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Ministry Monday: The Church does not depend on ‘volunteers’

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Posted by Chris Edwards, 2 May 2016

We should certainly be committed to 'every member ministry.' But if we talk and think about the involvement of laypeople as the involvement of 'volunteers' we are making important and costly ecclesiological missteps.

“The ministry of a small church like this depends on volunteers…”

I’ve heard it in sermons, seen it in church bulletins, heard it in conversation, and I think it’s a problem! It’s the phrase: “The ministry of a small church like this depends on volunteers.” I know what they’re getting at, of course. And I entirely approve of the commitment to ‘every member ministry.’
But lurking behind this kind of phrase, I think, may be three ecclesiological missteps – three potentially unhelpful ways of thinking about ‘church’.

Big church envy

First, there’s ‘big church envy.’ You don’t have to read very hard between the lines to hear a pained pastor tearing out his hair because, yet again, a key lay leader has pulled out at the last minute (that is, if he even managed to find any leaders for the ministry that he longed to develop). Oh, for a staff team! Oh, for a £250,000 budget! Then we wouldn’t be so dependent on…well, on volunteers.

The truth, of course, is not so simple. Anyone who’s been in a larger church can tell you that five times as many people brings five times as many problems, as well as five times as many opportunities. The headaches for those leading larger churches are not lesser – they’re just different. Healthy larger churches may not appear to be as ‘volunteer-dependent,’ at least from the other side of the fence where the grass doesn’t seem very green, but the percentage of non-staff people engaged in vital ministry tends to be at least as high.

Just as Britain needs supermarkets and corner shops, we need larger and smaller churches. And we should assume that God wants our church to grow, as people are saved. But we should also assume that growth will bring problems as well as blessings. And we should definitely not waste our lives looking enviously over the fence, in either direction!

Them and us

Secondly, there’s the ‘them and us’ problem. When we say “the church’s ministry depends on volunteers” we are making a sub-biblical distinction between the church on the one hand and her people on the other. We restrict what we mean by ‘the church’s ministry’ to the corporate projects in which her leaders decide to engage. And our best expectation for everyone else – the ‘volunteers’ – is that they will wholeheartedly throw themselves into the leaders’ plan.

The distinction is subtle, but it is a dangerous one, because it makes the church a two-tier place. Yes, of course there must be leadership – and, indeed, submission to leadership. And I am not meaning to undermine the notion of ordination. But drawing a distinction between ‘church’ and ‘volunteers’ does not help people marvel at the wonder of what it means to belong – fully – to the Body of Christ. And, pragmatically, it’s not good for morale.

I once heard a vicar thank his congregation for their generosity in a one-off project. “We are so grateful for all you’ve given!” he said. It was good and right that he wanted to express publicly the church’s corporate thankfulness to each other. But unfortunately, the way it came out proclaimed a two-tier church, between ‘we’ the church, consisting of the clergy and staff, and ‘you,’ supporters of the church. How much better if he’d just said “thank you”!

Volunteers

Finally, there’s the whole ‘volunteer’ thing. Shouldn’t we banish this term from our church vocabulary? Membership of the local church is not an optional bolt-on to salvation in Christ: it is inseparably bound up with it. And once you’re a church member, ministry is not an optional extra, but an obligation: as a ‘foot’ you owe your foot-ly function to the body of which you are a part (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). With our different gifts, we are all to minister. So where, precisely, does ‘voluntary’ come into this? We are not volunteers; we are slaves of Christ and members of his body!

Yes, of course all our service is ‘voluntary’ in that we are not coerced into it, but offer it in free response to grace (2 Corinthians 9:7). But that is not the basis for distinguishing between church staff and the ‘voluntary’ laity: it is true for both! After all, no one is forced to be a vicar.

In this connection, it helps if we remember (and teach) the difference between a salary and a stipend. A salary is paid in return for work done; but the stipend the clergy receive is paid to allow them not to work. If we think of church staff (whether ordained or lay) as being paid a salary for what they do, then everyone else goes in a different, ‘unpaid’ category. And then it is but a small step to assume that the ministry which the church is paying for, being the ‘professional’ ministry, is the only ministry which is truly valuable.

On the other hand, if we think of our church staff as receiving a stipend then we see that they are basically in the same ministry boat as everyone else. They are simply given some money to provide for their needs to enable them to devote their time more fully to the church.

So, let us play our part well in the Body of Christ, whatever our own role and whatever the size of our congregation. Let us keep reminding each other, “The ministry of every member of this church is vital.” But let us never be caught saying, “The ministry of a small church like this depends on volunteers!”

Chris Edwards is training for ordination at Oak Hill College, having previously been Music Co-ordinator for All Saints, Crowborough (Diocese of Chichester) and Jesmond Parish Church (Diocese of Newcastle).

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