Volunteers and the Church

volunteers 1

My wife recently helped out as a Christmas gift wrapper to raise funds for a charity, and in so doing made some interesting observations about how non-profit organizations deploy their volunteers.

There is, of course, a wide diversity in the volunteers pool. Some are students looking for credit to fulfill their academic requirements; others are recent graduates looking for opportunities to showcase themselves to prospective employers. Some want to give back to society, while others are retirees looking for something meaningful to occupy their time. Some are unskilled hoping to learn something that will enhance their career; others are highly skilled with lots of experience that they can pass on. It is this last group that piqued my interest. While there are exceptions, many charities seem to vastly under-utilize the human resource in this segment.

Typically, charities decide what tasks can only be done by paid staff, and what can be performed by volunteers. Usually the latter consist of mundane, unskilled or semi-skilled labor that are necessary but not critical to the mission of the organization e.g. sorting and packaging food for a food bank, labeling and mailing newsletter to supporters etc. Volunteers are recruited to perform these functions, without much regard to their skill set or prior experience. You can therefore have retired administrators, businessmen, executives, nurses, teachers or whatever the profession doing manual chores, instead of putting their expertise to good use for free at the charity.

To make matters worse, sometimes the people supervising the volunteers do not have the leadership skills themselves to manage the group. For example, my wife volunteered to wrap Christmas gifts in a large mall. Her supervisor, however, was so paranoid about losing her job that she insisted all interaction with shoppers, such as returning wrapped gifts to clients, must be done through her, not by the volunteers. In doing so she turned herself to be the bottleneck of the wrapping station!

Many churches are in a similar situation. They have a vast pool of talent in the congregation, yet often find it difficult to connect the resource to the ministry. The problem could be in motivation, when members do not see ministry as priority to dedicate their valuable time. Or it could be misallocation of resources, where ministry is in such desperate needs that any warm body will do, without regard to the match between the job requirements and the gifts and skills of the individual.

Sometimes the problem lies with the leadership, particularly territorialism. Some church departments, be it worship, or children, or any other function, are so protective of their “turf” that all other functions, including evangelism or discipleship become secondary, and must yield to the self-promoted department’s demands. Servanthood is out the door, and never mind unity, even though that’s what the Lord prayed for His disciples. What remains is a toxic environment that turns volunteers and visitors away. I am not advocating using secular methods to run a church efficiently, as a church is not a business, but I’m not naive enough to say that basic management skills can’t be used to help the church to be a more effective organization. I only hope leaders will put the Lord’s interest ahead of their own. Only then will people recognize us as His disciples, if we have love for one another.

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