Food for Thought-Investing in Volunteers at Church

NurseryVolunteersColor(2)How do we encourage more people to volunteer and take active roles within our congregations? This is a perennial question for pastors and church leaders. Is it possible to move beyond the frustrations of blank clipboards, volunteer fairs, and begging for help on Sunday mornings? I believe this question is especially pertinent for small to medium size congregations who depend on a pool of the same people to repeat the same tasks year after year.

Why is this so hard? Should it be so difficult? To a detached observer, it appears Christians are some of the most service minded people in their communities. Sincere Christians support local charities, volunteer in schools, join community organizations, donate money and yet their churches have trouble filling committees and finding Sunday School teachers. How can Christians be so giving, loving, and yet reluctant to commit to the body of Christ itself? Put simply, things get in our way.

I believe there are four existential obstructions keeping Christians (church members) from volunteering in their local churches. No matter how an excuse or reason is framed, if someone is not volunteering it comes back to one of these reasons:

1. Time – We do not believe we have the time. Our time is too valuable, because of its limited nature, to give to something other than the important events already occurring in our life. While we intellectually accept the importance of Christianity and the church in our lives, it cannot compete for time against the other obligations we have assumed or created.

2. Desire – We lack the desire to volunteer. The will to give of our time simply does not exist. The desire to do other things is greater than our desire to volunteer. This is the most important threat and challenge to any volunteer ministry. Desire, or the lack of will to be involved in church activities, is the greatest of the four existential roadblocks to be overcome. In many ways, it is easier to convert a nonbeliever to Christianity that it is to convince a church member to volunteer who doesn’t want to be involved.

3. Knowledge – We believe we lack the necessary knowledge to volunteer effectively. We don’t know how to do what we’ve been asked to do. No one will train us, encourage us, or walk with us on this volunteer journey. We are lacking intellectually and emotionally to do what someone is asking us to do. We may have the desire and the time but lack knowledge.

4. Perception – We perceive the status quo to be normative, stable, and secure. We do not understand the need for additional volunteers. As church (reality) exists there is no need to offer my help because there are no current problems. Those who are volunteering or working at the present are sufficient to meet any needs.

I believe these four existential arguments are the primary reasons why small to medium size churches meet with difficulty when seeking new volunteers and encouraging former volunteers to return. I propose to address ongoing volunteer needs by attacking the existential obstructions; to remove the roadblocks. By systematically calling the questions of time, desire, knowledge, and perception to the forefront of the church’s ministry, we can begin to chip away at the entrenched obstructions which prevent people from taking ownership of their own

Over the coming days and weeks, I will examine each of these four areas in greater detail. I will explore the implications of talking about time management with self-professed busy people. What does it mean to be a good steward of your time as well as your money? Are we as “slammed” as we think we are? What does it look like when decisions of time and desire meet? What usually wins? Isn’t usually, “I will make time for what I desire to do”? How does volunteering shift in the minds of members from a religious duty to something we desire to do? If we force ourselves to ask hard questions, I believe our perception will change and our congregations will want own a portion of what is already theirs.

1885aea8e9df3787d1aa72b7154314e8bdda07ecThe first step is to create a context for the discussion. We will create an investor’s club but in reverse. As the pastor, I will demonstrate a model of volunteer ministry where we ask church members, lay people, members of the community, and others to make and “investment” of their time, desire, knowledge, and perception in an ongoing enterprise (the church) where they already hold a vast percentage of equity. (This presentation might be done in Sunday morning worship to guarantee maximum exposure to church members and regular visitors.) In other words, they will be intellectually “buying in” or “buying back in” to something they’ve never actually sold (only treated as such); reclaiming what is rightfully theirs and the benefits of ownership (i.e. participation). If they make their investment, I will match their investment. If they commit to me (as pastor); I will commit to them (as a volunteer).

While drawing from images and references in popular culture, the idea of church as a shared investment is essentially the model of the early church we find in Acts 4. Doing what we do together (participation and sharing by the body of Christ) are the defining features of New Testament and Early Christianity. This is the context which defines our discussion and the reality we are seeking to live into. Being a volunteer isn’t part of the life of the church, it is the life of the church. Being a volunteer is a comprehensive response to being part and parcel of God’s shalom to a broken world. Being a volunteer is not the lowest common denominator of mission work. Being a volunteer is not a line item in the moral budget of our lives. Being a volunteer is a reciprocal step toward the world.

To be continued…