For many churches, attendance and donations have not returned to pre-pandemic numbers. According to the Wall Street Journal, in-person church attendance dropped 30%-50% compared to pre-pandemic attendance. Not many organizations, let alone a non-profit or a church, can weather this kind of storm. But churches are called to something greater than just survival. Churches have a mission; they do not exist simply to meet a financial bottom line. What complicates the issue is that without the financial resources, achieving the mission becomes exponentially more difficult. How can a church that has lost 30%-50% of its congregation still pursue its mission and create a budget that will not bankrupt the church? There are several solutions to this very complex and sensitive topic. A church in decline must carefully and prayerfully evaluate all aspects of its ministry and operations with a heart to listen and learn. The church budget is an excellent place to start the evaluation. Because a church needs financial viability, and compensation typically consumes 45%-55% of the church budget, I recommend starting the assessment here. There are two primary ways to see if a church’s staffing level is appropriate, total compensation compared to the budget and the number of FTE (Full-Time Equivalent) employees compared to the size of the congregation. Just as crucial as evaluating staffing levels is assessing volunteer engagement. Research shows that as a church spends more on staffing, it has fewer volunteers. This same research from the Unstuck Group shows that healthy churches have between 39%-47% of their adult and student attendance volunteering. Before you dismiss everything I just wrote, let me be very clear – I am not saying to eliminate staff and find people to do it for free. But there is wisdom in using these benchmarking tools to help analyze your church’s health and build a sustainable strategy for healthy growth.
The Role of the Staff
If your church struggles with declining attendance and donations, a staff-to-congregation ratio that is higher than 1:76, and a lower than standard volunteer engagement, evaluate your church to the Ephesian 4 model. In chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he provided instructions on unity. Verses 11 and 12 say, “And He gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.” Do you see it? The job of the church staff is to equip the saints for the work of ministry, and in doing so, it builds up the church.
The Four E’s
Research shows that healthy churches should have 39%-47% of their adult and student attendance volunteering. We’ve established that it’s a biblically proven concept that the role of the church staff is to equip the volunteers to do the work of the ministry. What we need is a plan to engage the church in volunteering. While there are many great models out there, I like the Four E’s model because it fits the chronological progression for a volunteer.
- Enlist: It can seem odd initially for someone paid by the church to ask someone to do something at the church for free – as a volunteer. Staff members who feel that way must put their inhibitions or pride aside because it’s not about them. In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul uses a body as an analogy for the church. It’s a great picture of unity and how each body member (the church) is necessary. Volunteers do not want to fill a gap or meet an adult-to-child ratio; they want to use their gifts and be an active and integral part of the church. When volunteers find a place at their church to serve God, they find greater purpose and lasting friendships, become more generous, and have a broader perspective. When churches focus on this type of growth, attendance and donations are usually not far behind.
- Equip: Anyone who has searched for a job knows that job sites like LinkedIn, Indeed, and ZipRecruiter allow the employer to put the job description to enable candidates to determine if their skills match the job. More importantly, churches need to provide each volunteer with training. View this from the new volunteer’s perspective and try to put them at ease by answering basics like when to show up, how to dress, what to expect, logistics of the room, and anything else that may be easy to take for granted. Think about the onboarding process you experienced at your job and give each volunteer the best parts of that experience. In addition to training, equipping your volunteers may require a new curriculum, communication devices (walkie-talkie), tech (projector, sound, computer, TV, printer), badges, or uniforms (shirts or hats) to help identify them. Finding room in the church budget for items to equip the volunteers will always be more cost-effective than paying church staff to do the work.
- Empower: If you have ever had a boss micromanage you, you know that feeling of distrust that style of leadership creates. Don’t do that. Conversely, empowering doesn’t mean hitting a few highlights from the role description and throwing them into the deep end by themselves. To empower volunteers means constantly casting vision to the team, sharing the church’s values and how they relate to their area of ministry, and showing them how what they do ties to the mission. When you have volunteers sold out to your ministry’s mission, vision, and values, it’s easier to trust them to make decisions in the moment because you know they are doing so for the right reason. Create an environment that promotes new ideas, fresh thinking, and a desire to improve their area, and when possible, be their champion to make it happen.
- Encourage: At this stage in the volunteer process, you found people gifted in the area they want to serve, you’ve provided them with training and the materials they need to thrive in their position, and you’ve empowered them. As a paid church staff member, it might be tempting to think all the volunteers are in place and it’s time to move on to the next project or task. But nothing is further from the truth. How the church staff cares for their volunteers communicates volumes about the church. That makes this E so crucial in the process. Encouraging your volunteers can come in many forms, and it should. Sometimes a note, card, gift card, or phone call is appropriate. Other times a lunch meeting or going to coffee is more suitable. In some instances, sharing successes with the team or the entire church on Sunday morning may be the best way to communicate appreciation and value. Whatever the method, make sure it’s meaningful to the volunteer receiving the encouragement. And make sure it’s an ongoing part of the volunteer process. Proverbs 25:11 reminds us of encouragement’s value: “Like apples of gold in settings of silver, Is a word spoken at the proper time.”
The value of using the Four E’s model to Enlist, Equip, Empower, and Encourage volunteers, has the power to lift the engagement level in your church. Activating volunteers allows the church to grow beyond what it could through paid staff only. And healthy growth in a church will bring the key staffing level indicators back in alignment and take the pressure off the church budget.