Changing the Face of Church Volunteers

Visit most churches on any given Sunday, and you will most likely hear one universal refrain.  No, it isn’t the Lord’s Prayer, nor the Apostle’s Creed.  It’s the appeal for volunteers.  Whether it’s in the church office, toddler nursery, Sunday School rooms, children’s church, custodial work, hospitality center, outreach team or potluck committee, it seems churches are always needing and recruiting volunteers.

Only twice in all my years attending church, have I ever been asked how I might use my skills, talents, abilities and interests to minister.  Some people might suggest that question, and the appeal for volunteers, are essentially the same request, just worded differently.  But I’m not so sure.  When volunteers are solicited, there is usually a “hole” that needs to be filled.  Depending on the availability of help and the severity of the need, a volunteer’s individual interests and skills may be considered.  But honestly, sometimes any willing warm body is happily latched onto.

Simply being a warm body and filling a hole is a far cry from responding to God’s call on our lives, utilizing the skills He has given us for His glory and working to bring His Kingdom to earth.  The former suggests a guilty or forced response.  The latter demonstrates initiative, forethought, and a joining-in with God in His work, serving as a minister within our own context.

Clearly, existing ministries within a church certainly need to be staffed by willing volunteers.  But if a certain program, ministry, or activity is constantly shorthanded, are we willing to evaluate whether it is truly a vital, healthy ministry?  And if it isn’t, are we willing to make the tough call to end that program?

Even more important than programs are the people in the church.  After all, the Church is nothing more than those gathered, engaged believers willing to engage their culture in meaningful ways.  How then might volunteerism be restructured and rethought to avoid the we-just-need-a-warm-body approach?

For starters, we must help people think differently about their position and role in the church.  They are not coming to church once or twice a week simply to be fed – to receive – to get something.  We must move away from simply dispensing religion to consumers.  Christians are not called to be casual consumers who believe X, Y and Z; Christians are commanded to be little Christs, transformed, passionate followers of Jesus who are engaged in living authentic, relational lives, doing the work of God.

When this becomes our perspective, the role of the volunteer becomes minimized and overshadowed by an entire congregation of ministers and partners serving through their strengths.  Helping people discover their gifts needs to become a focus of the church.  Whereas some people innately know what they’re good at and what they enjoy doing, many others do not.  Asking questions is a great way to help people discover their gifts for themselves.

  • What keeps you awake at night?
  • What do you do that energizes and excites you?  That drains and depletes you?
  • What one hurt or pain in the world would you most like to address?
  • If money, time and opportunity were not a hindrance, how would you spend your days?  What would you do?
  • What is the most significant thing you’ve done in your life?
  • Where and how do you fit in the priesthood of all believers?
  • How can you best minister in our church?  Outside our church?

When people begin to understand their gifts and strengths, and begin imagining how they might use them in serving others, the church can then become an equipping organization.  Churches can encourage, support, and advocate for individual ministers engaging in their community….hair dressers offering free haircuts to underprivileged teens, artists decorating the walls of a community center, chefs teaching cooking classes to kids, accountants helping seniors file their taxes, moms reaching out to single mothers…

The potential list of ministries is endless when we free others to use their gifts and when we move away from viewing the Pastor as the only one equipped and allowed to minister.  This shift could radically change the face of church programming and “volunteerism”.  Rather than looking for warm bodies to fill spots in existing church programming, we could equip and send out passionate ministers doing what they love, what they’re good at, and what God created them for.

How might this change the face of volunteerism in your church?  How might this perspective change the way you engage in ministry?

  • Patti Nefzger

    This is good, Kristen. How do we put it into practice, though? I think it will take a lot of re-focusing our minds on how Scripture talks about our gifts and how to use them. I’m copying this and giving it to a pastor I know!;)