It’s time for the church to stop relying on volunteers. That sounds like a harsh thing to say. More than ever before, the work of the church is being done by lay people, and by people who are not getting paid. Many people have found their sense of belonging more from the time and effort they put into the church than even from worship. But we need to stop talking about and relying on volunteers, because when we do, we make it clear that we don’t understand what the church is about, or why people are giving their time and talent.
The invitation that Jesus offers us us is not just to receive the care and attention of the church, but to follow him. In John’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that servants are not greater than their master, and messengers are not greater than the one who sent them. We are called to be the disciples of Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve. That means that sooner or later, if we are serious about that calling, we are going to be expected to stop being served and to start serving others.
There are no volunteers in the church, only ministers. We all have different gifts, and will be expected to put those gifts to work in different ways, but God expects all of us to use those gifts. Some of us have more time that is free to serve, and others have less time, but God expects all of us to serve. The service that we offer to God, to each other, and to the wider world is something more than ‘volunteering’. It is ministry. It is the way we take the good things God has given us and put them to good use. It’s what humanity has always been meant to do, all the way back to the Creation stories in the Garden of Eden.
The church also gives opportunities for others to offer their time and talents, and sometimes people begin to ‘volunteer’ for ministry and outreach in the church. But we can’t stop there! In the Great Commission, Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to ‘go into all the world and recruit volunteers.’ He told them to ‘make disciples.’ I remember a thought that Bishop John Watton once shared in his Facebook feed that said, in effect, that ‘a disciple is someone who has stopped receiving the church’s ministry and started contributing to it.’
The volunteer opportunities that we give to people should not be the main way we expect the ministry to get done. Instead, volunteering should be a chance for people to get their feet wet, to explore how God may be calling them to contribute to the ministry of the church. But as long as we rely on ‘volunteers’, we are relying on guests and visitors, and people who have not yet committed themselves to the kind of ministry that is expected of disciples.
It’s time for those of us in leadership positions to stop trying to recruit volunteers. It’s time for those of us who work without getting paid for it to stop thinking of ourselves as volunteers. When we do either of these things, we’re often focusing on the need and the work to be done, rather than on the gifts and abilities of those who are available to do it. There’s good news: God has already given us everything we need to do the work he has given us to do. And when we have done the work given to us, we should say, as Jesus tells us to, ‘We have only done what we ought to have done!’ (Luke 17.10)