How These Two Churches Recruit and Equip Servants to Live Out God’s Purposes
By Melissa Wuske
Crafting an effective volunteer program takes a mix of big-picture vision and nuts-and-bolts programs.
Julie Liem, director of volunteers at Eastside Christian Church in Southern California, and Abby Ecker, next steps pastor at The Journey in Newark, Delaware, shared how their churches recruit and equip volunteers—and how they’ve seen the kingdom advance as a result.
For many churches, it starts with the critical shift from viewing volunteers as “a necessary inconvenience,” Liem said, to seeing them as “the lifeblood of the church.” Both Liem and Ecker describe equipping volunteers for ministry as a “scriptural mandate.”
“The biggest part of our heartbeat is Ephesians 4, equipping and empowering the saints to do ministry,” Ecker said. “Our church would not exist without volunteers. They’re not an add-on, they’re not a nice-to-have.”
Similarly, “the heartbeat of Eastside,” Liem said, “is the Scripture about how we’re one body and we have different parts of the body, but we have to function together to be a healthy, living organism.”
“Ministry growth and impact is really exponential when you’re using volunteers as opposed to staff,” Liem stressed. “When staff equip and develop volunteers to be able to go out and be the hands and feet of the ministry, that is way more effective and sustainable than the staff carrying that all on their backs with assistance from volunteers, regardless of the size of the church.”
Robust volunteer programs have led to growth at both churches: Eastside has five campuses, and The Journey just launched its second.
The Right Focus
Ecker and Liem focus on helping people use and grow their gifts to impact the kingdom.
“We don’t talk about serving in terms of what the church needs, we talk about serving as your opportunity to step into what God’s uniquely shaped you to do . . . experiencing what that feels like,” Liem said. “We believe the Lord’s got all the right people to do what we need to do.”
Churches miss an opportunity, Ecker said, when “we look at how many people we need on the team to get the job done, rather than how many people we could give an opportunity to serve and live out the purpose that God has given them with other people around.”
“Our passion is for the volunteer’s benefit,” said Liem. “It’s to help them step into this exciting new adventure. Our calling as staff is to help them step into that and to call it out when we see it.”
It’s easier said than done, though.
“The biggest challenge for us as staff” at Eastside, Liem shared, “is not getting lost in the tension between what we need on our volunteer teams and what the Lord is bringing, and losing sight . . . that our role is to be developing and guiding volunteers. We feel the tension if we have a short roster.”
It takes constant discipline to build a strong culture, Ecker said.
“One of our core values is empowerment, and the first part of that definition is ‘we never do ministry alone,’” she said. “So, we don’t ever schedule one person to serve, even if the task only requires one person. It’s not about the task, it’s about serving and relationships.”
Staff and volunteer leaders at The Journey live out the motto, “Always invite someone to do it with you, whether the task is big or small.”
Both churches have found it’s vital that these attitudes be staff-wide, from top to bottom, and reinforced at all campuses.
Liem remembers when, as she was launching her role as a volunteer director, the church brought in an outside group to train the staff. Senior pastor Gene Appel sat in the front row for the whole day of training. “His presence communicated that this is what we’re about,” Liem said. “At the time I thought it was great leadership, but the longer I’m in this role I’m coming to find it was exceptional leadership.”
The Nuts and Bolts
The right vision and focus are critical, but how do those elements come to fruition in a healthy ministry?
Create Entry Points. Both Eastside and The Journey have four-week courses to help people connect with the church. The courses run every month, so “there’s never waiting,” Ecker said. Both churches use the courses to help people understand what it means to be part of a local church, learn about the skills and gifts God’s given them, and understand how and why God’s designed them to serve.
During the course, people get an overview of the church’s ministries and see them in action, and individuals are given the opportunity to sign up for a spot that fits their gifts. When the role fits a person, Liem said, “the serving is off the charts.”
The Journey’s monthly course, Growth Track, “is the engine of our church,” Ecker said.
“It’s the single best method we’ve found to help people take next steps,” she said. It helps people “see a vision of what their lives could be like when they start serving. The biggest challenge for us is just getting people to take that step to be part of the team.”
Design Systematic Follow-Up. Beyond creating frequent simple ways for people to get involved, Liem said follow-up is key. Many churches have a “traffic-cop role to point people in the right direction,” she said, “but there’s no system after that.” Across every ministry at every campus, Eastside has a uniform system that prescribes when and how people will get follow-up communication and designates who’s responsible for following up.
The goal is to connect people with the ministry leaders as soon as possible.
“Having an excellent follow-up email that comes two to three weeks after the person has signed up is ineffectual,” Liem said. “Poor follow-up builds a terrible reputation for the church in terms of the value of volunteers.”
At Eastside, there’s a centralized document to record follow-up, and part of Liem’s job is to inspect the document each week to make sure follow-up doesn’t slide down anyone’s to-do list.
Invest in Leadership Training. Once people are engaged in ministry, both churches begin to look for opportunities to help grow them as leaders. “Developing leaders is how we spread the gospel,” Ecker said. For example, all of the leaders who launched The Journey’s second campus have gone through Potential, the church’s nine-month leadership intensive.
Volunteer leaders at both churches grow in their spirituality and their ability to pass it on to others. The goal is to “identify and develop leaders,” Liem said. “[And] not just leaders who are good at executing the task, but leaders who we’re pouring into to see themselves as spiritual leaders . . . that they’re sort of like a mini-pastor for their team.”
That’s where it all comes to fruition.
At The Journey, Ecker has watched a particular leader grow through the leadership intensive: “It’s clear God has a calling on his life.”
The young business leader had no faith background when he came to the church a few years ago. “He put his faith in Jesus, and his life has been transformed,” Ecker said. “He had leadership gifts long before he came to The Journey, and he was using them in the marketplace. Now we’ve seen him continue to take steps, start serving, and lead an international missions group. He’s now helping lead the hospitality area at our second location.”
At Eastside, “One of our biggest rock-star volunteer leaders leads our parking team. That’s one of the unsexiest teams on the planet,” Liem said with a laugh.
In addition to recruiting more people to the team, “he’s got Scripture all around the garage. He has a community Facebook group. They start and end with prayer when they’re serving in the parking lot. He’s seen the need for more spiritual development, so he’s turned his team into a small group to meet during the week and build on the relationships they’ve built serving with each other.”
While working with dozens of volunteers certainly has its challenges, the benefits abound: People grow, ministries have greater impact, and staff get to watch God work through others.
Melissa Wuske is a freelance editor and writer. She and her husband, Shawn, and their son, Caleb, live and minister in Cincinnati. Find her work online at melissaannewuske.com.