Recruiting and Retaining Special Needs Volunteers


By Amy Fenton Lee
Amy Fenton Lee enjoys helping churches successfully include children with special needs through The Inclusive Church Blog at


It’s no surprise that one of the greatest obstacles to launching a special needs ministry is the fear of recruiting and retaining volunteers.  Those tasks are challenging enough for typical kidmin environments!  The good news is that all things are possible with planning and when God is behind the ministry.  Julie Keith, Pastor of Special Needs for First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena (Pasadena, CA) says, “I am always in a recruiting mindset.  As soon as I think I’ve got my team filled, someone will experience a life change and need to step out of service.  Part of my job is always seeking new volunteers.”  As you’ll find in what follows, Keith has been one of my favorite sources for special needs volunteer recruiting ideas.

Create an Emphasis Sunday

First Church of the Nazarene makes special needs inclusion a visible ministry inside the church.  The church hosts an annual emphasis Sunday for its In His Image ministry.  A video may be shown or a family’s story may be featured during the worship service on the designated emphasis Sunday.  Keith shares, “Our pastor stresses the value of our ministry to the church and facilitates the greater congregational buy-in.  During our last special needs emphasis Sunday, our pastor did a beautiful job of weaving in the purpose of our ministry to the Sunday message and Scripture.”

Participate in Ministry Fairs

Ensure the special needs program has a presence at the church ministry fairs.  Make sure that the special needs ministry (no matter how small!) has a representative to talk up special needs service and recruit those who God is calling to serve.  The church website, emails and newsletters present great opportunities to spotlight the ministry, featuring stories of participating students and blessings of the volunteers.

Partner with a Local University

Keith shares that one of the best sources of special needs volunteers can be a local college or seminary.  Several years ago a special needs ministry volunteer suggested partnering with Azusa Pacific University.  The volunteer, also a faculty member from the graduate school of counseling, was instrumental in creating a program where university students could serve inside the church’s special needs ministry and receive credits or in-service hours.  Keith observes, “The college and graduate students serving in our ministry are reliable and typically very good with our participants.”  Over the past few years, Keith has developed a positive relationship with the Azusa Pacific University administration, noting, “They know their students are receiving hands-on experience that make them more attractive job applicants upon graduation.”

Tap into Teens

As I have frequently shared on The Inclusive Church Blog, recruiting competent and trained teens to serve in special needs ministry is brilliant.  Some churches offer “finder’s fees” such as $5 gift cards to the helpers who successfully recruit their friends to serve.  In other cases, the special needs’ champion may arrange for a movie and popcorn night or swim party at a church member’s home to reward the teens who helped to grow the volunteer force.  (To see outlines and ideas for teen equipping events, see posts on The Inclusive Church Blog related to “Teen Training.”) 

Do a Publicity Tour of Adult Bible Studies and Fellowship Groups

Some special needs champions or children’s ministry committee members generate new volunteer interest by personally visiting adult classes and settings inside the church.  The most effective volunteer recruitment happens through one-on-one interactions and relationships.  Getting out into the church and giving a face to the ministry will ultimately facilitate more interactions.  Look for every opportunity to talk about special needs ministry.  And never underestimate the value of a 5-minute plug for the ministry inside a Sunday school class.

Offer One-Time Service Opportunities

People are generally less reticent to help if they can have a commitment-free opportunity to “test drive” their service with special needs.  Asking an adult fellowship group to provide the volunteers for a single occasion, such as a respite event or special needs class Easter party, may be more palatable to church members who are generally supportive of special needs inclusion but hesitant to serve.  Once people gain comfort and confidence around individuals with special needs, oftentimes they experience the calling for longer term service.  In addition, finding ways to expose future volunteers to the ministry outside of just providing childcare may ease any apprehensions.  

Get Involved in the Community

Volunteer or attend an event associated with a local special needs support organization.  The Special Olympics or the local chapter of The Autism Society or Autism Speaks naturally draw interest from people who already have a heart for individuals affected by special needs.   God may lead a new volunteer to your church’s ministry who is currently unchurched but called to serve this population.  

Manage Expectations of the Volunteers

Special needs inclusion, by its very nature, is highly individualized.  And because church resources are finite, there are times when doing what is considered best for a single child may be at odds with doing what is best for the ministry as a whole.  This is especially true when considering the ability and availability of the volunteer force.  In virtually every church interview I conduct, somewhere in the conversation the children’s pastor or special needs champion discusses the importance of keeping the expectations of the volunteers at a place they can succeed.  If a situation emerges where a family asks for the volunteers to become experts in a certain treatment plan, then odds are the church will eventually lose valuable ministry helpers.  It is the responsibility of leadership to actively shape parent expectations for what the church can and cannot provide in terms of accommodation.  The churches that have achieved longevity and success in their disability ministries all share the importance of knowing and honoring the boundaries of the volunteers.    

Protect the Volunteers

In addition, volunteers may benefit as much as ministry participants when a number of issues, such as behavior management, are addressed through training and in-print policies.By spelling out the action steps the staff and volunteers will follow when anticipated challenges arise, the guesswork is taken out of the solution path.   When procedures are not in place, in-the-moment judgment is relied upon and lay servants become vulnerable casualties if disagreements and hurt feelings arise.  Painful conversations and personal blame can easily emerge without the forethought of in-print guidelines and adequate training, especially in special needs situations.  Conversely, when procedures have been established for handling difficult situations, volunteers are relieved of making subjective hard decisions and can be shielded from both merited and unmerited accusations of using bad judgment.

Special NeedsRyan Frank