You’re Not a Volunteer if You’re Called

If you ask any minister on any church staff to name the most frustrating part of the job, they’ll all say the same thing: “Working with volunteers.” The weekly routine of making sure people who agree to be somewhere are actually there and are doing what they promised they would do is the grind that frustrates most ministers to the point of looking for other ways to make a living.

If you talk with church members, they’re frustrated about the same thing. Church members are tired of being hounded by staff who need preschool workers, group leaders, teachers, ushers, and the list goes on and on. Church members are tired of being manipulated, guilt tripped, and emotionally bullied into jobs and places of service they aren’t gifted for and passionate about.

There has to be a better way—for everybody. I think there is.

Now, before I get too far down the road here, let’s be honest. Church is more like a family than a corporation. We don’t hire someone for everything that needs to be done in the church. We can’t. As a family, all of us have chores. All of us have tasks we may not enjoy, but we know we have to do for the good of the family. Sometimes we all pitch in to accomplish the work that’s before us.

Now, back to my original point.

Every church, like every person, is unique. Churches have unique callings and opportunities just like people. Christ, in His sovereignty, will bring people to a particular church who have the gifts and passions to accomplish the unique mission of that church. Church leadership should be aware of the gifts within their membership so they can better see how God is leading their church to engage in their mission.

Jesus calls us to a relationship with Him. We don’t initiate the conversation. Jesus comes to us. He calls us to Himself, and He calls us to the work. All of us have spiritual gifts to be used in the mission of the church. These gifts are ours to steward. We’re called to develop and employ our gifts for the greater good of Christ’s kingdom.

That means Christ created us and redeemed us to be somewhere and do something for Him, His church, and His kingdom. We don’t volunteer for anything. We obey. If we’re gifted to work with children, we don’t wait for the minister to call. We report for duty.

If we have the gift of teaching, we study, prepare, and present ourselves for service. We don’t wait to be found. We have a duty to engage. We were created with a purpose, and when we know that purpose, we are Spirit-empowered to accomplish that purpose.

When I first started in ministry, I got pretty good at getting people to “volunteer.” I would persuade, manipulate, guilt trip—whatever I had to do. I could get the positions filled.

But I’ve changed my mind. Too many people got burned out and were frustrated by being in the wrong place and doing the wrong thing.

Now, I talk to people about their gifts, and from there we try to find a place where those gifts can be used. People who use their gifts find the joy of being where Jesus wants them to be and doing what Jesus wants them to do. This brings an energy all its own.

I don’t think the church needs any more volunteers. I believe we need people who are called by Jesus to serve His church and kingdom. We need people who are obedient to that call.

That’s the church I want to pastor—a fellowship of the called, not simply a gathering of volunteers.

Any Volunteers?

If you talk to anyone who works on a church staff, they will tell you the most difficult part of their job is recruiting and maintaining enough volunteers to accomplish their ministry. According to some ministers, they spend all of their time trying to run down enough volunteers to run their (fill in the blank) ministry.  No one can seem to find enough volunteers, and once found, volunteers are almost impossible to keep.

What’s the problem? People who love Jesus should be eager to serve His church…right? Well, in theory, but it doesn’t really work that way in real life.

Here’s the usual drill: a minister will realize they need someone to do something this coming Sunday. It could be anything from taking up the offering to teaching a class, but the minister has to find someone, and that person has to be found fast. So, phone calls are made.

The first people called are those people in our churches who always say “yes.” We know who they are. In fact, every minister knows who they are. It’s one of the reasons so many of our members are burned out. We ask the same people to do everything. Why? Because they will. For the minister, it doesn’t matter if the person has any abilities or gifts in the area of need, it only matters that they are willing to fill the empty position for one hour this coming Sunday. When we get through this Sunday, we’ll start the chaotic process of finding volunteers for next Sunday.

Now, church members aren’t dumb. They are catching on to what’s going on. They’ve learned not to return phone calls, not to read emails, and to ignore texts. No amount of “guilting” them will work anymore. They’ve become calloused to our pleas. Every minister complains about not having enough volunteers, and every volunteer complains about ministers who don’t understand the demands of their lives. Our members are angry because too many times, ministers make them feel guilty for saying “no” even when they have a perfectly good reason for declining.

There has to be a better way.

There is.

First, ministers have to make identifying, training, and supporting volunteers a priority of their ministry. Most of us don’t see it that way. Volunteers are last minute thoughts, and we think that once we get SOMEBODY in the position, we’ve accomplished our goal. No, we haven’t. The goal is to find the right person for the right job.

With that in mind, every position should have a written job description with the expectations and requirements clearly written down. When you talk to your potential volunteer, you should be able to walk down a one-page list that lays out what kind of time requirements exist, exactly what the job entails, and what success will look like.

Be sure the job only takes about two or three hours a week. People are maxed out with their time. If the position requires too much time, they won’t do it. Don’t bait and switch. Don’t tell them it won’t take much time when, in reality, it takes a lot of time. There are lot of very talented people sitting in our pews who won’t volunteer for anything else in a church because another ministry misled them in the past about how much time a position in the church actually required. You may have to split one job into several pieces in order for volunteers to be able to handle the responsibilities. That, however, is better than not having your volunteers engaged.

Second, stay in communication with your volunteers. Your volunteers are people. They have real lives outside of what you’re asking them to do in the church. They have ups and downs as everyone does, and they need to know you care about them AS A PERSON, not just as someone who’s filling a spot for you.

Third, listen to your volunteers. Sometimes they have better ideas about how to do something, and often, they are hearing things you don’t. They can be valuable sources of information about pastoral care needs, new families, and other circumstances involving church and community life.

Lastly, appreciate your volunteers. No, you don’t have to bring presents to them every week (although good coffee is always appreciated), but you do have to appropriately recognize their value and efforts. Did they go above and beyond? Then, drop them a note. Did they have good day? Be sure to say thanks or give them a quick call later in the day or week…or text them. Anyway, find a way to make sure they know you appreciate them being there.

The church simply can’t function without volunteers. The impact they have on the lives of others can’t be calculated. That’s why selecting, training, and effectively leading your volunteers is the most important job of any ministry. It’s the way the ministry of the church gets multiplied into the rest of the world.

First Response

A few years ago, I was the chaplain for the Brentwood Police and Fire Departments. After riding with these officers and firefighters and having seen them in action up close, I have nothing but respect for the courage these men and women find to do these jobs every day. Did you know most arrests are made during a routine traffic stop? An officer will pull a driver over for speeding, then find themselves face to face with a wanted felon. (Now you know why police officers are so edgy when they approach your car.) As for firefighters, well, I used to the tell them, “Anyone who gets dressed up to run into a burning house, isn’t right…”

But if I was in trouble, I wouldn’t want anyone else coming.

That’s the thing—these first responders never know what’s next. They train a lot, and they train for every conceivable situation, but they never know, from one minute to the next, what kind of situation they’ll find themselves in. If something’s happening, and they’re the closest unit, they’ll get the call. The police officers and firefighters can be anywhere in the city in a matter of minutes, and sometimes, it’s the minutes that save lives.

This is another reason I love the local church. (Hang with me. This is going to make sense.) You see, it’s the patrol car or the fire station nearest the problem that gets the call to respond first. Other units may be required, but the first unit is the closest unit. Who can get there first and offer assistance?

One of the great things about the local church—and this is one of the geniuses of its design—is that a local church is closest to the pain. We’re the closest ones to the child struggling with identity, closest to a young marriage trying to figure it out, and closest to family dealing with a tough diagnosis; we’re the closest ones to the situation. We can get there fast and offer any aid that might be needed. Christ has placed His people right in the middle of all of the pain in the world so that, if needed, we would get the call and get there first.

That means we need a lot of training in the church (we call this discipleship) to prepare for any and all scenarios. We need to be ready to get there in minutes because, well, as we know, minutes save lives.

Gratitude for the People Who Make Me Look Good

As Senior Pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church, I get a lot of credit for things I don’t do. People walk up to and will say something like, “Hey, Mike, I just got back from (conference, ministry event, mission trip, etc.), and it changed my life. You have a great church and you’re doing a great job!”

I will politely say thanks in response, but I’ll know the truth. I had nothing to do with the success of the mentioned event. I just have a great team around me.

Mike Rowe, in his hit TV show “Dirty Jobs,” has introduced us to those almost invisible people around us who make our society work. Street sweepers and sewer workers, people who raise worms commercially, and a whole host of other people who do the jobs that most of us would never do in a million years that keep our modern world turning.

In the spirit of Labor Day and in deep gratitude for those around me who make my life work, I would like say thanks to a few of my team. Now, I don’t have room to thank everyone. That list is impossibly long, but here are a few of the people around me who make me look good…

First, if I’m on time and reasonably prepared for the meeting, it’s because Jaclyn Swencki, my executive assistant, has done her job well. With my ADD, I’m like a herd of cats all by myself. Jaclyn keeps me reasonably focused and my life organized, and that’s not an easy task. Thanks, Jaclyn!

Every day, I walk into a nice building that is clean, ready for use, and everything works. That’s because Jim Vance and his team in facilities have done their job. They always do their job. The reason I know how well they do their job is how little I think about them. I just show up and everything is ready and works. Thanks, Jim!

Adam Dye makes our media work. He knows where all of the wires and buttons are. I know we ask him to do the impossible week after week, but he just smiles and then, he pulls it off. Few of us will understand how hard whatever he did was to pull off, but he does it. Thanks, Adam!

Whenever you call the church, Helen Hargrove is the first person you talk to. I can’t tell you what a great job she does in taking care of our communications. She’s the first impression of Brentwood Baptist Church, and she makes us look good. Thanks, Helen!

Todd Bishop makes sure the traffic doesn’t get snarled up and greeters are in place for all of our services. He also handles emergency situations. There are Sundays when we will have an emergency situation, and I won’t know anything about it until much later in the day. Todd does his job very well. Thanks, Todd!

To everyone, professional staff and volunteers, who show up when you’re supposed to and do what you committed to do with excellence and heart, I thank you. Yes, I get a lot of credit, but I know the truth. You’re a great church, and we have a great team. Thanks and Happy Labor Day!

What about you? Who are those people who make your life work? Perhaps today would be a good day to say “thanks.”