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Volunteer Retention: How Pastoral Care Teams Are Quietly Losing Some of Their Best Assets

Pastoral care volunteers can be a huge asset to care teams, but this group is often plagued by high turnover – we explore the reasons they leave.

Business leaders talk ad nauseam about the importance of employee retention and the high costs associated with losing members of the team. In fact, it’s so important that the best businesses hire retention consultants, implement special programs, and offer financial benefits in an effort to keep employees from leaving – and they do it because they know retaining and growing talent is absolutely vital to their success.

And here's the thing—retention isn't just a buzzword reserved for the corporate world. The same principles apply to nonprofit organizations and churches. Retaining and growing volunteers is key to success for their work as well. So why do so many churches and nonprofits treat one of their most valuable resources as an afterthought?

An unwavering commitment to the team's goals—to nurture, support, and guide church and community members through life's trials—sets pastoral care volunteers apart as invaluable assets.

What makes pastoral care volunteers so special?

Many people are filled with the spirit of service, but volunteers who specialize in pastoral care have a unique skill set, meaning that your newest volunteer can’t simply step into their shoes and continue on their path. There are several things that make pastoral care volunteers a hard-to-replace resource:

  • They have developed the skills needed to provide compassionate care. Good, experienced pastoral care volunteers have a particular set of skills that allow them to come alongside the care team and do the work. These individuals have great emotional intelligence and communication skills – they practice empathy, compassion and active listening and know to serve and connect with others with patience, grace and situational and cultural sensitivity. 
  • They are naturally passionate about serving others. Pastoral care volunteers embody a profound spirit of service, driven by a passion for supporting and uplifting others. Their commitment to serving is not just a duty but a heartfelt calling, manifesting in every act of care, prayer, and encouragement they offer. This innate desire to make a meaningful difference in the lives of individuals and the community exemplifies the very essence of what it means to engage in pastoral care. 
  • They highly value the mission of your pastoral care team. Care team volunteers deeply resonate with and champion the mission of the pastoral care team, regarding it as the cornerstone of their service. This unwavering commitment to the team's goals—to nurture, support, and guide church and community members through life's trials—sets pastoral care volunteers apart as invaluable assets. Their alignment with the mission not only fuels their dedication but also inspires their service with a sense of purpose and fulfillment that is irreplaceable and unique to the essence of your team.
  • They carry a part of your team’s care history. Care team volunteers play a crucial role as keepers of pastoral care histories, holding invaluable context and understanding about members of the congregation within their stewardship. When they depart, they take with them not just their service but also the valuable care history and insights that have been instrumental in nurturing and supporting the community, leaving a gap that is challenging to fill.  For more on care histories and their importance to pastoral care, check out our recent article on the subject. 

As you yourself have experienced, these crucial skills take time to develop. Knowing how care team volunteers are unique helps to understand not only their value, but also how they deserve special consideration when being incorporated into an existing care team structure.

Does your care team have a volunteer retention issue?

Now, let’s take stock of your care team’s situation. Maybe you’ve got a great thing going; that might look like a good crew of skilled, experienced care team volunteers who are

  • actively walking out the care team’s vision of care, 
  • providing critical feedback that aids in care strategy planning; and 
  • helping to mentor the team’s newest volunteers to ensure continuity of care.

Your mileage may vary on the role your volunteers play in your care team, but in general they are actively serving the mission. But what if it doesn’t look like this? Assuming you’ve got a volunteer retention issue, (and not a volunteer management problem) some of these things might sound familiar:  

  • You hesitate to hand over care tasks or delegate. If you find that none of your volunteers have been around long enough to develop the skills, experience or context to handle tasks with a lower level of supervision, you might have a retention issue.
  • There are always new faces. A more obvious sign - if you’re not seeing at least a few familiar faces on a regular basis, you could have a churn problem.
  • People volunteer for short stints, but not long-term roles. In addition to people not sticking around, there’s a lack of commitment. No one is sticking around long enough to really get invested in the mission.

Your volunteers aren’t part of planning or decision-making processes. Your volunteers may not be integrated enough to help provide important insights into how things are going overall to help you achieve your care ministry goals.

Many volunteers want to feel not only that they are making a difference in people’s lives, but that they are pushing the vision of care forward.

Why do pastoral care team volunteers leave?

Volunteers leave for a multitude of reasons, but we’ve seen some commonalities that fall generally under three umbrellas: lack of connection, lack of appreciation, and life changes. Read on to see reasons your volunteers might be walking away.

They don’t feel connected to the mission.

  • Their skills aren’t being utilized. Everyone has unique talents, and this diversity of ability can really strengthen a team and make everyone feel they have a place in it. Helping volunteers employ skills they already have will help them to  contribute in a way that is meaningful for them.
  • They want better communication. Many volunteers want to feel not only that they are making a difference in people’s lives, but that they are pushing the vision of care forward. It might be a good idea to communicate your vision of care so they understand the larger impact of their work.
  • They don’t think you’re investing in them. Volunteers might lack confidence – or think leadership doesn’t have confidence in them – if they aren’t being supported in their work. Ensure volunteers get training resources for developing their pastoral care skillset as well as opportunities to practice those skills. This will encourage them to invest in the mission as you invest in them. 
  • They can sense something is amiss. If the care team isn’t on the same page or if there are internal conflicts that create distractions or roadblocks, volunteers will feel this. This can certainly dissuade them from staying involved if they feel like the care team’s  focus isn’t in the right place.
  • They’re craving something meaningful. It is possible your volunteers aren’t being added to projects they consider meaningful or fulfilling.  Consider how you are utilizing your volunteers, and whether the work they are doing helps them feel connected to the mission and lets them see the impact of their work in real time. Perhaps they just need help understanding the value of their work, or maybe they can better serve the mission by doing a different type of task.

They don’t feel valued. 

  • They aren’t getting feedback on their impact. This isn’t just about a simple “thank you.” If your volunteers just wanted praise, they’d likely find another activity. What they do want is to know the impact their work is having. It’s partly why any of us do pastoral care work – we want to know that our efforts make a difference in the lives of the people we serve.
  • No one asks for their input. If your best care volunteers are in the trenches with you but they’re being left out of discussions that shape your mission, they might start to get the idea that their opinion and experiences providing care aren’t valuable to you or the team. This can lead them to question their worth as a member of the team, ultimately leading to a lack of fulfillment.
  • Their time isn’t respected. Caring for a congregation can be demanding, and there is always more work to be done. In the rush to coordinate care, it can seem secondary to think about the load individual volunteers are bearing. A lack of communication about workload and capacity can leave volunteers feeling burned out or underappreciated.

It’s not you, it’s them.

Some volunteers have circumstances that force a change – c’est la vie. Whether they’re moving, their family or financial situation or obligations change, or something else, this one is beyond your control. However, you can still maintain a positive relationship with them; if they’ve got a passion for service, they probably surround themselves with likeminded people. They may be willing to send good people your way.

How do you keep good pastoral care volunteers engaged?

Build a Culture of Appreciation

One of the secrets to volunteer retention is building a culture of appreciation within your organization. Volunteers who feel valued and appreciated are more likely to stick around – it's about recognizing and celebrating their contributions. Here are some practical steps to help you nurture this culture:

  • Personalized Thank-you Notes: Take the time to write personalized thank-you notes to your volunteers. Let them know how their specific contributions have made a difference.
  • Public Recognition: Shine a spotlight on your volunteers during church services or nonprofit events. Share their stories and acknowledge their dedication in front of the community.
  • Volunteer Awards: Consider creating volunteer awards or certificates of appreciation. Recognize milestones like years of service or outstanding commitment.
  • Volunteer Appreciation Events: Host volunteer appreciation events, where volunteers can come together, socialize, and feel like part of a bigger family.
  • Feedback and Input: Ask for their feedback and input on projects and initiatives. Show that their opinions matter and that you value their ideas.

Provide Meaningful Roles

Volunteer retention also hinges on providing meaningful roles. People want to feel like they're making a difference. Here's how you can ensure their roles have purpose: 

  • Skill Matching: Match volunteers with roles that align with their skills, interests, and passions. When they're doing something they're good at and passionate about, they're more likely to stay committed.
  • Clear Expectations: Set clear expectations and goals for their roles. Volunteers need to know what's expected of them and what impact they're making.
  • Training and Support: Offer training and ongoing support to help volunteers excel in their roles. Provide resources and mentorship.
  • Flexibility: Be flexible with their schedules and commitments. Understand that volunteers have other responsibilities in their lives.
  • Meaningful Projects: Involve volunteers in meaningful projects that align with the mission and vision of your organization. When they see the impact of their work, it's a powerful motivator.

Foster a Sense of Belonging

Volunteer retention isn't just about appreciation and meaningful roles; it's also about fostering a sense of belonging. Volunteers should feel like an integral part of the organization's family. Here's how:

  • Inclusive Community: Create an inclusive and welcoming community where everyone feels accepted and valued.
  • Regular Communication: Keep the lines of communication open. Share updates, news, and stories regularly to keep volunteers engaged.
  • Mentorship Programs: Implement mentorship programs that pair experienced volunteers with newcomers. This helps newcomers integrate and feel supported.
  • Celebrate Milestones: Celebrate not just organizational milestones but also personal ones. Birthdays, anniversaries, and life achievements matter.
  • Continuous Feedback: Encourage volunteers to provide feedback on their experiences and any improvements they'd like to see.

By nurturing a culture of appreciation, providing meaningful roles, and fostering a sense of belonging, you can solve the puzzle of volunteer retention. Remember, volunteers are the heart of your organization, and when you take care of their hearts, they will take care of your mission.

Notebird is easy-to-use, dedicated pastoral care software that helps teams make sure no one falls through the cracks. Learn more.

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