Should Churches Stop Asking for Volunteers?

“Don’t sit on the sidelines. Get in the game.”

“Don’t just show up. Get involved.”

“The church needs you. In fact, we need you and four other people to volunteer for…”

Do church leaders understand the potential manipulative power of these pleas?

I’ve attended—and volunteered in—several churches. They’ve all needed volunteers to accomplish the plans of the church leaders. They’ve all asked for those volunteers on a regular basis. And in some of them, I’m convinced everyone in the church could have filled a role and they still wouldn’t have had enough volunteers to pull off everything they envisioned.

In some of these churches, I’ve made the mistake of volunteering for too much. In others, I’ve volunteered, driven by guilt, for tasks that I was not well-suited for. I’ve always regretted it—and those churches probably have too. By now, I’ve learned to draw reasonable boundaries most of the time, based on my gifts and my limitations. And I accept responsibility for the times when I have overcommitted.

At the same time, I believe I’ve faced more pressure from church staff members than I should have. Church leaders have always been more than happy to accept any volunteer effort I was willing to give, even if it clearly didn’t make sense. And they never stopped asking for more. In fact, one youth pastor told me he expected my volunteer efforts to be like a part-time job. I didn’t have time or energy for a part-time job on top of my full-time work. And if I had, I might have looked for one that paid. But I didn’t want to “sit on the sidelines,” so I exhausted myself to help in a ministry that needed people very different from me.

Sometimes, I’ve receive thanks for my efforts by way of an invitation to attend an event in honor of all the volunteers, showing appreciation by asking us to hire babysitters and spend one more evening at the church. I’ve always felt this is an ironic way to thank people who have sacrificed their time and energy—with one more obligation and a few more hours of precious time.

I’m not sure volunteers should have to work so hard to draw and maintain boundaries—and fend off the church’s requests for more of their time and energy. I’ve never worked as an official member of a church staff, but as a former pastor’s daughter and youth pastor’s wife, I suspect many church leaders fail to appreciate how much they’re asking volunteers to give.  Because church ministry is their job and their passion, they may not realize what it takes to give time and energy as a volunteer on top of jobs and family responsibilities. Because they’re driven by exciting visions of all the church could do if they only had enough volunteer energy, they may lose sight of whether others are actually called and equipped to fulfill their visions. They may not understand that many people are exercising their spiritual gifts in ministries outside the church’s walls. And they may not realize how difficult it is for people to say no to pastors.

I understand the constant need for volunteer help in the church. I also understand that church leaders want to enable people to use their spiritual gifts to build the body of Christ—an extremely important part of their ministry. I also know that church leaders make sacrifices to fulfill their calling. But I believe that part of their calling as leaders is to care for the people in their congregations by recognizing and respecting their limitations, being sure people truly are serving to use their gifts rather than to fill a random void—and thinking before asking them to do more. And perhaps the initiatives of the church should be driven by the gifts represented among the people in the congregation, rather than the “if only’s” of a few people who happen to have the time to develop goals for ministry.

What do you think? Am I unreasonable to suggest that church staff members bear some responsibility for pushing volunteers’ boundaries?

This blog post first appeared on Christianity Today’s BuildingChurchLeaders.com.

 

6 Comments
  1. Great questions, Amy. What I found helpful in leadership is encouraging volunteers to do a Networking-type assessment to discover their spiritual gifts and passion. This helps both leadership and volunteers to focus on their strengths in ministry and have boundaries in their involvements. Otherwise, it seems like you can fall into the old “10% doing 90% of the work” syndrome and over-utilization of capable/responsible people which leads to burn-out. It seems like this should be protocol for all earnest volunteers and leader/staff-driven.

  2. Lara says:

    I think you’ve posed an excellent question for church leaders. And while I agree with Terri that helping volunteers discover their gifts can circumvent some of what we’ve all experienced in being overworked in positions that drain us, I’m not sure it’s the entire answer. You’ve touched on the issue that leaders often come up with a plan and then look for people to carry it off. But if as leaders we’re true to our commitment to match people’s gifts with opportunities to serve, perhaps the plans should come as the people arrive. In other words, would we see more effectiveness if we let the “ministries” grow around the people and gifts present? Otherwise, we can come across as unfeeling when a new volunteer’s gifts don’t match our current need and be tempted to push their boundaries yet again just to get the work done.

  3. Great post!
    When the paradigm for ministry is rooted in leveraging volunteers to fulfill a leader’s vision, body life burnout usually follows as the sheep are often goaded or guilted into doing the tasks on the timetable determined by leaders. When a leader dedicated to equip equipping others for the ministry to which God has called them, the dynamic changes. Equipping others for ministry (including the rest of their lives outside the four walls of the church) will generate respect for the family, work and community responsibilities of members.

    On a related note, I wrote on the “volunteer” issue from a different angle for CT’s her.meneutics blog a while ago: http://blog.christianitytoday.com/women/2010/07/church_volunteers_an_oxymoron.html

  4. Nancy says:

    At a certain point our church’s history the Christian Education pastor decided we should stop asking for volunteers. So he preached a sermon on service and trusted that God would prompt the right people to serve. It worked for a few years, then we had trouble filling the spots. I think now we’ve struck a decent balance, but you can’t get around the fact that a few people do most of the work. They’re just more invested and care more, so they do the work. It is helpful if a church is willing to let ministries go if there are not enough volunteers–just take that as a sign that particular ministry isn’t important to people. And as you say, people need to learn to say no when something is not appealing to them (i.e. they are not called to it) or when it doesn’t fit their gifting. At the same time, my mom always taught me that there are some jobs that no one wants to do, and we should cycle through those jobs to get them done. Two-year-old Sunday school class fell into that category for her, as did cleaning the nursery.

  5. Jono says:

    I think if churches would strip away the MANY less than necessary (and usually LARGE) ministries that require a lot of volunteers to pull off, and instead only focused on ministries that work towards the few things our new testament actually prescribes for the church to be doing… we wouldn’t have the problem you’re describing.

    But as long as we’re doing church the way most do church (especially in the bible belt), we’re just gonna have to get used to being hit up to volunteer.

    AND, I think that only 50% of the fault lies at the feet of church leaders in most cases. If the laity of the church didn’t demand such ministries (in my experience many of these ministries are how we CHOSE which church to attend), then the leadership wouldn’t feel the need to create and request volunteers for such ministries.

    As for leaders not evaluating their volunteers in a wise and helpful manner… you’re right. This in my opinion is the WORST part of all of this mess. Again though, if enough of the laity communicates to our leaders that we don’t need another night of the week for some event up at the church… then maybe the leaders can start shepherding the laity instead of planning events and finding volunteers…?

  6. jim khan says:

    I firmly believe from scripture that God’s people will be volunteers in the day of his power or the time of Christ’s reign. Until then, when the saints get together and meet the hierarchy has made the affair into a production show. It is mostly ego, fanfare and folks who have not submitted to the graciousness of the Lord that exploits volunteers and do not even have the class to at least take some of the profits from the storehouse and hand it to the volunteers. Talk about a bunch of cheapos and charlatans. Jesus had to say to the scribes and pharisees who exploited the sheep just the same and went further and robbed widows houses, how disgusting. Scripture says the laborer is worthy of wages. I have had my eyes opened about this issue, makes you wonder if they are subtly saying the salvation of God is free but the church or gathering has the right to rob you blind of your time and gifts and energy just so someone else gets to flatter their own egos at your expense. Sadly the hierarchy that was set in place by the wicked one keeps the sheep of Christ from truly operation in the realm of all gifts being put in place to the maturity of the body of Christ, This one man show or sideshow which is more of a sideshow production that fills the elite’s pockets and robs those who want to serve Christ. They think that somehow they are mediators or in a higher place, even though the scripture says there is one mediator between god and man. Jesus said we are all brethren. The leaders of today are fed well and have the nerve to request volunteers, kinda like a dictatorship regime behind the church walls. Christ came to set us free and he pays his workers, read the parables to see that.

© 2012 Amy Simpson.