I love to volunteer to help, to serve, to minister, to use the gifts God has given me to bless others. You’ll note that the word “volunteer” is a verb in this sentence.
I hate to be called a volunteer. Noun.
When I was on staff at a mid-sized evangelical church, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to fill slots on our org chart, especially in the children’s ministry, cleaning and lawn mowing areas. Some of the other staffers used words like “recruit” and “volunteer” a lot. We brainstormed lots of creative ways to get people to do the grunt work of the church. (Of course, we never quite put it in those sorts of bald terms, but really, that’s what it was.)
So what is it about the word “volunteer” that cranks me?
First, though no one quite puts it like this, it seems to me that often “volunteers” are the blue-collar laborers, doing tasks assigned by the white-collar staff. Second, most of us know that there is certainly a lot more church social currency given to someone who can play a killer guitar solo than the person who mows the lawn. Though there are lots of good reasons for the former (and not a single valuable one for the second, but I digress), many churches of all sizes and flavors allow themselves to be defined by an institutional identity instead of adopting the organic identity of body that the Bible uses to describe Christ’s followers.
There is a kind of non-profit, community-service paradigm embedded in the word “volunteer”. Scripture never uses this sort of image to describe the body of Christ. As a matter of fact, the idea of a volunteer kidney or tibia is beyond absurd. Yet, many church leaders insist on calling the grunts “volunteers”, as if this is a Scriptural truth, or a non-patronizing compliment.
Each one of does have a word that describes our ministry. It is the word priest. This is not a volunteer position. Our ministry of offering praise to God comes in the offerings we bring to him, and the way we serve others. This can mean watching poopy kids in the church nursery, singing on a worship team – or working at a food pantry with people from a variety of walks of life, or writing a book (!) or going the third mile at your workplace when no one except God sees your effort.
I recently read another bloggers riff on this topic (I wish I could remember where; if my “from memory” summary triggers your remembrance, please let me know) and he noted that in his church, the paid staff recruits – and sometimes guilts – people into volunteering. These volunteers, he noted, are people who have full-time jobs and family responsibilities, and are being asked to give another chunk of time to support the vision and Bigger-Better-More career ambitions of the paid church staff.
Yes, some of these volunteers are people who are exercising their spiritual gifts. Others are participating because they want to be good team players, because they’ve been told that their service matters to the church and to God. (Which it does – but as an “in spite of” than a “because of” request for volunteers from the church leaders.)
As my wise husband noted, there was only one legit Volunteer in the history of the church:
“Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.” – Phil. 2:6-8
Your thoughts? Am I being too sensitive about this word?