Why Some Churches Shouldn’t Expect Volunteers

Given the condition and reputation of business these days, I’m not sure why this is still happening. In recent decades, church leaders have stood before a constant parade of books, articles, seminars, conferences, and other resources designed to help them learn how to do church better by emulating businesses and business leaders. Some of these companies and their leaders are worthy of admiration; some might even serve as examples in one way or another. Still others manage their lives and businesses in ways that directly contradict what Jesus taught. Yet many pastors and other church leaders feel obligated and enthusiastic to learn from all of them–and in many cases, try to be more like them.

So leaders model churches after businesses, lead them like executives, hire large staffs, plant franchises, create five-year strategic plans, copy others’ “success,” produce, market, brand.

And then they say things like “How can we get more volunteers to come alongside us and help pursue our vision?”

I’m an idealist by nature, so ironically, I walk at the edge of cynicism most of the time. But I can’t be the only one who hears such words and suspects they really mean, “How can I get more free labor to implement my great ideas?” I certainly would interpret them that way if they came from the mouth of any business executive.

It’s ironic: churches behave like businesses but act surprised when the people in their congregations behave like consumers.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against being organized. I’m not against plans. Anyone who knows me would laugh at that idea; I can’t go 10 minutes without organizing something. And if I had something against business, I wouldn’t have an MBA. But there’s a difference between organizing and institutionalizing. Between making plans and packaging them. Between building a loving community and surrounding yourself with “the best.” And it makes no sense to establish a business and expect either your employees or your customers to pitch in like they’re at a family reunion.

Here’s one of the problems with patterning churches after businesses: Good businesses are not very good at caring for people. The more efficient, productive, and streamlined your processes, the more cold, uncaring, and unwavering you will be when presented with opportunities to deviate from plan and love your neighbors, grieve over tragedy, and celebrate joy. The more thorough your strategic plan, the more deaf you’ll be to the voice of the Spirit. The stronger your brand, the weaker your sense of true community. And the more packaged product you offer, the more likely you are to attract window shoppers and people looking for clearance sales.

When businesses want to motivate people to action, they either pay them well (employees) or spend a lot of money on marketing (customers). Most churches who act like businesses don’t do a good job of either–so it shouldn’t surprise them when people aren’t motivated to get involved.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not knocking volunteerism. I volunteer in my church, as I have for most of my life. But it’s not institutional vision that motivates me to do so. In my worst moments, I’m motivated by a sense of duty. I give of myself exactly the way Paul told the Corinthian church not to give: “reluctantly or in response to pressure” (2 Corinthians 9:7). And in my finer moments, I am motivated by love for Christ and for people.

If you want to motivate people to genuine service, engage in genuine service. Find out what is stirring in people’s hearts and help them get together to do something about it. Reach out to the uninvolved and find out why they believe they have no place in the church’s mission. Assure them that they do–even if their skills and abilities wouldn’t qualify them for a job at any Fortune 500 business.

Jesus did not come to earth to establish a social institution–although a social institution is one way to express the church. He didn’t come to make us cooler, more successful, more efficient, or popular. He came to draw all people to God–and to be the pathway that will take us there. Following that pathway, and calling to others to join us, is possibly the most organic process imaginable. The church is not a business–it’s the church. It’s unique. Perhaps it doesn’t really make sense to pattern ourselves after anything.

If you think the church best fulfills its mission when it’s efficient, productive, and well-branded, by all means call yourself a CEO. But don’t expect volunteers–or disciples–to line up to help you achieve your business strategy.

12 Comments
  1. Peggy says:

    And when the church has a large staff, people think the church doesn’t need them.

    • Amy says:

      Great point, Peggy. And sometimes that’s true–churches with large staffs might need people to do “grunt work” but not to exercise the gifts God has given them.

  2. Amy says:

    yes, yes, yes! I have experienced this very thing.

  3. Such a great post. So true! Imagine if Jesus had pursued a business degree instead of a path of serving and loving the needy and broken. What a different Gospel we’d have! Yet, this is exactly the “gospel” preached so often today: my plan, my vision, my way, my success. Instead, Christ’s way was the way of the cross.

  4. Monika L. says:

    I was raised Catholic, so the idea of a church functioning like a business is absolutely foreign to me. However, I always internalized the message that volunteering for the church was mandatory, like attending Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation or fasting on Fridays during Lent. It is something expected of all devout Catholics. I chose to participate in church activities in the last parish I belonged to because I felt that call of community. I was a member of a rather liberal parish, though. I’ve since left my church, the Church entirely, in fact, and wish I could find another community that called to me. I don’t expect I will find it in anything with a 5-year strategic plan.

  5. George says:

    I agree with you, Amy. I could add this to the list of excuses I have for not going to church anymore. I don’t know if I’ll ever do church every Sunday like my parents do and I was required to do. I try to make it to church a few times a year with the whole family. I must say of all the things I’ve ever gone to for church, the Alpha program really made a huge difference in my life. Look it up. It’s bible study for non-believers and believers. The main speaker (worldwide program) wasn’t Christian for a part of his life until he questioned everything and searched for answers. His speeches are amazing and I would recommend Alpha even if you are a different religion and have no plans to be Christian.

  6. Abby Norman says:

    YES! I get so frustrated because if you want to empower people you have to hand out the power people!

  7. RJ Bennett says:

    Response

    Wow some really great thought provoking stuff. Interesting for me, as I consider my experience and education in business to be one of my greatest assets to my job at a Church. In fact, I often find myself saying the exact opposite. That I wish some churches would function more like a business. In my opinion, if a church is being more efficient and productive with limited resources (in most cases) then most people I know would translate that into being faithful with God given resources. Strategy and planning should never be absent when dealing with an organization, and to say that in doing so you have completed missed the mission and vision of Jesus, you are wrong.

    It comes down to the leadership implementing that mission and vision. If you miss your target audience and somehow create disconnect between your congregation (or your customer base) you will fail. And, then you are VERY correct, you will not get others to join you. The challenges lies in the very point you made. That Jesus’s movement, the Ekklesia, is an organic gathering. But to have no direction, to have no vision of where God is leading you, is being incredibly irresponsible with His Church. Our responsibility as leaders is both the how (strategy, efficiency, resources) and the why (Jesus, and people meeting Jesus). As soon as you lose one of the two, you and your organization is lost. In Business it’s more tangible. Bankruptcy. In churches your biggest resource is your people. Jesus built His Church on the backs of His disciples and Peters proclamation that He is the Messiah. Church leaders cannot expect to build their church without having others join in their mission. Overlooking that piece, grabbing at some black and white response of programs, strategy and org charts disconnects any organization from that very asset. The people.

    My hope and my prayer is that every Church leader would have a clear vision and plan of how to effectively reach unchurched and de-churched people for Christ. That in the mess that is church, that is ministry, they would be focused and efficient. That they would not overlook the people who will take their church from A to B. That leaders would be faithful in all areas of their organizational strategy and planning. Effectively motivating their staff, their volunteers and their congregation to join them on this mission Jesus has called us to.

    • Amy says:

      RJ, I don’t disagree with you at all. For me, the opposite of treating your church like a business is not necessarily the absence of strategy and planning. I’m all for both–but not in a way that treats the church like an institution to be nurtured, maintained, and marketed for its own sake. The institution is one expression of the true church–people themselves. People don’t exist for the success of the church as an organization.

  8. Leslie says:

    Amy,
    Your article would be passed around our church office (I was a part time preK coordinator) with glee. We are overseas where the megachurch, corporate mindset is regularly panned. As for me, I would love a corporate church. I feel that this church has big event after big event for families which exhausts the childrens ministers’ ability to recruit. Without a real vision for this ministry we just have strangers (due to our location and a very good music guy) stream through our church with no connection. A good corporate mindset in the church would recognize this and do something about the volunteer fatigue rife within children’s ministry. When I mentioned this I was told that efficiency wasn’t our greatest goal. Which really put an efficient end to the conversation. I was left to go back and spend hours organizing for Sundays because no one would help to create better organizational systems in the childrens ministry. A good corporate mindset should empower volunteers not creat consumers; This Is the least “corporately” run church that I have ever been a part of and it has the most consumers mainly because of a lack of organizational leadership within the church.

© 2013 Amy Simpson.