I’m going to be honest – the word ‘volunteer’ does a disservice to people serving in the church.
‘Volunteering’ may be a fine word to use when describing a one hour impromptu help at a car wash fundraiser, a brief stint preparing food in the kitchen, or even a community cleanup on a Saturday, but it should have no place in the vocabulary of describing people serving at church.
Why all the hostility you may say?
I believe the simple fact of the matter is that when we frame our service to God as ‘volunteering’ it not only puts a damper on our willingness to do so, but actually undermines the purpose of it – to respond in love to the love shown us first in Christ. Not only that, but with the rising needs and opportunities in mega churches to give ministry away, volunteering can and does become a position-filling problem, rather than a purpose-fulfilling privilege.
Let’s take a simple example. Have you ever been asked to volunteer for something? Maybe a few hours at church in the kids or greeting ministry, or to help coach a sport on the weekend? Be honest with yourself: is your first reaction to kick your heels together, tear the pen out of the asking person’s hands and scribble your name in big block letters on the clip board like a cave person? Probably not.
More than likely – and again if we’re honest with ourselves – volunteering sounds more like asking for a prolonged favor or commitment to help that we wouldn’t otherwise have offered ourselves. Or, thinking in a more positive way, to assist the church in an area of need so it can continue to function and provide services to those who need them. In the most basic sense, even this doesn’t do justice to the profound act of service that ‘volunteering’ is.
I’d like to propose 3 reasons that the word ‘volunteer’ grossly underestimates the aspect of service in the Church.
1) The Word Itself is misleading – without going too far back in the etymology of the word, volunteer can be described from it’s Latin and French origins as having a ‘free will’ connotation. It’s a choice that you make, independent of outside factors and influences. This isn’t the case when God is in your life.
Serving in the church, in your own home, or throughout your neighborhood isn’t because you just choose to. It’s a response to what God is doing within you. It’s the conscious act of responding based on our gratefulness of who God is, and what He is doing in our life. God is the refreshing water after a long period in the dessert. But rather than keeping it to ourselves we eagerly seek out others to give it to (service) who are thirsty and need a drink.
2) It’s built upon needs & wants – building upon the above thesis of service as a response, ‘volunteering’ places too much emphasis on needs and wants rather than challenges, calling, and crises. While some people will respond to a volunteering request by their pastor (especially if they are respected and loved) most people don’t respond to a want or need.
They do respond however, to a challenge, a calling, or a crisis. These are all things that in themselves require a response. If no one shows up the challenge is unmet, the calling wasted, or the crisis balloons into a catastrophe. Serving is a means by which each of these scenarios never reach their final (bad) conclusion due to the response of people through service. Volunteering however, often does not live up to the task of getting enough people, meaning that the want was undesirable or the need not great enough in the minds of the people.
3) Volunteers require management – There is a difference between leading people and managing them. Without turning this into a post about the differences between leadership and management, suffice it to say that I believe the key difference is tasks vs purpose.
Volunteers are assigned tasks, even big ones. They may be asked to ‘wave hi to people’, ‘help setup a campus’, or even ‘manage our million-dollar budget’. Each of these aren’t purposes as they focus on doing some *thing* rather than serving some *one.* Continuing in our theme of response, people who serve are responding to God in order to focus on Him and others. When people volunteer they sign up for a task and need to be managed in order to make sure they are fulfilling it in the right way. When they respond to God for a purpose, they are already being lead by the Holy Spirit and allow themselves to be lead by others whom God has assigned the purpose to as well.
There is probably a lot more that can be said on this subject, but for sake of brevity these are the three things that bother me about ‘volunteering’ the most.
Do you think there’s a word that should replace the word volunteer in our vocabulary?