Finding and supporting volunteers in parishes

Strong support by parish leadership in ongoing communication, spiritual guidance and presence is critical.
The Way of Mercy in 2016 was made possible with the support of hundreds of volunteers from across the Diocese of Parramatta. Image: Diocese of Parramatta/Art in Images.

By Richard McMahon, Catholic Outlook, March 2017

In general, people are happy to volunteer but shrink away from the two extremes of “we are desperate for help” and “you can do whatever you want”.

People are prudent about how they share their time. Will I be waiting around with nothing to do? Will I be asked to do too much with no direction or support? What is the point of this ministry or group? Am I recognised for my efforts? Are there appropriate safety standards in place for me and those I work with?

To review your current practices, your first checkpoint is the excellent resources available at Volunteer Australia and the NSW Centre for Volunteering. These websites offer best practice, provide great tips, and ensure due diligence and safety for both volunteers and those they are supporting.

The following can act as a checklist to assist:

Step 1: Put supports in place before you get started

Strong support by parish leadership in ongoing communication, spiritual guidance and presence is critical. Ensure ministry leaders are appropriately formed, trained and supported in dealing with volunteers.

Establish clear policies and documentation including a code of conduct, volunteer engagement forms, database, clear role descriptions and contracts, work, health and safety standards, appropriate checks, e.g. Working With Children Checks and Police Checks.

Parishes would benefit from having a volunteer coordinator or team to oversee volunteer recruitment and retainment.

Step 2: Be clear on what you want and who you want

What is at the heart of the role? How is it building up a community centred in Christ, and evangelisation – drawing people into communion with Christ?

Are we clear on the skills, qualifications, age and health requirements, checks needed, time commitment and number needed for the ministry?

This is also a good time to consider what gifts, strengths and passions would suit the role and what benefits they will receive by stepping forward, e.g. learn a skill, make friends or serving God’s people. This can help target who to invite.

Step 3: Advertise, invite and hold information sessions

There is much that can be done here, but one rule is: promote in seven different ways, repeating your message seven times!

Broaden advertising to schools, sporting groups, local volunteer groups, e.g. Rotary and your local council.

Information sessions are a great way to help people dip their toe in the water before jumping in. They reinforce why this role matters, what is involved, what support is offered, the impact you will make and the skill you will gain.

Step 4: They signed up? Follow up!

When someone signs up, it is critical that you follow up with a big thank you, clear instructions of what is happening, a reminder of the mission they are supporting and clear contact details.

Step 5: Orientation, training and commissioning

At orientation, it is good to offer an overview of their ministry – what is the effect of their work? How is it an act of service? How does it helps the community and reign of God?

Offer formation in being stewards, not ‘owning’ their role. Be clear about the goals and overall strategies of the role. Ensure they know what to expect and what is expected of them (much of this should be covered through Step 1), e.g. special training may be required in child protection or in food handling.

Commissioning should be during a public ceremony. This both acknowledges the individual and informs the community that the leadership has authorised them to carry out their role.

Step 6: Commencement

Commencement procedures are critical to offering a good first impression. Are volunteers checked in, greeted, introduced to others, given something meaningful to do? Are they checked on during their time with you? Where appropriate, is there time to connect them to the mission and to prayer? Are they thanked?

Step 7: Review and next steps

A good review process includes elements of intentional reflection – on service, self, and next steps – with group discussion. Each year, it is good to offer formal acknowledgement such as expressing gratitude in a Mass, a community meal or day, or a retreat.

Finally, pathways to develop as leaders or additional skills within ministry help sustain your volunteers.

If your parish offers clear policies, entry paths and support, you will build confidence among people to step forward and remain within your sphere of volunteers. And don’t forget to say thank you!

Support is available from the Pastoral Planning Office. Please send an email to

Richard McMahon is Director, Pastoral Planning & Implementation in the Diocese of Parramatta.


Read Daily
* indicates required