“We need more volunteers.”
How many times have you heard that? Too many, probably.
Volunteer – now there’s an unhelpful word. If I could, I would eliminate it altogether from conversations in church. The word ‘volunteer’ suggests there are professionals and . . . well, the rest of us. The volunteers.
First, that misrepresents the reality of God’s new society, in which all of us are participating in his kingdom. All equally valued. All equally loved. All equally important in our different ways. Splitting people into ‘staff’ and ‘volunteer’ communicates something very unhelpful.
When we talk about what ‘the church’ is going to do, most people think about the professionals. Leaders. Administrative staff. Those on the payroll. “Why isn’t the church doing more for these people?” That means, “Why aren’t the paid staff focusing more on this need?”
That needs to stop. We could start by avoiding the term ‘volunteer.’ Think of other words. Perhaps choose a theme? It doesn’t much matter, as long as that odious word, ‘volunteer,’ is avoided. Why do I dislike it? Because words have power. If I’m a volunteer, I’m helping others do their jobs. I’m helping the paid staff.
No, you’re not. You’re as vital to the work as anyone who happens to earn a salary.
If I’m a volunteer, then I can leave when I want to, because well, after all, I’m a volunteer. I’m here as long as I want to be, and then I’ll leave. Splitting us all into these two groups downgrades my importance and therefore discourages real commitment.
Finally, by characterising everyone unpaid as a volunteer, we downplay the many gifts we each bring to the work. For example, instead of appreciating the variety of hospitality gifts on offer – each person with their own distinctive array of skills and talents – we end up just looking for volunteers to serve the coffee, do the clean-up, welcome the guests. When people become the means by which we solve our problems, that’s a very bad sign.
No one is ever, ever just a volunteer. Our church members don’t fill our rotas, they don’t solve our problems, they are people offering their gifts and talents to the Lord. So how do we build up the builders? How do we create a vibrant, committed, growing community, filled with people finding joy in serving God?
Encouragement. This is a no-brainer, of course, but it’s easier said than done. Encouragement must be tailored to the individual. It must be specific and well timed to suit the person serving. In short, it is best when it’s Spirit-led. Remember The Wizard of Oz? The wizard, although a charlatan, does something remarkable when he speaks to the tin man, the scarecrow and the lion. He identifies their need to be valued. He puts his finger on the thing they want the most and then he gives them an appropriate symbol. Tin man – a ticking heart. Lion – medal. Scarecrow – diploma. The symbol tells them, ‘I know you. I know how you tick, who you are.’ So when they receive their symbol, their hearts surge within them. You can do the same. You can tailor your encouragement to the person, so they feel valued. It takes a bit of thought, but the benefits are enormous. You will create life-long, committed followers.
Empowerment. This is a buzz word nowadays, and easily misunderstood. It’s hard to get it right. To empower those who serve in church, we must do more than pay lip service to their role as leaders. We have to let go. We must allow them to make choices we don’t like, and sometimes fail. Micro-management kills the spirit. Equip your people with skills – or ensure they receive training – and then release them to lead their teams. Because once they feel ownership of the ministry over which they exercise leadership, they will give it the kind of commitment it needs. That won’t happen if you keep interfering. So let go. Please let go. It’s how you build up the builders.
My third ‘e’ could be ‘equip,’ but that’s so large a topic, it’s worth a post all of its own. Instead, let’s end with ‘recognise and celebrate.’ This is where leaders walk a tight-rope. Because for every person we recognise and thank publicly, there are others who aren’t recognised. Caught between a rock and a hard place? Not easy. Also, when we celebrate our own people too much, we’re accused of navel-gazing, telling ourselves how wonderful our church is. I don’t have answers to this, I’m afraid. However, there are ways we can recognise and thank our people for their service, without holding a big ceremony on a Sunday morning. This last point is really just an expansion of the first one – encouragement. If we want to build up the builders, then we must start by thinking of them as precious children of God, who carry God’s image in their own unique way. People achieve great things when they’re loved and valued. They dig deeper when they know they’re part of something bigger than themselves, and those who lead them appreciate their service. Something bigger? To be called into God’s kingdom, well, there isn’t anything else that comes close. We are taking part in the greatest project in human history, and our gracious God is with us. All of us. We have a huge bag of wonderful resources in God’s Word to encourage our people. So be encouraged as you build up the builders.