Are the Volunteers Returning?

Every day, approximately 10,000 baby boomers (born 1946–1964) turn 65. The wave of retirements will continue until roughly 2030. As this generation of 80 million (second in size only to the millennials) retires, what will they do with their time? These retirees present US congregations with an opportunity to alleviate a problem that has plagued them for forty years—an ever declining number of volunteers. Like many retired people, boomers will have time to devote to things they love—families, friends, hobbies, and travel. With some encouragement, boomers may give more time to their congregations as well.

Do your congregation’s leaders talk about getting boomer retirees more involved in the church? Are you creating volunteer opportunities in tune with the lifestyle of retired people, many of whom travel frequently? Are you thinking about how to form teams of volunteers with skills in accounting, administration or communication to reduce the need for paid staff? If not, then you are just standing by while millions of our neighbors retire with no proactive strategy to take advantage of this phenomenon.

Getting on board

To benefit from this new pool of volunteers—a pool that will continue to grow for decades to come—congregations need to consider a number of factors:

  • The competition for volunteers today is more heated than ever. Over the past forty years, the number of local nonprofits working in such fields as the environment, homelessness, and housing, has grown enormously. These organizations offer opportunities for boomers to volunteer in niche areas consistent with their values, priorities, and available time. There is real competition for the time of volunteers. Congregations need to be just as well-organized, meaningful and fulfilling as their nonprofit competitors.
  • Lifestyle issues need to be considered. Many boomers like to travel, and retirement offers increased opportunity for boomers to roam the country and the world. Volunteer opportunities that demand long-term, regular time slots have less appeal for boomers who travel. Indeed, such opportunities are not appealing to most generations today. Offering well-defined, time-specific volunteer opportunities is one way to approach this issue. Another strategy is to create teams of volunteers, so one team member can leave for travel while the team continues to fulfill its responsibility.
  • Create well-organized, “big bang” volunteer activities. Habitat for Humanity is a terrific example for those studying how to recruit and use volunteers. At Habitat, a volunteer arrives early in the morning and finds all the supplies and supervision needed to build a house. By the end of the day, the volunteer has helped create a new home for someone. It is a limited, time-specific commitment for the volunteer with “big bang” outcome.
  • After retirement, many boomers continue to work for pay. Some people have been forced to retire before 65. More likely, the retirees are still giving considerable financial support to their adult children. The Motley Fool website reports that “According to a survey from the National Endowment for Financial Education, 59% of baby boomers who are parents are financially supporting their children ages 18-39.” Reasons for continuing support of adult children include high student debt, the high cost of housing, and a challenging job market for young workers. For boomers who continue to work after “retirement,” volunteer opportunities will need to be finely tuned to fit the time available.
  • Congregations may want to list some of their volunteer opportunities on local volunteer “banks.” Many people search these lists for opportunities to volunteer. Searching these lists for part-time hiring needs is also an important congregational personnel practice.

Retiring boomers present congregations with a huge new labor pool for ministry and an opportunity to enrich the retirement of those they recruit. Congregations that ignore the presence of these retirees in their communities and congregations will continue to complain about a lack of volunteers. Creating a team to investigate this new opportunity for ministry should be a high priority for every US congregation today.

Mobilizing Congregations , by John WimberlyJohn Wimberly is the author of the Alban book Mobilizing Congregations: How Teams Can Motivate Members and Get Things Done. He consults with congregations on issues such as the creation and implementation of strategic plans, congregational growth and the empowering use of endowments. John served congregations for 38 years, 30 of them at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. His quest for continuing personal, spiritual and professional growth led John to complete a PhD in systematic theology and an Executive MBA program.