Andrea sat across from me at the Congregation Council meeting. She had been Council President for four years, and one of the best with whom I had ever worked. “I almost left this church,” she told me. “When I first joined I had young children, so they asked me to serve in the nursery. Believe me, it’s not my gift. I love kids, but it’s not my gift. I hated it. I always felt overwhelmed, and I wasn’t good at it. The parents didn’t appreciate me, understandably. Some got mad. I felt like a failure and almost left the church over it. Someone saw my leadership and administrative gifts and asked me to be on Council.”

Andrea is not the only one. Churches all over often times recruit people based on the organization’s need for volunteers, rather than on the individual’s gifts and calling. If the church needs Sunday school teachers, sadly, in some places, anyone with a pulse who is willing to serve will do. When this happens, everyone loses: the teachers, the kids, the parents, the church.

It’s also really, really hard to recruit his way. You get a dozen “no’s” before you get to “yes.” And even when you get to yes, it’s an iffy yes, with a 50-50 shot of working out. If you ask me to help fix the church’s lawn mower, I might say yes, after hemming and hawing, because I don’t want to disappoint anyone, but what you don’t know is this: I do not have one mechanical bone in my body. I don’t know what I’m doing. It will take a lot of time, I will not enjoy it, and I will likely not succeed. Then people will be mad at me because, “It’s been weeks and he still hasn’t fixed the mower.”

Consider an alternative. When I join the church you offer a spiritual gifts assessment. You discover I score high in instrumental music and vocal music. You ask me to play piano for the choir on Easter, because the pianist is out of town. I immediately say yes without hesitation. I love to do this, and know I can do it well. I will practice more than I need to because I enjoy it. When all is done, I have fun, the anthem goes well, and people pat me on the back, thanking me.

This is a different way of recruiting, and it gets different results. It’s based on the individual’s gifts, rather than plugging just anyone in an empty hole. Margaret, may she rest in peace, sang in the choir at Grace in Houston for 30 years. She did not do this out of obligation. She was gifted in music and it gave her joy. No one twisted her arm or elected her. She wanted to do it. Every job in the church has someone gifted for it, even changing lightbulbs. There are those who don’t want to be on stage, or on the spot. They love the church and would rather quietly support the work from behind the scenes, like making sure the lights work. The key is discovering people’s gifts and deploying them. When you do, they will be eternally grateful.

So, should you use a “Time and Talent” sheet? Some churches still do. If it works in your context, great. But if you’re having trouble, I invite you to consider a different way of connecting people with ministries. The old time and talent approach had people signing up for jobs in the church. The problem is, as a church grows, it’s a huge effort to follow up with every person. If you don’t follow up, it fosters anger.

As a parish pastor I would hear someone say, “I’ve signed up to be an usher for three years and no one has ever called me.” They would say this with resentment. They felt like outsiders to a select club. Then I would check with the usher captain who would say, “We’re full. We don’t need any more ushers.” Same with the choir. I would ask the choir director who would say, “I never got the list of people who said they were interested in choir.” Or maybe he lost the list. The Time and Talent system, unless someone hovers over it meticulously, fails more than it succeeds. Even if you hover, you can’t guarantee your ministry leaders will follow up. And it puts all the responsibility on volunteer leaders, rather than the person who wants to serve. How do we empower people? How do we free them to serve?

Also, the Time and Talent system is very institution-centered. It usually lists jobs in the church. But what if I feel God calling me to help with a local food pantry or some community effort? What if I feel nudged to help with Interfaith Ministries? Is the church at all interested in helping me discover my gifts and ministry, even if the institution doesn’t benefit directly?

Instead consider this:

1. Have a list of every ministry opportunities in the congregation. Make it widely and constantly available. List the name of the contact person for that ministry along with a phone number and email address. Let people know, if they want to serve in this area, to contact the appropriate person. This puts them in the driver’s seat.

2. Once or twice a year have a ministry fair after and during services. Have fellowship, food, music, and kids’ stuff, so everyone goes over there after worship. Invite every ministry to set up a table, with information on their ministry, and sign up sheets. Ask them to have someone present to talk about their ministry to people who stop at their table. That Sunday preach on finding your ministry and spiritual gifts. Preach on Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 or Ephesians 4. Invite everyone to find their God-given calling. How is God speaking to you now?

3. Give every new member class a spiritual gifts inventory, perhaps like this. This is not a foolproof tool. It just starts a conversation. There are many such tools. Also invite every Bible study, or group of any kind to take it. Record their results in a document. Put it in their membership file too. Over the next few years, know the top three gifts of as many members as you can. Then have each ministry look at that gift list and tell you what gifts you need to be good at for that ministry.

For example, for Council, what gifts would you want? Administration? Leadership? Faith? Discernment?
How about choir? Music vocal of course.

Care ministries? Mercy. Pastoral.

Here are some of the gifts mentioned in the Bible that pertain to ministry:

  • Administration
  • Artistry
  • Discernment
  • Evangelism
  • Exhortation
  • Faith
  • Giving
  • Hospitality
  • Intercession
  • Knowledge
  • Leadership
  • Mercy
  • Music-Vocal
  • Music-Instrumental
  • Pastoral
  • Service
  • Skilled Craft
  • Teaching
  • Wisdom
  • Writing

Here’s how this plays out. Someone says, “We need more ushers.” You ask, “What gifts does an outstanding usher on your team need to thrive?” They tell you, “hospitality and service.” You don’t want ushers that aren’t outgoing, friendly and hospitable. Rather than an announcement in the bulletin asking for ushers, which could garner all the wrong people, you go through your list of members and new members who have taken the spiritual gifts assessment and find people with those gifts of hospitality and service. You will have a much higher rate of success getting people to “yes.” Because you’re in their wheel house. If you get the wrong person for the job, and they fail, you not only lose them to the job, sometimes they get their feelings hurt and leave the church.

The real key is not to just fill slots, but to help people serve according to their gifts, so they serve well and find joy. Healthy, growing congregations have a way to help people connect their gifts with the right ministry. This is soulful, important work. It shows you care more about people finding their life and joy than filling a vacancy.