Stacy had been the church’s volunteer secretary for five years. For the most part, she loved helping out. She would spend Tuesday through Friday mornings at the church, coming in at 9am or so, and leaving just before lunch. A typical morning would include answering the phone, preparing the church bulletin, typing up the prayer request slips, and an assortment of other secretarial responsibilities. She was glad to contribute her time and abilities to the church, and to do it for no pay. But then, things changed….

When Stacy and her husband Gary had their first child, Stacy wanted to step back from her role as church secretary. Obviously, the two pastors understood. But they were completely helpless without Stacy’s help. They had overlooked training a replacement secretary, and didn’t know their way around the church office. An ordeal such as opening up the filing cabinet turned into a frenetic search for a key, a fruitless call to Stacy, and a request for a locksmith to come and open it up. For the pastors, calling Stacy, who was adjusting to life with a newborn, became a daily routine. In moments of unguarded irritation, the pastors would query, “So, when are you going to come back and help out?”

No one was found to replace Stacy on a permanent basis. Volunteer help was sporadic and unreliable. It was obvious that the pastors were perturbed about their loss of a prized volunteer worker. Then, from the pulpit, one of the pastors made a disparaging remark about Stacy. The occasion was prompted by the Sunday morning bulletin not being produced that particular week. Trying to explain the oversight, the pastor remarked, in an unflattering way, that Stacy was no longer serving as the church secretary. Stacy’s character was called into question, her love for the church and the Lord’s service being implicitly attacked.

Stacy and Gary left the church, trying to heal from the months of phone calls, exasperation, and frustration directed at them by the pastors of the church. In Stacy’s mind, she had just been trying to help out, but her ministry of love and selfless labor had backfired, leaving her wounded and estranged from the leaders at the very church where she once diligently gave hours of service.

Obviously, this sad story could have been prevented, but it’s just a sampling of the many stories that could be recounted—stories of volunteer church workers, hurt feelings, and even church splits—all because of the touchy situations surrounding church volunteers. To avoid the pitfalls of volunteer service, some churches careen to the other extreme. Volunteer service is extremely limited, or even not allowed. Everyone in the church, even the choir musicians or parking lot attendants, are paid for their services. Before anyone can do anything in the service of the church, they must go through the process of reading legal documents, signing on countless dotted lines, and filling out forms—just like a new job.

Is there some middle ground toward the perilous and indiscriminate use of volunteer service, and the stifling and seemingly professional sterility of an “employees only” church? I hope so. To answer this question, let’s examine some of the pros and cons of using church volunteers.

Pros of Using Church Volunteers

  • It’s free. Let’s not fool ourselves. Money matters, and when free ‘labor’ is available, few pastors can bear to turn it down. Think about it. If you had to hire or pay everyone who served at the church, your church would go broke in a week. Cleaning crew, yard crew, the men who take the offering, the team who fills the communion cups, the ushers, the nursery workers, the youth group sponsors, the Sunday school teachers, the VBS team…. You get the idea. Volunteers are the way that a church can exist. Having to pay everyone who did anything would seemingly flatten the opportunity for spiritual service, not to mention drain the church budget.
  • Provides church members the opportunity to exercise their spiritual gifts. A church isn’t a business, and church members need the opportunity to minister. Teaching Sunday School or helping to mow the lawn is a way for people to contribute to the body. The New Testament speaks of providing help to others, serving, ministering, etc. We have no record of anyone being on payroll per se. Instead, believers not in a pastoral role simply exercise their gifts, not expecting anything tangible in return.
  • Gives church members the ability to get involved and give back. Many churches degenerate into distinction between clergy/laity, where the paid staff does all the work and the rest of us just sit and soak it in. Even if it’s not thought of as a clergy/laity distinction, often churches operate on the performer/spectator mentality. Just sitting back and enjoying the show isn’t the same as being part of a church. To really get involved, one must give back, minister, get involved, and participate actively in the life of the assembly. Such involvement doesn’t mean getting paid! Volunteer work is the way that a church invites the integral involvement and spiritual refreshment that church members need. It’s a natural giving back and outflow of one’s internal passion for God and love for the believers. Throwing an employee agreement or even a “love offering for your work” into the mix would douse the flames of passionate service that have sprung up in the heart of such a volunteer.
  • Provides growth opportunities. How do you help a new convert grow? Beyond the formal or informal discipleship sessions, there is huge growth advantage in getting the individual plugged in the church at a volunteer level. “Hey George, we were needing some extra hands in the sound booth, and I know that you used to be a DJ. Wanna help out?” By putting George into the sound booth, he is able to build the bonds of fellowship, minister in a way that resonates with his experience, and test his commitment to the church. Volunteer opportunities are growth opportunities for new Christians or even the most experienced of Christians. An older Christian man who oversees the landscaping can help mentor younger Christian men who come to help out on a Saturday afternoon.
  • Allows church members to fellowship, minister, and interact on a non-professional level. Growth, harmony, and discipleship take place within volunteer work settings. Obviously, such warm and profitable interaction can take place on the level of paid-employee. However, breaking down the structure of employee, manager, coworker, etc., better facilities a growth environment, especially when their is no money, year-end bonus, or promotions that could distract.
  • Helps to create a sense of belonging and community. A church that works together, serves together, labors together, and builds together, is often a church that is healthy and vibrant. The work of keeping the church together isn’t the job of an M.Div-toting guy that gets a check every week. It’s the job of everyone. A “church” after all isn’t a pile of bricks and drywall. It’s a group of people—people who love, serve, live, and work together. Volunteer church workers are the lifeblood of a church’s very existence, allowing the body to function and operate as the church was intended to operate.

Cons of Using Church Volunteers
As necessary as volunteer church workers are, there are risks that come along with it, too.

  • Unethical treatment or abuse of volunteers on the part of the paid staff. “Don’t go to that church. Those people really take advantage of you.” Whether it’s the schmooze techniques of money-hungry pastors, or the allure of free labor for back-breaking tasks, calling on volunteers is a risk-riddled option for the paid staff members.Unless you’re careful, using church volunteers can tilt toward abusive expectations. Your goal in using church volunteers is not to see how much work you can get out of them, but how they can best grow and develop through the opportunity of volunteering at church.
  • Unreliability. “ARGH! We need her here NOW!” Volunteers get unlimited vacation days, unlimited sick days, and can bail out at anytime for no reason. Just expect it. Relying on church volunteers is a risky thing to do.
  • Unprofessionalism. “Man, who designed these church flyers? They’re terrible! I’m not going to this concert.” As two passers-by observed the invitations to a local gospel concert, they were turned off by the awful graphic design work on the flyers. It’s the price that is to be paid for volunteer work. Betsy, a retired secretary, may be excellent at typing up dictations, but you may not want to call upon her graphic design skills. With volunteer work, you may have to settle for less than excellence in the quality of work.
  • Burnout and fatigue. “We’re gonna work ya’ to the bone, but at least you’ll burn out for Jesus!” Jesus is not asking any church volunteer to burnout, especially not because of the demands of an unrelenting pastor who lords it over them. There is nothing spiritual about running a sanctified rat race, punishing your body, your family, your health, and even your spiritual wellbeing just to be doing stuff for the church. Volunteer service is too easily pushed to the brink of burnout, which is not spiritually beneficial.
  • Unmet expectations on the part of the church staff. “What did he expect?! I’m not the one getting paid!” When Pastor Joe called Terry at 10:45 on Saturday night, Terry was in no mood to comply. “Terry, we’re not going to have any sound for tomorrow’s service unless you come over to the church right now!” Not being on payroll meant that Terry was not going to sacrifice a night of sleep to fix an electrical problem. Such is the way of volunteer workers.
  • Unmet expectations on the part of the volunteers. “I’ve been giving my time to the church for years! I would think that they could at least give me a Christmas cash gift or recognize me in some way!” After years of serving behind the scenes, doing arduous work for no pay, some volunteer church workers may feel totally unthanked for their services. Feelings like this can easily turn into resentment and bitterness.
  • Ugly interpersonal conflicts have limited legal or professional arbitration. In churches, interpersonal conflict happens. It’s just part of our fallen human nature. A cheerful and smiling group of church nursery volunteers may foment with rage and fury after a late nursery worker, a mom who refuses to volunteer, or the parents who brought their snotty-nosed germ-bearing toddler to nursery—again. This isn’t the worst of it, though. Some conflicts can get really bad—abuse, violence, sexual molestation, theft, etc. In the world of business and commerce, laws are in place that help to mitigate workplace conflict, as best as possible, preventing worsening fallout from such awful circumstances. In the rough-and-tumble-contract-free arena of church volunteers, such conflict can go much farther than it ever should. One nasty incident can wreck churches, scar lives, and desecrate God’s name in the eyes of others.

Five Tips for Using Church Volunteers

  1. If it’s a big job, hire someone. By “big job,” we mean something that is ongoing (months or years) or requires hours of daily labor. Stacy, in the example above, was taking on a role that probably should have been filled by a part-time employee of the church. As the church grows and changes, the church staff must continually assess and rethink the need for additional employees. Again, don’t try to eke out as much work from a church member as possible. If Fred has mowed the lawn for the past three weekends, give him a break even if he doesn’t ask for it. Then, hire someone to do it—and pay them real money.
  2. Set guidelines. Even though someone is a volunteer, it’s not unrealistic to set out guidelines. After all, if they are agreeing to give their time and effort to the church, they are also, in essence, agreeing to abide by your expectations. Keep your expectations reasonable, even “below reasonable,” if possible. Remember, you’re not hiring an employee; you’re gratefully accepting the offering of a fellow-Christian who is getting involved in the church. The church volunteer is not working for you. They are serving the Lord. Thus, create a set of sensitive yet clear expectations that will direct the process of their work, and prevent conflicts. You may even wish to have them sign it.
  3. Do background checks. It’s not necessary to enter into a contractual arrangement with a person in order to let them fold bulletins, but if you want the church to be a safe place for people, many jobs—even volunteer ones—need some sort of background check. There are organizations which offer background checks specifically for churches. It is important that you conduct background checks on any persons who are working with children or young people.
  4. Focus on the nurseries. One of the most prickly areas of church volunteering comes in the area of nurseries. Nurseries are notorious for areas of conflict, incidents of child abuse, and overworked moms. Although the church nursery is intended to help church families, it could turn into a cancer in the church’s existence. One strategic, albeit expensive, way of overcoming this challenge, is by using paid nursery workers. Obviously, you’ll want to find Christians, and ideally people within your church. Using a trained and background-checked professional is a great way to avoid many of the legendary problems of church nurseries.
  5. Thank your volunteers and show your appreciation. Although you may not be able to remunerate everyone who came to help at the Clean Up the Church Day, you can at least provide a pizza lunch. Then, on Sunday, you can publicly thank those who helped, asking them to stand so they can be recognized. If you don’t publicly recognize helpers or give them a slice of pizza, that’s okay. The important thing to remember is this: be grateful. Tossing out spiritual-sounding platitudes such as, “The Lord’s gonna honor your work!” is true and fine, but at the same time, you should offer your heartfelt appreciation for their service.

The list of tips could mushroom into dozens more. No question, there are huge risks with using volunteers at church. But few people, if any, would argue that a church should never use volunteers for anything. The delicate balance of when to use volunteers, what for, and how to treat them, is an area that should be covered in love, considered in prayer, and conducted in Christlikeness. It’s not an easy issue.

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