As a person who is particularly sensitive to language, I am distressed by the seeming lack of attention word choice is given in many churches, whether “progressive” or “conservative.” I may be overly harsh in such a sentiment, but I often feel like even if words are chosen purposefully, churches often subconsciously are bringing the logic of the world into the life of the community. The logic of the kingdom of God is not merely opposite of that of the world, but is actually in a whole other plane of understanding. Our leaders are not to be merely servants, but a particular kind of servant.
One term I take exception to is the word “volunteer.” I don’t mean the verb so much as the noun, though the verb obviously carries with it similar connotations. In multiple churches I’ve been a part of, the Sunday School teachers, the youth leaders, the choir, and basically any other unpaid roles in the church are referred to as “volunteers.” By most standards, this makes sense–people performing duties or jobs that in other places are paid positions are, in this case, not being paid. On the surface, this is a reasonable description of most of the jobs in the church.
I see a few problems with this, the most fundamental being that the word automatically creates a distinction and, like it or not, a hierarchy that places the paid staff above the rest of the congregation. Volunteers willingly do the work that is only made possible by the hard work of the staff, and in some cases the hope is to “move up the ladder” into a paid position. That’s the model of a non-profit, anyway. At my job at Sitar Arts Center, staff do a lot of work to make it possible for our volunteers to have students to teach. Volunteers are necessary and vital to what we do, and Sitar could not exist without them, but the work of the staff is what creates the programs and other avenues for volunteers to plug into. Or think of the Americorps or Peace Corps volunteers. They do hard work, but the goal is eventually to get paid well for the work they do.
But a church is not a non-profit organization. The life of the church is not about pastors and staff creating opportunities for the rest of the congregation to volunteer for but is about a community where the members offer and use their gifts for the good of the church and God’s kingdom. The pastor is not the executive director and the leadership his/her board of directors. Rather, pastor, elder, teacher, musician, deacon, usher; these are roles in the church, no one more important than the other, all parts of the body needed to foster healthy disciples and loving congregations. Most churches regard the pastor, the music director, the associate pastor, etc. as positions, like a non-profit. Instead of a top-down model, the church (in my head) is more like a group of gathered people in a large circle, each person equally essential, each person having a different role. This is not to dismiss or underplay the importance of the pastor–pastors do have a unique and vital role in the congregation, a role that in most cases it makes sense to pay–but in the end, it’s still just another role that helps the community flourish.
Furthermore, regarding congregants as “volunteers” makes it seem like spending one’s time, energy, and abilities for the good of the community is an uncommon and unexpected “over-and-above” behavior, like the lawyer who works 70 hours a week but somehow makes time every Saturday to volunteer at the local animal shelter. In the church, being willing to use your gifts, and have others help you discern and nurture your gifts, is a necessary and fundamental aspect of learning the way of Jesus and participating in his kingdom. Churches should be fostering environments where parishioners feel comfortable and encouraged to share their gifts and visions knowing that they will be met with support and healthy encouragement from the pastor and other members of the community, even if these gifts don’t have an already-made slot that they can be fit into. Churches that shut down the gifts of their members or make the logistics of using those gifts cumbersome and unappealing will inevitably be faced with a Sunday-morning-only crowd which has no real desire to participate.
Church of the Saviour has modeled this extremely well. Its many churches, all different and unique in model and in mission, have embodied the importance of nurturing a person’s call. Recognizing that the church is called to go out, rather than be so concerned with getting people into the doors of the sanctuary, its fundamental values of commitment and mission have allowed people to discern their God-given calling in community, with others praying and sharing the journey, and as a result dozens of beautiful ministries have flourished in one small part of the world. The point is not that these ministries have been overwhelmingly successful (which some have and some haven’t) but that people were given the space to discern their gift and calling in the world because their community recognized that they could not say “no” to God’s “yes.”
I emphasize the importance of allowing gifts to flourish because I think that is a better perspective with which to regard a community of believers rather than the “volunteer” model. Leave that to the non-profits. It serves their needs and goals well. But the church doesn’t need more volunteers, it needs people who have a stake in the community because that’s where their lives are grounded and given the nourishment, challenge, and freedom required to grow.
I do not volunteer at any church–I try to use my gifts to serve others and serve God, which, quite frankly, looks a lot better on my resume.
Volunteers we are not; members of a living body, a community, we are.