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Churches face volunteer shortages, difficulty mobilizing congregants amid pandemic, experts warn

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Church volunteers hand out free meals at a homeless tent city in Sacramento, California March 15, 2009. |

Pastors and consultants warned during a podcast last week that many churches face volunteer shortages and have a hard time mobilizing their congregations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the ChurchPulse weekly podcast hosted by the evangelical polling and research company Barna, hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman invited church leaders Rob Peabody and Derek Sanford to discuss how many congregants in different churches have not returned and what impact that has had on church volunteer forces. 

With attendance down, they warned that congregants have also decreased their volunteer hours. 

“Everyone’s just trying to hold on," said Kinnaman, Barna's president and a respected evangelical pollster. "Even as we go back to a modified normal, it feels like church leaders are going to have a harder time mobilizing people, and we are already hearing that from leaders."

“I’m a firm believer that the Church exists not just for a bunch of consumers, but for participation, for vocation of all believers, the priesthood of all believers," Kinnaman, the author of the book Good Faith, added. "The most effective churches actually engage people across a range of things to be prayers and intercessors, to be givers and generous … to be on mission for Jesus in terms of evangelism, to be impacting the poor and the least of these and so many other ways.”

Rev. Sanford, the lead pastor at Grace Church in McKean Township, Pennsylvania, said one of the best ways to recruit other volunteers to come back to church and volunteer again is through other volunteers. The people who are watching church from home or staying away because of safety concerns, he said, are more likely to volunteer when they see other congregants volunteering from their virtual screens. 

“When there’s a volunteer leader leading the ministry, there’s a different kind of draw that they have towards volunteers to be like, ‘Well, I’m doing this and I’m inviting you to do this with me.' And I think that’s an important aspect,” Sanford said. “I think we have to go overboard to show people here are some volunteer opportunities, here’s what it looks like, here are the safety measures we have in place.”

Peabody, the co-founder of the Awaken nonprofit that seeks to “resource the Church for action," said that it’s essential for people to do more than volunteer on Sundays. He said congregants should also volunteer during the weekdays.

The missional consultant for multiple church networks said that congregants will often use an excuse of being too busy to help out in their congregations or they are ignorant of what the needs are in their local communities. 

“Everybody knows the great commitment, the Great Commission. … I teach the Bible study class. I sing the songs. I know it all, but … here’s Monday through Friday, and how do we implement that,” Peabody, a former pastor who now leads the web-based platform VOMO to leverage technology to power volunteer movements worldwide, asked.

“I think most people in our churches, if you go tap them on the shoulder or knock on their front door and say, ‘Hey, we got a need down the street,’ somebody would go and be compelled to action. But the issue is because we don’t get practical a lot of times, [we] have no clue what the needs are in our local communities [or] congregations.”

When churchgoers begin to more frequently identify the happenings in their communities and houses of worship and pinpoint ways to meet those needs, Peabody said, it can potentially make a world of difference. 

“This is a much larger issue, and how can we as leaders be addressing that and making it very simple for people. …  And [then, they can] experience that lifestyle of what it looks like to put faith in action,” he added.

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