I got the volunteer blues

I originally posted the basic content (below) during 2007 – and have tweaked it a bit for 2010.
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?

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4 thoughts on “I got the volunteer blues”

  1. I have never jumped onto your blog, but here goes. I view volunteering differently. I think volunteering is something that you choose to do, want to do, are committed to do-for God. He tells us to everything as unto Him. My upside down thinking is that the paid person is the one in jeopardy of not doing it for God. If we are paid we have rights-something is owed to us as employees. The attitude of the heart is freed by volunteering. The best attitude is to do all work as a volunteer and take the pay as a gift-from God-but not deserved.
    Your friend-Pam

  2. I agree with you, Pam. You are using the word as a verb here, and you've captured just what it means to choose to serve. To VOLUNTEER to serve God and others is a noble, beautiful thing – and you live it, my friend.

    I am reacting to those at the top of a church org chart who view people as commodities instead of co-laborers. They use a lot of glammed up language to hide the fact that some of them are using people. Eeew.

  3. I've done both types of volunteering: doing things I didn't like because I was asked and wanted to be a good team player, and doing things I love because I feel called to do them for God. Guess which one I prefer. However, both types of volunteering have brought something to me, if only the lesson that I absolutely DO NOT want to do a certain activity for a living.

    Now that I spend most of the time doing things I love on a volunteer basis, I'm still no less of a very small cog in the machine. But I prefer being a volunteer in this particular category, as I remain free from church politics and always have the option to politely refuse a task if I don't feel that I'm really the best fit, knowing that God will eventually provide just the right person. And I'm always grateful to God for giving me the free time to do this work for nothing!

    And would I want to be one of the high-profile glamorous volunteers who lead ministries and stand front and center on Sunday mornings? Nope. I wouldn't like that pressure.

    So my answer to your question is, maybe. Perhaps your specific experiences as a volunteer have left a sour taste in your mouth. But the very fact that you ARE a volunteer is a position of freedom. Try praying about how to use that.

  4. Wise words, Jane.

    I value the freedom that comes from being able to choose to serve.

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