Why Volunteers Quit

Before we moved, I attended the same church for about 13 years. I started serving early on by passing the offering bucket each week and then became a greeter. Eventually, church staff asked me to take on a few leadership roles.

Volunteering at my church helped me connect with my church family. I made several great friends whom I continue to stay in touch with today. However, while I enjoyed serving and usually said, “yes” to requests to volunteer, there were times when I stepped away from serving.

You may run into this with your volunteers.

A long-time volunteer may tell you he needs a break and wants to step down in a few weeks.

Your most dependable leader in the nursery may say she’s ready to move to another ministry area.

While this can be frustrating and discouraging, it’s something you need to be prepared to handle.

Why do dedicated volunteers fade away or quit?

Some reasons have nothing to do with the church:

  • John just got a promotion at work and needs to focus more energy in his new job until he’s got those new responsibilities under control.
  • Susan just started a business and it’s consuming most of her time, so she needs to scale back from three volunteer roles to one.

Other times, the reason has everything to do with the church:

  • Dan’s exhausted and tired of being the go-to person for every volunteer slot that opens up. He’s decided the only way to get church staff to find / develop more leaders is for him to step down and force the issue.
  • Jane felt excited to serve at the beginning and sign up for several volunteer roles. After a year of practically living at the church when she’s not at work, she’s burned out and has to take a step back.
  • Andy is concerned with what he’s seeing in church leadership and isn’t sure about supporting that by volunteering. He’s not ready to leave the church, but he’s not interested in aiding (at least what he views as) poor choices.
  • Sally is tired of the last minute changes and overall lack of planning. She’s been asked to serve in multiple roles at the same event (that occur at the same time) a few times too often. She’s worked hard on one aspect of an event only to be told that it’s changing significantly. Being flexible is one thing, but she’s been pulled in too many different directions too often. She’s raised her concerns but hasn’t seen any positive progress.

While it’s not always within your control to influence whether a volunteer quits, what can you do to you prevent more volunteers from quitting?

#1 – Don’t let people overcommit

Every volunteer coordinator loves people who’re willing to sign up for more than one responsibility. However, while it’s great when a reliable volunteer is willing to help in several areas, you need to protect him from himself.

As a general rule, don’t let volunteers serve in more than two services per week.

Also, if someone is serving weekly don’t ask her to serve at every single special event (especially if your church has special events each month).

#2 – Know what’s going on in their personal lives

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t about getting too nosey or anything. This is about getting to know your volunteers (especially those in leadership roles).

  • How often does she travel for work?
  • Does he own a business?
  • Is the couple that leads your greeter team about to have their first child?

These types of life events can be wonderful but also energy draining.

If a volunteer is serving in multiple areas and has a demanding job or new responsibilities coming up, you may need to be prepared for him/her to step back from something. Talk with your volunteers and gauge how each is doing.

#3 – Develop a leadership pipeline

It can be hard to find qualified and reliable volunteer leaders, so when you find a few it’s tempting to load them up to max capacity. Please don’t do that to them or to yourself.

Constantly be on the lookout for people with leadership potential and invite them to serve. Put them under the leadership of your current volunteers and work together to develop them. Then, as your current volunteer leaders need a break or fewer volunteer roles, you’ll already have others who’re ready to step up.

#4 – Honor your volunteers

Don’t expect to keep volunteers for long if you…

  • Poorly communicate your expectations
  • Neglect to plan very far in advance (after all, they have full-time jobs and family commitments to work around)
  • Expect them to change directions on a dime

You’ll frustrate, discourage, burn out, and frankly just tick people off doing that stuff.

As Carey Nieuwhof pointed out in his post on why churches lose high capacity volunteers,

“Few things are more demotivating than giving up your time as a volunteer only to discover the staff person responsible didn’t set you up to succeed.”

Instead, take the time to plan ahead for each service or event:

  • Determine exactly what volunteer roles you need for each and how many people you’ll need in each role.
  • Communicate as far in advance as possible.
  • Be gracious when a volunteer says he can’t make it this time (and have a back up person in-mind to contact next).
  • Regularly express your appreciation for volunteers. Send hand-written thank you notes, ask if there’s anything they need to make their volunteer role / experience better, pray with and for them.

For more ideas, here’s a post on 10 Free (or nearly free) Ways to Appreciate Volunteers.

#5 – Request feedback

Meet with your volunteer leaders at least quarterly. Find out what they’re hearing from their teams and what they’ve noticed personally.

  • What’s working?
  • What isn’t working?
  • Do they feel the training and communication is sufficient?
  • Are they concerned about anything going on at the church?
  • Do they understand the vision of the church?
  • Do they feel appreciated and that their work is making a difference?

#6 – Be open about shortcomings

As someone progresses from attending, to serving, to leading other volunteers, he will get closer to seeing the inner workings of the church. This includes the great things right along with the less-than-ideal stuff.

If a volunteer has the pastor or other church leaders on a pedestal, he may become disillusioned when he sees the real deal.

Here are several ways to counteract that issue:

  • Share your struggles and how you’ve overcome (or are working to overcome) them. Note: These are your struggles, not those of anyone else.
  • If your church stinks at planning is trying to get better at planning ahead, mention to your volunteers that you know it’s an issue. Ask for their input and, if you have any detail-oriented project management types around, ask for their professional expertise.
  • Disillusionment occurs when expectations don’t line up with reality. Communicate realistic expectations with your volunteers, then either meet or exceed those expectations.
  • Make sure your volunteers feel welcome to come talk with you at any time if they’re concerned about something. Kindly correct any misperceptions recognizing they may have those misperceptions due to poor communication on your part (or on the part of other leaders).  If they’re pointing out a real problem, address it quickly with the appropriate individual(s).
  • Apologize and ask for forgiveness if you mess up. They’ll respect you more when they see you admitting to a mistake and seeking to make it right.

There’s a lot you can do to retain volunteers. Protect them from themselves, plan ahead, communicate often, express your appreciation, be open about what needs improvement, and ask for forgiveness when needed.

What are some other reasons you’ve heard of volunteers quitting?