This week, Adam Duckworth, volunteer coordinator at Downtown Harbor Church in Fort Lauderdale, joins hosts Mike, Gina, and Kellen to discuss the thing we can’t survive without: volunteers!


Mike’s game show host game is strong today.
And Kellen is better late than never.
So here we go!

Let’s dive into what we guarantee is one of your challenges: finding, fitting, and retaining volunteers for your ministry!

We’ve brought in Adam Duckworth, volunteer expert and author of Not Normal: Seven Quirks of Incredible Volunteers and Leading Not Normal Volunteers.

Adam loves volunteering so much because he started as a volunteer with kindergarten boys. He transitioned into leadership and then church planting. Now he’s serving as a volunteer coordinator.

He’s also a brand-new, first-time dad! We can hear the tired in his voice.

1. How do I get more volunteers?

Adam: It’s the number one question. So often we tend to look at recruiting in the wrong way. The only thing we’re looking at is getting more volunteers; we need more bodies in places to serve.

But we started to pose to leaders: “When’s the last time you took a look at all the people who have left? What strategies can you work to close the back door?”

If you look at volunteer retainment as a part of your recruiting strategy, over the course of time, you should start to need fewer and fewer volunteers.

We saw leaders didn’t ask volunteers who left about why they left. The strategy became a constant rat race of recruiting. We found that was not effective.

We encourage leaders to look at their numbers and close the back door. Find some of those volunteers who have left your ministry who are still in your church, invite them out for coffee and ask, “Why did you leave?”

We had a seasoned small group leader who had resigned mid-year. I had lunch with her and asked for the real reasons. She said, “No one listened to me when I said that I needed new crayons.” I said, “This is a crayon issue?” She said, “I’ve said it for three months and no one has listened to me.”

When you begin to look at why they’ve left, you might actually begin to have some dialogue with your volunteers and leaders that would allow retainment to continue which would allow recruiting to be less.

Gina: We’re having these conversations right now. “What is it like to serve in my ministry?”

If we can take a close look at what we’re placing the volunteer in, sometimes we answer our own question as to why we’re not hanging onto them.

Kellen: I had a volunteer who shadow-served for one Sunday and asked him how it went. He spent 15 minutes telling me everything that wasn’t working about what I thought I was doing right.

Mike: Recruit, retain and reward. We focus a lot on the recruiting part. The next thing is the reward part. But retainment, because of limited time—we hardly know what it means.

2. What does retainment really mean? What are practical steps we can take? 

Adam: Good retainment means you have a lot less work to do. Less retraining and equipping each year. A lot of people get your vision.

Five Key Retainment Principles

  1. Check back with them
  2. Evaluate their progress
  3. Value their opinions
  4. Keep watch for levels of frustration
  5. Be accessible

We beg people to stop recruiting volunteers to need. There are big problems with recruiting someone into a need versus recruiting them into an adventure where they get to change the life of a kid or teenager.

We’ve found that a lot of people as they recruit are very desperate to fill certain holes. We say: Desperation is not vision.

Gina: No one wants to get on a sinking ship. They will pray for your sinking ship, but they don’t want to get in there.

If you can retain a volunteer, you get more out of them, more of their heart and more return on their growing skills. A volunteer who has been serving in a certain area of ministry for several years has a set of skills that a volunteer serving for two months hasn’t built yet.

As we start to ask questions of our volunteers, we’ve learned not to always accept the initial surface response (family changes, busy season, etc.). Over time, if what they are doing adds value to their life, they’re not willing to give it up. If someone is willing to walk away from serving on your volunteer team, it did not give back to them what they were putting into it.

If you’re recruiting to a vision, something of significance, then this should be something that is life-giving, that feeds a part of them that no other aspect of them could feed.

Adam: Volunteers stay in the long-term because they find it life-giving. Not only are we seeing that volunteering is about what they do, but it’s also about the people they do it with. Volunteer community is so key to building that culture. Volunteers don’t just show up for the mission and vision, they show up for each other.

How do we create an environment where volunteers want to come to engage with each other in community? We get our volunteers together several times a year just to hang out with no training or agenda. Our volunteer teams now come back for community on top of the vision of what they do.

3. What are practical steps for a church to start that kind of volunteer community?

Adam: The first key: you have to have a leader in charge of the area or department who really likes working with volunteers. It all starts with a leader who loves volunteers.

Some Sundays or weekends don’t allow for it, but when possible, build in time when volunteers can hang out. Maybe it’s between services or maybe after load in for a church plant before service starts. Create time that is not programmed.

Set up huddles for all your volunteers to vision cast, pray, and connect before they get started. Your volunteers get the bigger picture instead of just their own individual mission.

Gina: So it’s a rhythm of scheduled hang out time (even if it’s quarterly), and a weekly rhythm of practical connection with some time built in for interaction.

Adam: I love when volunteers start getting together even when it’s unplanned. They’re engaged in community.

Gina: One of my volunteer coaches asked “How do I know if I’m winning?” It’s when relational connections start forming organically within the group.

4. How do you help volunteers become “owners” instead of “renters”?

Adam: If you rent an apartment or house, you don’t treat it the same way you do a home you own. It’s a different mindset.

If volunteers look at their position as if they own it rather than rent, you allow people to change their opinions on the way they serve. The church is not “their” church. This is your church. It’s your position. You control it within the context of the vision.

If they own, they are there early. They’re talking about it on social media. They bring other people and show up every week. When they see a piece of trash, they pick it up. This is their place.

Mike: It all comes back to retainment. If you’ve got volunteers in community, doing life together, if you’ve got volunteers bought into the vision, they’re not going to leave easily.

Adam: I love to give ministry away to volunteers. Make it theirs. We were a church plant, so we were small enough that we could give people tasks and empower them to be in charge. It’s about entrusting the people you lead with the ministry. If they’re just robots, they’re never going to own it.

Gina: The tension leaders feel is the loss of control. How do I guarantee the outcome? The transition from renter to owner is a process. It draws creativity out of them. Your loss of control is diminished in light of what it draws out of the volunteer and how it adds value to your ministry. We want people to be able to say, “I’m better ________, because I serve in this ministry.” (Dad, Christ follower, etc.)

If we can take that perspective, it’s less about continuing to have to recruit for empty holes and more about creating a space where people can grow.


Are you recruiting constantly because volunteers are leaving your ministry? Set up time this week to talk with some volunteers who have left your ministry to find out the honest reasons.

Then consider ways to better retain your current volunteers by building community and helping volunteers become owners instead of renters.