Don't Expect Others to Help

A Layman's Perspective on Church Work

by Jason Eden

Having been involved in various levels of church work for the past 20 years, I have come to the conclusion that expecting all congregants to help with church ministry has its problems. The key word here is “expecting.” Most congregations have many layers of ministries with their own tasks: music teams, ushers, children’s workers, or greeters. Consequently, there is a lot of work to be done. This work is important, worthwhile, and valuable. The challenge is finding enough help so church leaders and their families are not stuck with all of the responsibilities.

Most churches could not successfully function as they are currently organized without a large, talented, and committed team of volunteers. Unfortunately, statistics show that most congregations and pastors face a volunteer shortage of significant proportions. A few people give time and energy while many congregants seem to be spectators who benefit from the work of others while seemingly contributing little or nothing themselves. Pastors are left to pick up the slack and work double-time while speculating how effective their ministries might be if more volunteers came forward.

I hope to provide church leaders with a layperson’s perspective on church volunteering. My goal is to equip and empower leaders so they can better avoid the “expectation” trap. First, I question several untrue but powerful myths regarding volunteering. Understanding these myths is key to preventing an attitude of judgment or expectation. Such attitudes are counterproductive when it comes to recruiting volunteers. Then, I offer several practical tips, from a layperson’s perspective, for how to effectively recruit and retain volunteers for church work.

Untruths Regarding Church Work

1. People do not help because they are lazy. An attitude of expectation says, “This person should help more because (fill in the blank).” This attitude is a form of judgment. It assumes that people can help more and they are sinning because they are not doing enough for God. This assumption often has a limited perspective and partial information because the leader does not have a close relationship with the person. Collective assumptions regarding the abilities of congregants are especially misguided because each person is unique. In essence, church leaders often do not know why a person chooses not to serve or volunteer. Several reasons include:

  1. Negative experiences with previous church work.
  2. Other volunteer or service obligations (political campaigns, caring for sick relatives, etc.).
  3. Embarrassment or fear because of hidden sin.
  4. Church leaders do not express interest in an individual’s specific area of giftedness.
  5. They are at a time of their spiritual life when they need to rest.

2. We need workers to put on a quality show. For years churches have thrived and survived without drummers, sound technicians, trained preschool workers, and a host of other specialized experts we now assume to be essential for ministry. It is the love and truth of the gospel, as demonstrated and communicated by Christians, that ultimately attract people to our faith. Remembering this helps us avoid an overemphasis on putting on an excellent show. When church leaders fail in attempts to make their services more crisp and entertaining than what television has to offer, they often make volunteers and potential volunteers fearful of criticism and judgment as they try to “prune” people into skilled performers.

3. If enough people would help, the church would grow more. Church leaders look at their congregations and see a wealth of potential talent apparently going to waste. If only we could tap into this wealth, Christianity would blossom and we could make our churches grow. This attitude seems true. But the Bible repeatedly indicates that the number of helpers, workers, or soldiers has had little to do with the advance of God’s kingdom. Whether it was Gideon winnowing his army under God’s orders or Jesus turning away prospective disciples, the Bible makes it clear that faith in God rather than human ability leads to true spiritual victories. Depending on a legion of talented humans is more akin to walking by sight. Asking God to use a few seemingly untalented volunteers, however, requires walking by faith.

4. People need to volunteer at church so they can build quality relationships. Serving in church should not be a prerequisite or a requirement for establishing friendships and getting to know people. Too often we offer the wages of relationships as compensation for working in the church. As the story of Mary and Martha makes clear, work and service should besecondary to relationship building and learning. Furthermore, do we want to require that emotionally wounded and physically addicted people work in our churches so they can find Christian friends? A person who struggles with pornography or a violent temper certainly needs Christian friends, but these people should not be a volunteer in the nursery, at least until they find healing. Also, a big reason why so many churches seem cliquish and exclusionary is because we regulate access to the “inner circle” by a person’s willingness to work and serve. This is not the example Jesus provided. As exemplified by the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus was willing to connect with and socialize with new believers right from the start.

5. The church must provide certain services. We are accustomed to doing church a certain way that as church leaders we lose a degree of flexibility. Particularly in smaller churches, a degree of despecialization might help make the demands of work less taxing. Does every church need a nursery, preschool, children’s church, and youth event every Sunday? Is it a catastrophe if a volunteer is unable to serve and the children sit with the adults once in a while? Can the worship team go without a drummer a few Sundays? The Bible does not mandate that church roles be listed, scripted, and uniform from church to church. Perhaps God is withholding certain types of volunteers because He wants church leaders to be more creative and flexible in their ministry. The Early Church lacked many of the elements we now deem essential to a successful church. Yet those churches grew faster and were healthier than many American congregations.

How do I Recruit Volunteers?

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” But He also provided a next step: “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field (Matthew 9:37,38).” Our first step as leaders is prayer. Preaching, nagging, and begging might bring in a few reluctant and guilt-ridden helpers, but only God can ultimately send the right volunteers into the church. It is His harvest field, so it makes sense that He will make sure the necessary work is done. In addition to prayer, there are several practical steps that go a long way toward recruiting energetic, capable, and willing volunteers:

1. Build relationships with your congregants. If a community is too large for the senior pastor to do this with each person, then leaders and staff can help. Talk to people. Listen to their stories. Find out who they are and what they are already doing for God. Discover and acknowledge their gifts (this requires more than having someone fill out an inventory worksheet). Knowing who these people are will help you help them find the right areas of ministry in your church.

2. Allow vacations and time off. A few years ago my wife and I were visiting churches after moving into a new community. On our first Sunday at one of these churches, the pastor and church leaders held a special potluck after the morning service in honor of the volunteers. While distributing thanks and awards, the pastor explicitly stated that it was okay to miss church once in a while and it was healthy to take breaks from volunteering. You could almost hear the sigh of relief and appreciation from the congregants. What was perhaps most amazing was that he had to make such a statement at all. But he knew that in many churches, helpers did not experience this type of an environment. Freedom and grace motivates and mobilizes workers to do even more for God and for you.

3. Vocalize grace and appreciation. Make it clear that you appreciate any and all acts of service on behalf of the church, no matter how small. During my first volunteer job at a church, the operator of the church bookstore continually expressed praise and gratitude to me for the work I did. Every Christmas, he gave me a gift of appreciation. When I left the church to pursue graduate studies, he held a farewell banquet in my honor. What did this communicate to me and to others? If you volunteer for this ministry you will be recognized as significant. What a legacy and example. To this day, I think of him as the best boss I have ever had, inside or outside of a church setting. On the flipside, do not berate or criticize volunteers who miss a Sunday or are late. Remember, these folks are not receiving payment for their work and they do not have to lift a finger to help you if they decide not to. Any valuable time they offer is a gift and we should appreciate it as such. Also, remember that potential volunteers watch and listen to how we treat current volunteers.

4. Avoid stereotyping or generalizations. Not all women love to take care of babies. Not all people who teach for a living want to be Sunday School teachers. Not everyone is a morning person who will eagerly show up for worship practice every Sunday at 7 a.m. (especially if they regularly work the night shift during the week). It is easy to make assumptions when we ask for helpers or talk to people about volunteering. Listening to potential volunteers and hearing about their unique interests and passions provides insight regarding how they might help the church most effectively.

5. Rethink your ministry offerings. Maybe it’s time to cut back or pare down the number of ministries you offer. Maybe a need that was present a few years ago has changed. Maybe your church has an opportunity to provide a new service for your community because a new member has a special area of gifting. Instead of expecting congregants to align their lives with our volunteer opportunities, consider tailoring ministry offerings so they match the interests and schedules of potential helpers. Jesus said that His yoke was easy and His burden light (Matthew 11: 30) and as church leaders, we should follow his example.

Grace Sets Everyone Free

There is a business end of church that includes paying the bills and fulfilling responsibilities. In the end, however, a healthy church is a miraculous, spiritual creation whose nurturing requires sacrifices and choices that seem illogical in the world’s eyes. Learning to truly act like a church is in God’s hands and belongs to Him requires a step of faith. Our physical eyes and rational brains tell us that the more services we offer, the more money we raise, and the more helpers we recruit the more successful our churches will be. When we apply our own organizational efforts to achieve these goals, we end up creating a host of guilt-ridden, burned-out, and misdirected volunteers. The Bible and experience indicate that God offers something better for our communities, in the form of grace-filled, gifted, and Spirit-directed servants ready and eager to do His will, advance His kingdom, and bring Him glory.

Jason Eden, Ph.D., Saint Cloud, Minnesota