By John Chase
In 2014, I conducted a research study to discover best practices of actively engaged volunteers within a megachurch. The combined data analyses revealed successful volunteer programs are contingent upon several key factors. Chief among them? You guessed it—relationship.
The data showed that when volunteers are satisfied with their volunteer experience(s), they remain volunteering long term in that ministry area. That makes sense, right? If you like what you are doing and feel valued by others in what you are doing, you continue doing it. The research revealed that organizations that do not effectively support and manage their volunteers well will experience attrition as volunteers begin to realize they are not valued by the organization. Embracing these principles can help you avoid that.
1. The Organizational Leader-Volunteer Relationship Matters
The perceived relationship between volunteers and senior leaders (e.g. Senior Pastor, Executive Pastor, Campus Pastor) matters, even in a megachurch. The question is: Can a senior leader be relational with each individual volunteer on this scale? Surprisingly, the answer can be yes, if an organization’s leadership is: a) aware of its importance; b) proactive about making it a priority; and therefore c) willing to infuse it culturally into the organizational fabric.
The data shows that thoughtful, deliberate acts of kindness from a senior leader (or senior staff member) such as a simple, “Hi, how are you doing?” when interacting with volunteers—even if in passing—can have tremendous positive impact on an individual volunteer. Such a simple act thereby aids in volunteer satisfaction and consequently retention. Imagine what a hand-written note would do!
2. The Paid Staff-Volunteer Relationship Matters
The relationship between paid staff and volunteers is critical, too. More precisely, the perception by volunteers of the relationship with paid staff is vital to volunteer satisfaction, and therefore retention. Volunteers need to know the paid staff supports them and it must be genuine. In my 2014 study, the “Organizational Support” dimension—which measured how a volunteer’s satisfaction was derived through the educational and emotional resources provided to them by the organization—had the strongest correlational relationships when analyzed with an “Intent to Remain” variable.
If you want your church’s volunteers to continue serving long-term, you must have a culture in which the paid staff views volunteers as an asset rather than second-class support. The staff needs to trust volunteers to do the jobs they have been given, particularly the volunteer leaders. In fact, the most important items rated in this area of the study (in addition to the strength of the relationship between volunteers and paid staff) were “the availability of volunteers getting help” from the organization when it was needed, and the “amount of permission needed” by volunteers to do things they needed to accomplish their jobs.
3. The Volunteer-Volunteer Relationship Matters
The findings of my 2014 study also suggested that whom you work alongside and the relationships fostered between those individuals matter as well. Indeed, within the “Group Integration” dimension of volunteer satisfaction—characterized by the social relationships volunteers foster with other volunteers and paid staff—the highest rated survey item was the statement “My relationship with other volunteers” in the organization in which 84% of respondents were either satisfied or “Very Satisfied”.
These findings align well with previous research that revealed volunteers are more satisfied with their experiences when they befriend other volunteers on their same team.18 In one study conducted of multiple Christian church volunteers, the data revealed that relationships built through volunteering became the foundation of volunteers’ sense of satisfaction and reward.19 In my study, relationships volunteers made with each other while volunteering were shown to be important, too: 83% of respondents indicated they were either satisfied or “Very Satisfied” with those friendships.
4. Volunteer Performance Expectations Matter
As churches continue to grow (and paid staff are more difficult to afford) reliance on volunteers increases rapidly. For organizations that operate with a high level of performance expectation, this can create a tension. How do you value people’s contributions while maintaining an expected high level of organizational performance? One author observed, “Nobody likes feeling used, but that’s often how churches and other organizations treat people”20 (see #2). One focus group participant observed, “People have to matter more than excellence”. When volunteers feel a perceived pressure to perform at a certain level of perfection, most do not believe they can maintain that level of performance; it can negatively impact their sense of satisfaction.
The question of “how good is good enough when you’re getting it from a volunteer” is one an organization must determine for itself. Churches clearly benefit from volunteers in many ways beyond the actual tasks they accomplish. But when volunteers feel a real or perceived pressure toward perfection—either directly or indirectly through a staff that is under pressure to perform to those standards—both the organization and individual suffer.
Church leaders must be cognizant of this tension and be comfortable with “best efforts”—however those are defined by that organization—as they push more responsibilities to volunteers. As we’ve seen, multiple studies of volunteers clearly show relationships matter to volunteers more than anything else. Are those relationships worth damaging if a volunteer doesn’t quite “get it right”?
Adapted from “Got Volunteers? 7 Proven Principles to Get (and Keep!) the Best Ones” by Dr. John M. Chase.
18 Van Vianen et al., 2008
19 Peters (2010)
20 Nieuwhof (2014), p. 2