I remember one of my challenging internships while in Seminary. How could I forget it? The workload was too much, something that led me to organize a volunteer group. Every week I needed to do a series of regular tasks, such as organizing and distributing printed material, writing projects, and the list goes on. After several weeks of hard work, it was difficult to bear the workload. The problem was not my busy schedule itself or the number of assigned tasks, but the large and complex process to complete those tasks. One single project could even take weeks before it was done. Thus, after having talked with my mentor, he suggested I train a group of volunteers through weekly meetings to help me with the rest of the tasks I couldn’t do. I talked with two members of the congregation, whom I was acquainted with, and they initially agreed with helping me out. This sounded great to me until I discovered that they had to make a significant effort to help me out. I didn’t have many human resources to count on, so any volunteer was greatly appreciated. However, in the end, they were not available at all.
So I decided to meet personally with other members of the church and invited them to serve. Three people decided to join the volunteer team. Our first meeting was a blast! It was a perfect time to listen to beautiful stories of how God had been faithful to other Christians. I thought about one of the issues that exists in many congregations about the purpose of volunteer work: that non-paid work tends to be used by leaders to merely delegate some of their own work to others. This question jumped into my head: Was I creating the volunteer group to simply alleviate my workload, or because it was a way to build up the body of Christ?
I shared with the volunteers the reason I was recruiting the team, and I asked them in what areas they would like to serve. Because of their particular gifts and their interests, my workload did not actually change at all. But I celebrated when I realized the blessing this opportunity was for them. For instance, I recall a senior woman who, although physically old, possessed the spirit of a young person. When she shared some of the blessings she received while volunteering, such as being frequently encouraged to persevere and meeting people who were constantly praying for her, I realized the importance of planning volunteer programs according to people’s gifts and needs.
One of the significant aspects I learned in this internship was that in our North-American context, Christian leaders tend to rely too much on non-paid workers such as volunteers and interns. This is not a church issue, but a cultural one. Enterprises sometimes use non-paid work to try new approaches in the workplace or to test a future employee’s performance. I am not arguing that this practice is bad at all, but the main problem I find with this system is that volunteer work has been planned mainly for the particular needs of paid persons, and not necessarily to the interest of the volunteer’s interests and gifts. At its best, volunteer work is based on serving a particular community with the plan of having a minimum investment.
While sometimes it is overlooked, our communities of faith should be concerned more about their volunteers and interns. In view of this, I would like to invite our leaders and pastors to consider volunteer work as a spiritual discipline. To that purpose, I offer three brief reasons.
Everyone in the church has been called to serve
All believers in Christ have at least one common calling: the call to be a Christian that is, the call to be a faithful follower of Christ and his teachings. This makes it true that serving the Body of Christ is something that concerns everyone who is part of that Body. Thus, volunteer work is not only for congregants, or for people who are not able to get a full-time/part-time job; volunteer work is also for those who do work in a paid position, even full-time. Every Christian ought to be involved in the mission of the church with the purpose of joining God in the work He is doing among his people.
Key verse: In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, It is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:35)
The question that some readers might ask is, What can I do if I work 40 hours a week? The answer is simple: You can volunteer in any area you have received a gift from God. Some of us may be good at forming social relationships, so serving as a greeter on a Sunday morning once per month could be a great way to bless others with our volunteer work, while our gift is also shaped. Others, perhaps, who prefer sharing the Gospel, could teach a discipleship class or can help someone to perform such a task. When I was younger, for example, I served my congregation in different ways: being a greeter, Sunday school teacher, sound assistant, choir member, and teen leader. All of these areas strongly shaped the person I am today.
Volunteer work should be given according to people’s gifts
When church leaders plan a volunteer program, such a program ought to be done by mainly taking into account people’s gifts and talents. What I mean here is that once church leadership has identified an area where they need volunteers, they should plan it by thinking what growing areas personally and spiritually the potential volunteers will have an opportunity to develop. As church leaders, it is our responsibility to be sure that the right volunteer is in the right seat in our communities of faith.
Key verse: Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6)
If, as leaders, we do not assign volunteer work by gifts, what is at stake is the wellness of the church and her congregants. Such things would be detrimental to volunteer ministry. For instance, let’s think about someone who has been assigned to greet people in a Sunday morning service in a three-hundred-member congregation. The volunteer accepted the position, but he or she is more of an introvert than an extrovert. While an extroverted person will probably get his/her social energy by interacting with others, the introvert will be spending all his/her energy on social interactions. By the time all the people have been greeted, the introvert will probably be exhausted from the excess of social interactions as opposed to the extrovert, who perhaps would find this experience exhilarating and exciting.
Volunteer work is not an opportunity for exploitation
Sometimes there is a temptation to give more unsolicited work to people that have already been volunteering because their work is good. The fact that a person may donate his/her time serving in the church does not mean church leaders should exploit such a situation. The end doesn’t justify the means. We should resist the temptation to always assign work to volunteers simply because we know that they will respond affirmatively if we call them.
Key verse: Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. (Romans 15:2)
This suggestion might raise an important issue: How can church leaders look for people to be volunteers? The answer may sound impractical. I am convinced that the best way to look for people to volunteer is by first, serving as volunteers ourselves. As busy as we are, other people are also busy. By volunteering ourselves, our network will increase, and we will meet other people who also contribute through volunteering. This will be a blessing for our own lives. I recall one of the ordained ministers in my home church who, while working 40 hours or more per week, volunteered himself to work with the Children’s ministry every other Sunday. Yes, he was an ordained minister and part of the pastoral leadership team, yet despite this, he took some time off to serve his congregation. When I asked him about this, he replied to me that his volunteer work had helped to build his character. Being too business-minded is a serious issue in the church, and volunteer work helps us with that. It keeps us in the perspective that we work for God and his mission.
I would like to see more church leaders and pastors that embrace volunteer work as a spiritual discipline because the work we do in the church is not about us at all, but about representing God’s work on earth. Volunteer work may be a beautiful means to help others and to integrate them into our community and bless them. Regrettably, when it is planned with a capitalist mindset, it is also one of the fastest ways to alienate our brothers and sisters in Christ in our communities of faith. Besides, one of the purposes of the Church is to bring Good News to the oppressed, and volunteer work is a great tool to do so!
*Originally published in Kerux: A Calvin Theological Seminary Student Magazine 52, no.2 (2017): 14-20.