Sometimes volunteers are just going to quit, and there’s nothing you can do to change their minds.
People move. They get new jobs or go through transitions that make volunteering more difficult or stressful.
But sometimes people quit for completely preventable reasons. They’re worn out. They don’t feel like what they do really matters to you or your ministry. They feel stuck in their role. Or they feel like no one cares if they show up or not.
Each of these feelings are personal. But that doesn’t reduce these issues to personal problems or give you permission to dismiss them because you think someone “just isn’t the right fit.” They’re symptoms of burnout, and you can take steps to make sure other volunteers don’t burnout, too.
These are feelings you can address before they ever become problems. And if you don’t take measures to protect your team against them, you could find yourself reading an unexpected resignation letter or having a tough conversation with one of your best volunteers.
Whether you’re experiencing burnout yourself or you’re simply concerned about the health of your team, these 12 methods will help you avoid losing valuable volunteers. A lot of these methods overlap, but they each contribute to helping your volunteers feel more connected to their roles, your ministry, and the people they serve with.
If you’re serious about fighting burnout, see how these 12 tips can help your volunteer program:
1. Share the impact volunteers have
One of the best ways to remind people why what they do matters is to show them what happens as a result of their work.
We don’t always get to see the direct fruits of our labor, and some roles will see more tangible ways they impact your mission, but you can always remind someone what they are contributing to, and how their contribution affects the outcome. Talk about your mission and how what they do each week makes that mission possible, or fulfills that mission in some way.
If you’re having trouble communicating this to your volunteers, try to imagine your church without that role. What changes?
Imagine your church without greeters. How would newcomers and visitors feel when they set foot in your door?
Imagine you didn’t have a volunteer running your presentations. Who would that role fall to each service? How would you work around it?
Imagine that nobody in your church volunteered to play or sing in the worship band. What would worship look like each week?
None of these things determine whether or not your church can share the gospel. But every volunteer role has a purpose, and they each empower your church to share the gospel more clearly, with more people, or in different ways. There’s a reason for every role.
Identify that underlying purpose—the reason why your church or ministry depends on that volunteer—and highlight that purpose to your team as often as you can. Help them see how they fit into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:4–30).
Note: Be sensitive to how your team responds when you emphasize the importance of their role, and the context in which you share it.
In the wrong setting, (like when someone is late to a meeting, or after you’ve just made an additional request) a reminder about the importance of a volunteer role becomes discouraging, and it can contribute to the volunteer burnout you’re trying to prevent.
2. Give your volunteers rest
If you pay attention to your volunteers and know them personally, it’s a lot easier to tell when they need a break.
Your ministry depends on your team, and they know that, but it should also be clear to volunteers that they can say no when life is too crazy. If you make volunteering an all-or-nothing commitment, you’re going to have less volunteers, and the ones you do have are going to wear out faster.
This isn’t giving people the freedom to be late or to not show up when they’ve said they would be there for you—it’s about giving people permission to tell you when they can’t or shouldn’t do what is being asked of them.
I’m not saying you should bend over backwards for lazy people (although Luke 13:6–9 has always made me more flexible with lazy people). All I’m saying is: pay attention. Sometimes people won’t tell you when they’re unusually stressed—they might even tell you they’re fine.
What “rest” looks like is up to you and your team. For some ministries, summer is the least active time of year, and volunteers enjoy a more casual commitment. But if every volunteer role is equally active year round, you may have to find other ways to give volunteers breaks. Maybe “rest” means you celebrate your volunteers and the hard work they’ve done all year. Maybe it means less meetings, or you find a way to give them a day off from their role.
Obviously, giving people a break is a lot easier when you have more than one volunteer in every role—which brings us to the next big way you can fight volunteer burnout.
3. Distribute knowledge
When you’re the only one who knows how to do your job, that job can quickly become more stressful. This usually happens in some of the most difficult or important roles—less people want to do it (or are capable of doing it), so the burden falls on a handful of people (or one person). They have to commit more of their lives to the role, and they feel less freedom to say no.
I’ve never heard a church or ministry say, “We have too many volunteers. Seriously, we don’t need your help.” There are never enough volunteers. But that doesn’t mean we have to look at this situation and say, “Too bad.”
Encourage your more experienced volunteers (or the ones who have more time) to learn multiple roles. Or see if anyone on your staff would be willing to give a volunteer a break now and then. When it comes to the long term health of your ministry, your team has to be able to support each other.
It may seem like you’re asking your volunteers for one more thing, but this gives you the opportunity to show your volunteers that they can lean on each other (and you) when they need to.
4. Appreciate your volunteers
You can never adequately compensate your volunteers for all the work they do for you. And the vast majority of volunteers aren’t looking for compensation. They’re volunteering. And if they’re volunteering in ministry, they’re probably hoping to get something you can’t hand them—like spiritual growth, or a more intimate relationship with God.
Volunteer appreciation isn’t about compensation. Knowing that should help you decide how to appreciate your volunteers.
Volunteer appreciation is about encouragement. It’s acknowledging the sacrifices your volunteers make for you and your ministry, and helping them see that what they do matters. The ways you show your volunteers that you appreciate them should come from knowing them personally and discovering what makes them feel most cared about.
If your volunteers feel like you care about them personally, it makes it more enjoyable to remain in their volunteer community.
5. Build a volunteer community
My volunteer team doesn’t just meet together to plan youth group or go over “official volunteer business.” We’re friends. We spend time together because we enjoy each other. Sometimes our “official” meetings take longer than they need to because we hang out and talk about life—even though we’re all tired of meetings and we’re always trying to make them shorter.
We didn’t become friends overnight. We’ve been volunteering together for years. During that time we’ve made an intentional effort to be part of each others’ lives.
Being friends made it that much harder when one of our team members had to quit. We understood her reasons for leaving, but her absence deeply affected our team—and it was harder for her to leave because she knew she’d see us less.
Building community isn’t about guilting people into staying. It’s about developing genuine relationships that lead volunteers to enjoy their role more.
6. Provide clear goals
Once a volunteer has mastered the basics of their position, what’s next for them?
Doing the same task in the same way at the same place gets old fast. Goals give volunteers direction for growth and can keep “the usual thing” enjoyable. Providing goals can also help your ministry get more out of your volunteers.
Goals could be simple, like learning the names of 10 new people each service. Or they could be bigger, like leading a song for the first time, or preparing a devotional. Give your volunteers the option to challenge themselves to grow.
When people stop growing, that’s when they start getting that nagging feeling that something needs to change.
If you can, you should try to map out a “volunteer career path” for each of the roles your church or ministry offers. Show volunteers that there are opportunities to take their desire to grow even further.
Be reasonable, and don’t push your volunteers into the deep end, but keep fueling their desire to help by acknowledging their strengths and giving those strengths an application.
“You’re great at _____. Have you ever thought about trying ____?”
7. Prevent burnout, don’t react to it
By the time someone gets around to telling you that they’re quitting, they’ve probably made up their mind already. Unless you have a close relationship with your volunteers (and even if you do), they’ve likely discussed the decision with other people before they talked to you. When they get to you, they may already be too committed to their choice for you to change their minds.
If your plan to fight burnout is reactionary, you’ll almost always be too late.
Burnout doesn’t usually happen all of a sudden. It begins with boredom, dissatisfaction, frustration, or fatigue. Over time, those feelings grow into a desire for change, and then a decision based on those feelings.
You can’t prevent every volunteer from burning out. And most won’t stay for life. But if you’re proactive about fighting burnout and you pay attention to how your volunteers feel about their roles, more of them will stay for longer.
8. Come prepared, every time
Few things are more frustrating to a volunteer than a leader who isn’t prepared.
Your volunteers take time off work, get babysitters, and plan around the time they spend with you and your ministry. When you show up late or unprepared, it can make your volunteers feel like you don’t care—or like you don’t understand what they’re giving up to be with you.
Honor their time, be prepared, and give as much notice as you can when a meeting is going to be shorter or longer than usual. Those changes affect people’s lives.
9. Remind them why they serve
People volunteer for a lot of different reasons. Some of those reasons—like spiritual growth or a desire to serve God—can keep volunteers going for a long time. Other reasons—like “meeting new people” or because a friend volunteered too—won’t be enough when the going gets tough.
Identify the reasons why your volunteers signed up. If you think those reasons will help your volunteers persevere, reinforce them. If the reasons why they signed up won’t last or stand up to friction, try to encourage them with some of the reasons why your other volunteers have stuck around—or else help them hold onto those reasons when things get difficult.
These reasons are tools for positive reinforcement and encouragement, not ways to induce guilt. Know your volunteers, and pay attention to how they respond.
10. Find a mentor for every volunteer
One of the single greatest ways you can help a volunteer grow is to get them a mentor. Whether that’s a more experienced volunteer, a pastor or staff person, or another member of the congregation who enjoys developing relationships with people.
There are probably some people in your church right now who are more than capable of mentoring, but they either don’t know it or haven’t been given the nudge they need yet. Find ways to share this need with your congregation—it’s someone else’s spiritual growth opportunity.
When your volunteers have people they can talk to about their personal lives, their relationship with God, and how they feel about their role, it’s easier to address burnout before it happens. A mentor can identify the beginnings of burnout, and you can equip them to help reignite the flame.
11. Pray for your volunteers
This should be obvious. Your volunteers are your partners in ministry, and your brothers and sisters in Christ. Pray for them. Pray for their families. Pray for their own personal ministries. Pray for their gifts. Pray for their jobs, which give them the flexibility to continue working with you. Pray for their personal relationship with Jesus, and pray that he becomes an even greater part of their lives.
Pray that Jesus would give them all the encouragement they need to continue.
The better you know your volunteers, the more specifically you can pray for them. But even if you don’t get to develop a personal relationship with every volunteer, smother them all in prayer.
12. Train them well
Whatever your volunteer training strategy is, make sure your volunteers are thoroughly prepared to fulfill their roles.
Nobody likes to feel like they’re lost, or to look like they don’t know what they’re doing. A new volunteer doesn’t have to feel that way for very long before they’re ready to be done. Solid training is one of the best ways for you to proactively fight volunteer burnout.
13. Know your team
Every single one of these techniques for fighting burnout depends on you to know your team. If you don’t have the capacity to get to know the people who serve with you, or there are too many volunteers for you to manage, assign team leaders for each role, and help them identify signs of burnout, too.
If you don’t know the people who serve with you, you could easily wind up doing more harm than good.
Fight volunteer burnout, don’t cause it.