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Church Volunteers: An Oxymoron


Jul 13 2010
Why I've stopped using the word 'volunteer' to describe those who serve.

If you've even spent time at a local branch of the Red Cross, tutored a child at a local elementary school, pounded nails at a Habitat For Humanity build, or picked up trash at a local nature preserve, you've probably done so as a volunteer. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 26.8 percent of the population volunteered in their communities at least once between September 2008 and September 2009. The percentage ticked upward from previous years. Even with the economic recession, the group Volunteering in America reports, 2009 saw the biggest increase in the number of volunteers since 2003. A majority of volunteers served as religious organizations.

But does the language of volunteerism apply to the church?

I recently sat through weeks of church staff meetings. The primary item on the agenda was crafting a congregational organizational chart. Our church has grown rapidly in recent years, and as a result, klutzy collisions between ministry heads unsure of who was in charge of this program or that task had shown a need to formalize lines of communication and responsibility.

The chart helped with some of these issues, but it provided a snapshot of another issue we were facing: There were all sorts of empty slots. As in many growing churches, we were always searching for more children's ministry workers, janitors, and sound tech assistants. Those of us on staff dedicated ourselves to find ways to recruit and retain people to fill those slots on the org chart. We held volunteer fairs. We regularly encouraged volunteers to share their stories of spiritual growth as a result of serving the church. We committed ourselves to honoring hard-working volunteers with small gestures of staff appreciation throughout the year.

But our approach to filling those empty slots left me uncomfortable. It seemed to be something sour and a little cynical about our underlying assumptions. We had appropriated the paradigm of a nonprofit organization in order to find a way to function as a growing church. And when we viewed fellow congregants as volunteers, we subtly emphasized what they could do over against who they were as members of the body of Christ. I wondered if we were unintentionally building a culture where "our volunteers" were our blue-collar laborers, doing tasks assigned by us, the white-collar staff.

Paul describes the church as designed to function in radically different terms (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12)—and "volunteering" is not part of the equation. We are the body. The idea of a volunteer kidney or tibia in a functioning body is nonsensical.

Related Topics:Church; Volunteers
From: July 2010

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Church Volunteers: An Oxymoron