Most of us know how essential volunteers are to making sure our churches are as effective as they need to be. Churches need to develop an ethos of valuing volunteers, but in order for churches to thrive, they would do best to raise up volunteers who are leaders and choose leaders who have been volunteers.
When I look for a leader to oversee volunteers, or a leader to oversee leaders, ideally I look for someone who has gone through all the stages of the ministry he or she will be leading—someone who has set up the chairs if we're starting a new church, led a Bible study, or worked in the children's ministry. Then, once that person has volunteered in those positions, I say, "Let's see if you can oversee others to do that."
Furthermore, I love to challenge volunteers to go a little deeper. Challenging volunteers who show a potential for leadership to oversee other volunteers is a great way to do that. If I’ve found a volunteer who has gone through the different stages of the ministry he or she will be leading, then I want to be sure to equip the person with some training. Many people do not know how to delegate well. Have your leaders read a simple book on delegation. Send them to training opportunities and give them the tools they need to do well as a volunteer leader.
So, volunteers are a vital part of our churches running smoothly. Something that makes them even more remarkable is that they often go unrecognized. Volunteers must be willing to humbly serve Christ and their brothers and sisters without ever expecting to shine in the spotlight. One such volunteer I knew who embraced this humble servitude is Dale.
A good example
You wouldn’t have heard of him, but he was a guy in my church. One of the key ministries we needed to develop was small group ministries. Dale was a new believer—in fact, I had baptized him. I asked him to be the champion of small groups in our church. I asked him to learn more than I knew about it and paid to send him to a conference on small groups.
He went off to the seminar and came back with five or six books he bought on his own. He sat down and made a plan. We went through that plan together and I modified it here and there based on what I knew from seminars I had attended. Then, I had him go and do it.
Not only was Dale the champion of small groups in our church, but he led the leaders of small groups as well. He was the perfect picture of this model: he was a new believer in a small group, he led a small group, he oversaw small groups in a group zone, and then he oversaw all of our small groups, all while working at a tool-and-die in Erie, Pennsylvania.
He was an essential part in the leadership of our church. We need more volunteers like him, and perhaps they need to do the jobs that some pastors are now doing.
You see, too often, we hire people when volunteers could do the work just as effectively—if not more effectively. Volunteers who have been a part of the ministry, then lead as part of the ministry, then begin to oversee the ministry, are extremely effective and know the ins and outs in ways that a new hired staff person may not.
Volunteer vs. paid?
There is often a debate on this, but I believe churches ought to be hesitant to hire staff for all the positions, especially in smaller churches, because it sends the signal that people should be paid.
Some may wonder, "Why are you paying this person, but not that person?" If I do need to hire a staff member, by the time I do, I want the job to be to work with the leaders of leaders and have volunteers who are already in place. This expands our capacity for leadership without creating the mindset that everybody should be getting paid to do work and minister in a church.
Whether a volunteer is overseeing an entire ministry, leading one small group, organizing donations to the church, lovingly caring for infants during a service, setting up chairs, or greeting guests with a smile at the door, volunteers are doing a key service for the church. The church could not function as it does without each and every one of them.
One final note: pastors and church leaders should be cautious to never fall into believing that their own role in a church is better than the role of a volunteer, or valuing the volunteer who oversees the children’s ministry above the volunteer who takes out the trash. We are all humbly pouring ourselves out for others and for the church. Christ loves each of us equally.
As his life and example teaches us, true leadership is not about achieving the highest, most glamorous position. It is about getting down on your hands and knees in the middle of the mess and washing others’ feet.
Our churches could not reach the people they reach without our incredible teams of volunteers. So thank God for them. And tell them you appreciate them. Although the world may never recognize them for their wonderful service, let them know that you see what they do and that you are grateful.
To all volunteers, thank you for the ways you serve Christ and his church.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.