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What Happened to Our Volunteers? [VIDEO]

Matt Steen and Rich Birch from Unseminary discuss how there has been a decrease in the volunteer core across the country.


A Chemistry Conversation with Rich Birch


Rich Birch talks with Matt Steen about this strange time in the life of the Church. One of the primary ways we help people grow in their relationship with Christ is by giving them an opportunity to serve in the local church. There has been a decrease in the volunteer core across the country, a real departure of the people who are serving in the local church. They seem to have gotten out of the rhythm of serving and just have not returned to the commitment.


Church leaders are typically good at growing teams, but they seem to be scrambling to build a team from scratch again. So, the question is, how do we make the volunteer experience an experience that gives back?


Watch the conversation or view the transcript


About Rich:

Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He has been involved in church leadership for over 20 years and led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan-facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for its innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution. 




Read the Full Transcript

Matt Steen: Well hey, it’s Matt Steen, Co-Founder of Chemistry Staffing. This is another Chemistry conversation. Today. I’m really excited because Rich Birch, the Founder of unSeminary and the grand poohbah of the blog and the podcast and has written a ton of books that y’all should just go buy now, let’s be honest. Rich is going to join me. We’re going to have a great conversation. Rich, hey man. Thanks for spending some time with me.

Rich Birch: Matt, super excited to be here. Love you, love what Chemistry’s up to. I think you guys provide such a great service to so many churches. Finding and developing great teams is just such a critical piece of the puzzle. And particularly the long-haul thing. I love how you guys are focused on how to we get the right fit, people who are going to stick and stick for a long time. When you said you wanted to chat, I’m like absolutely, let’s jump on the call.

M: Well fantastic. Now you see why I had Rich come do this. He speaks so well. Your check’s in the mail. Anyway, Rich, these are real simple conversations. And really, it’s just a handful of questions. I’m really curious. You’re talking with church leaders all of the time. You’re looking at what’s going on in the landscape, and you’ve got a slightly different perspective on this being just north of the border. What are you learning about the church right now?

R: Well this is such a strange time, right? We are in this kind of at least late-COVID period or post-COVID, post-pandemic, somewhere in there. And it’s a strange time in the life of the Church. I think there’s a number of things that are becoming very clear. For a long time during that seasons, there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t clear and we weren’t really sure what way was up. But one of the things that’s become really clear - and it’s on the challenge side. It’s on the area that churches are wrestling with - is there’s been a significant degradation of the volunteer core in churches across the country. Time and again when I’m talking to executive pastors particularly but all different kinds of leaders in the local church, one of the things as we come out of that phase is we realize, goodness, there has been a real departure of people who are serving in the local church, and that’s a real problem for our churches. Some of it was created because of our shift to online. When we were in that period, even if it were a few weeks, even if it were for months on end like some churches were, even if it was just for a little bit, people got out of the rhythm of serving and a bunch of those people haven’t come back. We did a study of executive pastors across the country, and three quarters, I think it was 73%, said that they’ve seen a degradation of their volunteer core in the last year. This is a real issue. It’s something we’ve got to continue to stare in. We’ve got to continue to look at. Developing teams is always tough. It’s always hard. It doesn’t magically happen. It takes a lot of chemistry to do it. It takes a lot of work to make it happen, but in the environment that we’re currently in, it’s even more critical. It’s one of those things we’ve got to keep staring at, figuring out what we can do as churches push forward.

M: What do you think’s causing that? Why do you think the drop off? It’s easy to point to COVID and just kind of file it away. Do you think there’s something else going on there?

R: Yeah, I think COVID was an inciting - and this is the most stereotypical things that’s being said about COVID. But I think in some ways, COVID was accelerating what was already there. I think there are frankly very few church leaders who actually have experience building teams. A lot of church leaders, they show up at a church and they might be able to grow a team. They might be able to say, “There’s a 100 people on this team. Now we’re going to get it to 120 people on this team.” But actually from there is no one on this team to how do we get people on this team, and then how do we recruit those people, how do we reengage them how do we retain them. That’s more typically like what a church planter does. Which not everybody plants churches. I think some of it is stretching a skill that we just don’t have. We’re just not used to it. So some of it we have to rethink some of our assumptions. And then frankly, I think there was a lot of people who were volunteering who we were probably overtaxing them. We built systems that depended on too few people, and then when there was this natural break that happened, they said, “Oh, I’m not going to go back.” Even in my own small group recently, I was talking to a guy that’s in my small group. He’s like one of those volunteers that’s always at everything. He’s super dependable and is just the salt of the earth, amazing guy, tech volunteer. And he said, “You know, it’s been kind of nice to not be on all the time.” Kind of during that COVID season. I think some of it, it’s forcing us to think differently. We’ve got to think a lot more about retention. For years I’ve been saying to church leaders, we should stop thinking about recruiting, stop just trying to fill the bucket, but actually think about it. It fits into your thoughts on long-term staff. We should actually be thinking more about how do we keep people? How do we create a compelling volunteer experience? How do we ensure that those people are cared for, that they know exactly what to expect? We get them a free t-shirt and we care for them and we sit down and actually love on them. Now the difficulty is, we actually have to do some recruiting in this season because we have to build up our teams. But that would be a few things.

M: So let me throw something out there to you. Tell me I’m on crack if I am. It wouldn’t be the first time today. One of the things I’ve been thinking just from my standpoint is I think we’ve systemed and processed ourselves to the point where we’ve forgotten some of what you’ve just said, as far as sitting down with people and getting to know them and hearing their story not giving them a church job on top of their 40 hours a week. I had this conversation with somebody who was talking about the lack of volunteers that were coming back. And I just asked them, “How many cups of coffee have you been having with people?”

R: That’s so true.

M: Just kind of blank stare. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re used to creating almost volunteer mills. Is that unfair to say?

R: No, I don’t think you’re way off. I think that’s very true. My wife, we always joke, she’s a people person. She just loves people, loves sitting across the table from folks. There’s a lot of leadership that can happen in that environment. I know for years, churches that I’ve led where we have campus pastors, we have put in a part of their weekly rhythm is some number of face-to-face meetings with volunteers. And that’s changes, it’s different. Some seasons it’s ten, some seasons it’s five. But it’s like you’ve got to get on the mill of just getting out in front of people. And then I think the other piece of it, which you’re kind of touching on, is we have to think backward from what is in the volunteer experience for our volunteers. Like how do we make it such a great experience for them that they’re growing? It goes beyond just asking the gifting question, how has God gifted people. That’s a critical piece. That’s like table stakes. We know that people have spiritual gifts. Of course, we want to place people in their spiritual gifts, but it’s that plus. It’s how do we develop them. How do we provide great leadership development opportunities for them? How do we support them? What are we doing to ensure that they’re being cared for? Volunteering is super important. It’s one of those areas - and I know you know this, but to reflect back to our listeners - it is one of the primary ways that we help people grow in their relationship with Jesus. It’s a primary engine. For years, we’ve been talking about small groups, and I think that’s good. I love small groups. But I do think that there was maybe a weird thing that happened in some churches where we talked groups, groups, groups, groups, groups, but then we just looked at volunteering as we just need all these people to do stuff. We looked at it like we just need all these people to check a list. And we didn’t see that as actually, no that’s a growth opportunity. That’s a way for people to grow in their relationship with Jesus, to exercise their gifts, to be the people that God’s called them to be. We’ve kind of ghettoized that just to groups, that that’s the only place that can happen. And I think we’ve got to rebalance that, and I think this is the season to do that. How do we make our volunteer experience super compelling in this season?

M: That’s awesome. I used to tell our teams all the time, if this is not an act of worship for you, if this isn’t something that is life-giving and life-sustaining, then we need to find something else. There is something there to use your gifts, but this can’t be another job. I love the fact that you’re reshaping that. I don’t know if you feel this way too, but I feel like for a season we’ve gotten to the point where it’s like, come in, be a part of a church, get into a group, and serve whenever. I’m almost to the point where I’m kind of sharing with some of the churches I’m working with, make the groups the second thing. Get them in, get them plugged into a team, and that kind of thing.

R: I think that’s very true. And I think particularly, there’s a lot of church leaders who would say we’re trying to reach guys, we’re trying to reach men, and struggle with that. That’s a common problem that lots of churches have. But in those contexts, I’ve always said, I think there’s an untapped opportunity particularly on the volunteering side. Not trying to be sexist, but there is something about - guys will stand beside another guy and do something, and maybe actually have some pretty significant conversations from that environment. Less likely to then sit on a sofa across from someone else have a deep conversation. So I think there’s a great opportunity on the volunteering side to particularly reach guys. And it’s not just guys, it’s obviously women as well. But I do think if churches are worried about that, that is one way for people to grow.

M: That’s awesome, man. That’s awesome. So church coming back and saying, hey, what. We’re struggling. We’ve got services. Sunday’s always coming, and I’ve got nobody. What’s one thing that they can do tomorrow?

R: Great question. So for years, I was involved in launching multisite campuses. Just giving some context, we directly launched 13 locations. I’ve coached a ton of churches around that. And there’s a piece of that puzzle that I think really all churches can be kind of taking a tactic that we used in those environments and applying it. For years we did was we called connection events. What they are was an opportunity for people to connect relationally. This would be like, we’re going into a new community and we would say, oh we’re going to do this - and this is northeast, so I realize this doesn’t happen in Florida - but we’re like, we’re going to do a skating night. And we’d rent out a rink and get everybody together. And it’s 80% hanging out. It’s about getting people to connect and talk with each other, and then it’s 20% what we’re doing as a new location. I think this is a season that our churches should be looking at similar tactics. We should be asking the question, how are we building people relationally. One of the things that we know that people are looking for, what they’re trying to get out of a volunteer experience is actually social connections. They’re looking for people to connect with. They want to know people So rather than just saying, “Can you show up and serve at this thing,” let’s put another tactic of, “Let’s do something fun together.” And again, the goal is it’s not an information meeting. It’s not an interest meeting. It’s, we’re getting together to talk. It’s an opportunity to connect with each other. I’ve been talking with churches across the country and doing this and seeing huge returns on it. Like yeah, wow, we had 100 people show up to that, and wouldn’t you know? We tracked it, and 84 of those people said they’ll be on a volunteer team. Well shocker because they know people. They have relationships with folks. So again, that’s something that I would be encouraging people in this season to be thinking about. What can we be doing relationally to get people connected. And that’s even more so. Again, so great, we’re seeing across the country stuff opening up. It’s like, we’re going to have concerts again. All that stuff’s going to happen again. But we’ve had a protracted time of people not connecting socially, right? It’s been like dangerous for your health or illegal to connect with other people. We need to almost midwife that experience. We need to help people create environments where they connect to each other and build relationships as the precursor to saying, will you join a team, will you jump in on what we’re doing.

M: That’s awesome, man. Rich, thank you so much for spending some time and sharing your wisdom with our crowd. If you haven’t gone and bought all Rich’s books yet, you really need to, like I said. But definitely go check out unseminary.com. Check out the podcast. It’s gold. It really is leadership gold.

R: I appreciate that. Thanks, Matt. I appreciate you, appreciate what you’re doing. I’m cheering for you. I love what you’re up to, and I appreciate you helping people through this thing. It’s so good.

M: Thanks, Rich.


Matt Steen

Matt Steen

Matt has served the local church for over two decades as a youth pastor, church planter, and executive pastor. Originally from Baltimore, Matt currently lives in Orlando, with his wife Theresa, and has a B.S. in Youth Ministry from Nyack College and an M.Div. and MBA from Baylor University. Certified as an Urban Church Planter Coach by Redeemer City to City and as a StratOp facilitator by the Paterson Center, Matt has made a career of helping churches thrive through intentionality, clarity, and creating healthy cultures. He is convinced that a healthy church is led by a healthy team with great chemistry, and loves partnering with Chemistry’s churches to do great things for the Kingdom.

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