3 Reasons to Stop Using the Word Volunteer in Church Ministry

Volunteer: a person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task.

Volunteers are great. Having worked in children and family ministries all of my career, I respect those who serve consistently.

However, I think we need to get rid of volunteers. At least, we need to do away with using the term volunteer when we talk about them.

I have 3 reasons to stop using the word volunteer in our church.

1. The word doesn’t really mean anything.

If a volunteer means a person who freely serves (and it does), then everyone in a church is a volunteer. There is no one compelled against their will. What we usually mean by volunteer is that they are not the paid staff. The implication is often that the “volunteer” is doing the paid staff a favor by helping in the ministry. This is false, and harmful to the discipleship process. All people should grow in their ministry, and, more importantly, their ministry is an act of worship to God. If it becomes a favor to any person then worship is lost.

2. The professional/volunteer divide is unfair to the volunteer.

If volunteers are considered unprofessionals, and paid staff are professionals, then there is an expectation that volunteers don’t have as much value or ability  as the professionals. In this case, the unpaid person is seen as second rate, and the work they do, which is often the most relational work of the church, is treated as less important than the “big” stuff accomplished by the paid staff.

Ministry value cannot be rated by the money paid to the person doing the ministering. Because ministry is Kingdom work, the US dollar should not be used as a rating system to demonstrate the value of Kingdom work. Unpaid servants are every bit as valuable as those supported by the church.

3. The professional/volunteer divide is unfair to the professional.

As the church has created professional staff, they have used money often to control them. I once heard a church leader, who I otherwise respect, say that we should pay all leaders, because if we don’t like their work we can fire them and the money they  lose will mean something to them. From a purely human standpoint, this makes some sense. But from a Kingdom/discipleship perspective it doesn’t make sense at all.

Churches should pay staff to free them, not to hold them in bondage. When a church supports a staff member the goal should be to remove the financial barrier they would carry without church support, so that they can dedicate their lives to church work.

If the church member isn’t doing the work they need to do, the church should view this as an issue of discipleship. Firing a family member is never good discipleship. Carrots (money) and sticks (financial retribution) are forms of behaviorism. Behaviorism is an excellent way to train a dog or a mule, but has been shown to be harmful to the spirit of a person.

Creating a volunteer/paid staff designation breaks down a church’s ability to make disciples. If the church’s first task is making disciples, this divide is contrary to our institutional goal.

What should churches do instead of using the volunteer designation? Move to language indicating that every member is a minister (Eph. 4:11-12). Stop designating between the differences. Develop a team approach to ministry where people are treated the same, whether financially supported by the church or not. Stop holding staff meetings in the middle of the working day. Hold meetings at the times each team member could participate. Use tools like Google Hangouts to make that work so that people won’t lose as much family time. Keep those meetings brief with only one or two clearly identified goals.

Finally, raise leaders up from the folks who view their service as Kingdom work. Those who view their participation as volunteerism should be gently led to understand differently. In the end, a church should teach that doing church ministry may be of one’s free will, but Kingdom people are compelled to serve the King.

Why is this important for the family model of ministry? Because if we treat some people as paid staff and others as volunteers, we will have violated the kind of love and commitment to one another that a family requires. It is in this discrepancy that many church feel that some work and other receive benefits. The family model of ministry requires all people to contribute while all members are treated as valuable as in a family.

4 thoughts on “3 Reasons to Stop Using the Word Volunteer in Church Ministry

  1. Good!!!

  2. Christina

    We’ve been talking about this at my church. What other terms would you suggest using instead of “volunteers” – thanks in advanced!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *