Your Church Does Not Need Volunteers

I was writing my weekly note to the congregation  (a few days late, because I took Monday off and it’s all downhill from there). Usually in this note, I share a few words about the message for Sunday so that we can all be reflecting on the same topic throughout the week. It makes the sermon more of an ongoing conversation. I sometimes discuss something that’s going on in the life of the church, as well. But this week, it was more of a thank you note. Because when I think about how much work my church folks did over the last few weeks to get our place ready for Easter, it blows my mind. And as I look around the property, I can see the fruits of many hours of shared labor.

Sparkling windows and floors; finely manicured landscaping; dramatic paraments, hung with a complex pulley system by dedicated House Elves in the wee hours… And then I start thinking about the work of the worship team, the children’s ministry team and musicians; not to mention greeters, hand-shakers, bulletin-hander-outers, and coffee makers; and the youth group out there hiding eggs for the little ones; plus more behind the scenes workers I have not mentioned. Just thinking about it makes me overwhelmed with gratitude. It’s enough to make my mascara run. (I’m not crying, you are).

In writing this note to my people, I wrote that it takes a whole village of volunteers to make all of this happen…. But then I found myself hitting the backspace button. Because “volunteer” is not quite the right word for what our people do at church.

I know I’m not the only one who cringes when someone sees me, without kids in tow, and asks if my husband is “babysitting.” Well, no. I mean, yes, he is at home with the kids tonight. But I do not think you can effectively say “babysitting” when it is your own dang kid. I’d say we could just call that parenting.

I feel the same when people talk about “volunteering” at church. And yes, I know it’s just a word. But it’s the wrong word, for a lot of reasons.

If you ask a grandparent, or an elder of your church, I’m pretty sure they will tell you that the church they grew up in never asked them to volunteer. Historically, the church has asked people to serve–as deacons, as greeters, as Sunday school teachers, or on the property committee. Whatever the job, it was considered a service. A ministry.

The language of volunteerism is a pretty recent addition to the church lexicon. It has emerged with the mega-church of the last few decades—and the culture in which small to moderate size churches replicate the language and practices of larger churches. “Volunteering” is something you’re asked to do, right off the bat in these places.  It gets folks engaged, which is great. Maybe you give them a flashy name badge that says “VOLUNTEER” in big red letters, or a brightly colored t-shirt that declares “VOLUNTEER” on the back. This identifies you as someone who’s there to help; one who can answer questions, give directions, or generally point you toward the donuts. That’s a good thing.

But I balk at the secular nature of what it means to volunteer. To volunteer means that you are an outside resource, stepping in to help an organization in need. Volunteering is what we do when we pick up trash at the park, or build a house with Habitat, or help sort food at the local food pantry. Volunteering is what I do at my kids’ school on Fridays.

In other words, it’s what you do at a place that is important to you–but not at a place that belongs to you.

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And I guess that is the important distinction for me… You cannot volunteer at your own church, in the same way you cannot babysit your own kid. Because the church belongs to you in the same way your family does. It’s your own place, your own people. So of course you help take care of it. Of course you do yard work and make coffee and teach the kids and sing in the choir and whatever all else it is you do for the home and the people that you love.

A volunteer, in most cases, is just visiting. A fly-by. Maybe it’s a helpful fly-by, but it’s not the same as belonging to something. It’s not the same as contributing to something bigger than you, something that’s part of who you are.

Maybe some practices of inordinately large churches are good ones, systems from which we can learn a great deal about connection and engagement. But ultimately, the language of volunteerism is secular, and more to the point, it is corporate. The notion is rooted in consumer culture, in which we can swoop in and give or take a measure that we deem fit, and then dart out again feeling we have done our part. We do a disservice to our faith, and to the gospel itself, when we reduce the work of the church to something you can mark on a time card.

All that said, we live in the world we live in, and we cannot realistically extract this word from the life of the church. It is both a noun and a verb, and it’s the one that just rolls off the tongue when we are asking people to come and do work. Which, in the church, we are forever asking people to do. Still, as I plan for a summer sermon series on discipleship and what it means to let the church be the church, I feel a strong nudge to challenge how we talk about–and think about–the time and energy we spend in ministry. It’s important to recognize those gifts for what they are–ministry–and I’m not sure the word “volunteer” does justice to the depths contained in the work people actually do in their churches.

Call it serving. Call it discipleship. Call it the priesthood of believers, or mission, or the ministry that we all share together. Admittedly, “Priesthood of Believers” does not look great on a t-shirt. And it maybe doesn’t invite visitors to ask you where the bathrooms are… But whatever we do, we should remember that we don’t just belong to the church–it belongs to us.

And we do not babysit that which is ours.

About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS (www.sacchome.org). She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...