1: Attending Church
Before a congregant is willing to do anything, they’ll choose to attend church physically. I remember when I first attended church physically after being away for months- it felt weird. I kind of felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz as munchkins popped up while she traveled through Munchkinland.
As our church restarted physical services, I noticed some congregants who never missed a Sunday weren’t ready to return. There were also new people attending our sparse services whom I had never met. I was helping with kids so I’d see trusted volunteers wave as they headed into the main service after being away for so long. Before your volunteers are willing to do anything else, they’ll typically want to attend a few services to re-acclimate themselves to church again.
Try This: As your church begins in-person services, check in with your volunteers to see who is comfortable returning. Most may not feel comfortable yet. As they enter Phase 1, you may want to give them space. You’ve already checked in with them to see if they were interested in returning. If they aren’t, give them a little space to attend church for a while.
New People: Also, pay attention to who’s attending regularly. Make sure to get to know any new families. New families may want to visit at least 4 times before they’re ready to commit to the church, let alone volunteering.
Phase 2: Determine New Church Attendance Normal
Once a family attends church services a few times they’ll decide what their new Post-COVID normal will look like regarding church service attendance. Moving into this phase may take some time. Some volunteers may start attending less regularly than they did before. During this phase your church’s more cautious volunteers may be in a holding pattern, waiting to see what the virus is going to do next. They’re trying to figure out what feels safe for their family. For many, watching online has become the new normal, so getting up, putting on pants, and going out on a regular basis- can be a big deal. Starting a new (old) habit of attending church most Sundays may take some time.
Try This: During this phase, stay connected with your volunteers. Check in to see how they’re doing. You won’t be able to push them to volunteer before they’re ready (nor should you), but you can connect and let them know you care. Keep them updated on how things are going in your area. Especially share any wins that are happening.
New People: As you’ve gotten to know new people, ask if they’d ever like to try out volunteering in your service area. If they seem hesitant, it’s possible they haven’t fully committed to attending your church regularly or are not ready to volunteer.
Phase 3: Figure Out How to Re-Engage with Volunteering
At some point volunteers will be ready to re-engage with volunteering. They may just want to help out once or twice to see how it goes. They know you need help and probably know they should probably start helping again once they’re attending church on a regular or somewhat regular basis. But, in the same way it was kind of nice not to have to go anywhere on a Sunday morning, it was probably nice not to have to have any Sunday morning volunteer responsibilities. At this point, some may choose to not volunteer with your team again.
I had one volunteer who had served at our church for over a decade. He served almost every single Sunday- faithfully. But, as our church returned to in-person services, he didn’t return to volunteering. He wasn’t mad or anything- he just didn’t return. Some volunteers may have felt over-extended pre-pandemic and COVID-19 gave them the clean break they were looking for from your team. Others may have loved volunteering on your team, but at this time, they’re enjoying their new-found freedom from responsibilities.
Try This: You will have volunteers who don’t return. Try not to take this personally. Invite your more cautious volunteers to help out as an “extra” person during one of your services. Try to give them a feel for re-engaging without the responsibility of actually doing so. Be flexible and sensitive to their situation. You may need to put them on an “on-call” list for a while. Ask if you can schedule them for one single Sunday for them to see how it goes.
New People: If your church has been holding in-person services for a month or two and you notice a few families have been attending faithfully- it may be time to ask them about volunteering. Hopefully you’ve been getting to know them over the previous month and trying to connect. There’s a good chance they’ll say yes to trying out your team.
Beginning in-person services can be tough. As your church returns, try not to do everything you did before. Consider what’s essential. This will help you determine the least number of volunteers you need to help your church restart. If families in the church ask about a certain ministry, let them know that you’re waiting until you have enough volunteers to get that portion of ministry back on track.
Don’t be like the out-of-shape gym guy who returns after being away for a few years. He feels excited about being back in the gym so immediately lifts too much weight and hurts himself. His new injury sidelines him for months. Don’t try to restart everything to your pre-pandemic levels too quickly. Even if it feels like you have enough volunteers, be cautious and patient. Give your volunteers time to get a feel for volunteering again. Make sure they’re committed and expand when the time is right. An over-excited volunteer may want to help a lot at first, but may quickly burn out, leaving you with no volunteer at all. Force yourself and your volunteers to re-engage at healthy levels.
Be Kind to Yourself
Nobody plans for a world-wide pandemic. There’s no playbook to lead volunteers into, during, and after a pandemic. As your church begins in-person services again, be patient with yourself. It’ll be a transition. Starting back may be challenging. Some trusted volunteers may not be ready to return and some may not return at all. You may need to take it Sunday by Sunday for a while and that’s ok.
You may be used to planning months in advance and running your team like a fine-tuned machine. But these are not normal times. The challenges you face are not because you’re a poor leader. What you’re dealing with is being felt at every level of society, leading some to refer to “The Great Resignation”. Know that you’re not alone and you’re a bad leader. Churches all across the country are facing similar challenges.
Start Something New
This may be your chance to start something new. Re-think your ministry. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to try- try it. If there’s a change you’ve always wanted to make- make it.
You also need to think of yourself as starting a new ministry. This means making extra time to get to know new church visitors while connecting with returning congregants. There’s no guarantee that your old volunteers will return, so you need to invest in getting to know as many new people as possible. Ask yourself, “If I was starting this ministry from scratch, what would I do”?
Back to a New Normal
Our churches may never return to how they were pre-pandemic. Instead, they will emerge as something new and different. Our volunteer teams will also emerge differently- and that’s ok. We may not restart things we did before COVID-19 and begin entirely new things. This is all a part of the process of change, multiplied by a global pandemic. God remains in control of the world and aware of your church. His church will always march forward and into the future.