Volunteer organizations have been a great thing in American history. The American Red Cross, founded by Clara Barton after the Civil War, has been an important part of every major disaster recovery effort since. The Boy Scouts of America, training boys in survival skills and good character development, changed my life for the better, along with millions of American boys over the last 100 years. Various local non-profits are seeking to make a difference in communities throughout the nation. Most of these volunteer organizations, supported by people from all walks of life, are a part of what makes America great.
Volunteer organizations do great works of life change. They are able to meet needs not being met anywhere else. They organize concerned volunteers, pooling them together as a group so they can have a greater impact than they would alone. And since they rely on volunteers, these organizations can keep overhead costs low, so more of each donation goes directly to where it is needed.
Volunteerism in the Church
Too often people view the church as a type of volunteer organization. While it works in these type of non-profits, the volunteerism mentality has no place in the local church. Here are four ways that volunteerism harms the ministry of the local church:
Volunteers have their own expectations. In volunteer organizations, there are levels of commitment. Some people are nominally committed: maybe helping out once in a while, or donating once a year. Others are heavily committed: they are some of the most able volunteers, or they provide a steady stream of donations to the non-profit. However, too often these come with strings attached. Sometimes it is a seat on the board, so they can have a say in the direction of the organization. Other times it is autonomy; they want to control an area of the non-profit, one where they can call the shots.
In the church, we have to constantly battle these personal expectations. We cannot meet everyone’s personal expectation, nor should we. A church has leadership in place—whether it is a session, an elder board, a deacon board, or whatever other type of leadership structure—to lead and guide the church. This is so that the purpose and vision for the whole church, not just the vision of one person, can be carried out.
Volunteers say when and how they help out. Non-profits are bound to the whims of volunteers. This means a volunteer may break their commitment to help because work, family, or even a better opportunity came up. They also will sign up for the tasks they want, which aren’t always the tasks that are vital or necessary.
A few years ago I was running a large concert for a non-profit. I had recruited 10 people to help the band load-in and set up all their sound equipment. But when that very early hour came, only 2 showed up! Of course all the volunteers showed up to the concert that evening, because it was what they really wanted to help out with.
In the church, this type of mentality is detrimental to the health of the body. Easy or fun ministries are always well-staffed, while other, more difficult ministries are always struggling to get help. For this past summer’s beach trip, I had to turn adults away because we had too many leaders! That has never happened in my years of ministry!
Volunteers can leave. The nature of volunteerism is that there is no firm contract between the organization and the volunteer. They can quit whenever they want to. That is why a significant portion of any non-profit organization is focused on donor and volunteer relations. They must always keep the current supporters happy, while also recruiting new supporters to take their place when they eventually leave.
In the church, we must make it more difficult for people to leave. Church is not a place you attend; it is a body you are a part of. Leaving the church cannot be as easy as driving to a new parking lot on Sunday morning. It should only be done after tons of prayer and discussions with church leadership.
Volunteers find identity in their role. Volunteers are proud of what they do, and how they help out their associated organization. Because of this pride, along with significant time commitments, a person’s volunteer work can become their identity. I saw this several times in my Boy Scout years: adult leaders could spend every weekend, along with 2–3 weeknights, doing Boy Scout stuff. Most of their waking hours, apart from their day job and the occasional family time, was spent on their volunteer work.
In the church, people can hold a variety of roles: children’s teacher, treasurer, deacon, pastor, etc. Yet we cannot find our ultimate identity or purpose in these roles. Instead, our identity must be found in Christ alone, as a child of the Father. We cannot make a good thing (ministry role) our ultimate thing (our identity).
While the church is a non-profit organization, it does not behave like other non-profits. The church is not a volunteer-based organization, having to cater to and rely on the volunteers. When we accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior, we did not volunteer to help out an organization—we were drafted into an army! That means we are not in control, nor should we have the ultimate say in where we serve. Instead, we are there to serve Christ by any means necessary. It is rare, but very encouraging, when someone comes into my office with this mindset: saying “I want to serve. Where do you need me the most?”
Series on False Church Self-Identity:
- Church is Not a Social Club
- Church is Not a Labor Union
- Church is Not a Gas Station
- Church is Not a Volunteer Organization
- Church is Not a Walled Fortress
- Church is Not a Self-Help Group