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What is volunteering?

The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that in 2009, 63.4 million Americans (that represents just about 1 in every 5 people in the US) volunteered. Those 63.4 million people gave over 8 million hours in service, amounting to approximately $169 billion in volunteered labor.

While those numbers are staggering in national impact, it is all the local organizations and public service entities that could not exist apart from volunteer labor that tell the profound stories. Providing goods and services that the for‐profit sector cannot or does not provide, these organizations depend upon volunteers to carry out their missions.

The question is, “What is volunteering?” Often referred to as either service or community service, there has never been a clear, once‐for‐all definition of the term. The challenge of not having a term is lack of clarity in communication. Energize, Inc., an influential resource for leaders of volunteers, along with their definition of
“volunteer” actually maintains a list of activities to which the term “volunteer” is applied, but do not match their definition.

As someone who is both passionate about volunteerism and presently conducting research specifically in volunteerism in churches, I am grateful there appears some movement toward consensus as to the core elements of a useful definition of volunteer.

Here are what I would suggest are the 5 primary elements of a helpful definition of volunteer:

  • Volunteerism implies active involvement
  • Volunteerism is (relatively) uncoerced
  • Volunteerism is not primarily motivated by financial gain
  • Volunteerism focuses upon the common good
  • Volunteerism implies going beyond one’s basic obligations

So here is a definition, from Susan Ellis, president of Energize, Inc., that I find helpful at capturing those primary elements:

Volunteer: to choose to act in recognition of a need, with an attitude of social responsibility and without concern for monetary profit, going beyond one’s basic obligations.


Leading ministry in the next decade

In an interview for Church Executive Magazine, church consultant Kent Hunter (commonly known as The Church Doctor) was asked, “What common issues do churches most seem to have that you encounter in your consultations?”

Hunter response, in which he puts forward five key issues he sees many churches facing, is insightful…

  1. Identifying methods and strategies to deliver the Gospel effectively in the 21st century mission field that America has become.
  2. Communicating to postmodern young adults, eager for spirituality, but turned off to the institutional church.
  3. How to activate members for ministry in the backdrop of soaring costs for staff.
  4. The best practices that provide a model for staffing today.
  5. How to change direction from getting people to church to getting the church to people.

You can read the whole article here, but I’d like to briefly interact with each of these points.

Identifying methods and strategies to deliver the Gospel effectively in the 21st century mission field that America has become.

In many ways, this is the umbrella concept that lays on top of all the others. David Wells has written, “It is the task of theology, then, to discover what God has said in and through Scripture and to clothe that in a conceptuality which is native to our own age.” We, Christian leaders, need to rethink how we are going to effectively communicate the unchanging truths of the gospel in a changing culture. For example, missions has become and “everywhere to everywhere” reality. Not only is the United States a large sender of missionaries, but other countries are now sending missionaries here! Our own backyard might be our biggest mission field.

Communicating to postmodern young adults, eager for spirituality, but turned off to the institutional church.

This idea has been explored in depth in books such as unChristian by David Kinnaman and Lost and Found by Ed Stetzer. People want to be spiritual, but not religious. They want conversations, not one-way monologues. “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). Learning how to engage conversations with this type of radical grace is the first start to communicating to spiritual, but not religious, people.

How to activate members for ministry in the backdrop of soaring costs for staff.

LeadNet, in their biennial report on  the economic outlook of churches, reports that in 2006, of the churches that participated in the study, the average staffing ratio was 1:59. That is, for every 59 people who attended the church, there was one F.T.E. position. By 2008, that ratio had changed to 1:45. Churches are becoming more staff heavy, depending upon staff, rather than lay servants volunteering their time, to accomplish the work of the church. How can the church more efficiently and effectively mobilize the whole body to serve? When this happens, we will see the power of the priesthood of all believers.

The best practices that provide a model for staffing today.

As part of a seemingly fundamental shift, I am seeing in churches today a great thing – real staffing plans. Instead of hiring when the money is available or when the need is obvious, many churches are proactively looking at their ministry plan and then aligning existing staff with the ministry plan. When gaps are found, those become the positions that the church will look to fill with either paid or volunteer workers. I am excited about this trend.

How to change direction from getting people to church to getting the church to people.

This is where that “seemingly fundamental shift” I mentioned above comes into play. Being a missional church is all the rage in the conversation, but it is a lot harder of a paradigm shift than most people recognize. Instead of telling the world, “come to us,” we are telling believers to “go into the world.” This shift requires rethinking everything a church does from its facility use to its staffing to its programs. We can tell people to be missional, but does the church’s budget reflect this priority, or is money primarily spent on maintenance of facilities and keeping insiders happy? Do the programs support this priority or are people so busy with church, that they don’t even have time to have their neighbors over for a cookout? Missional is a great concept, but changing directions here is tough.

Interact: This is a good list Hunter provides. Which one provides the greatest opportunity for your church? How will you pursue making that priority a reality?

Volunteer Motivations & the implications for church leadership

The church lives and dies not on the paid staff, but on the service of God’s people. Much research has been done in recent years looking at the motivations for why people volunteer. Church leaders would greatly benefit from considering these reasons and as they seek to encourage and motivate God’s people in their Christian service.

In 2004, Martinez and McMullin wrote an article entitled, “Factors Affecting Decisions to Volunteer in Non-governmental Organizations” that was published by Environment and Behavior. In their study, they uncovered 5 major reasons why people volunteer or don’t volunteer.

  • Efficacy“I want to make a difference” – People volunteer because they long to make an impact on the world and on the people around them. As leaders in the church, we are uniquely positioned to play to people’s desire to make a difference. What great impact or more lasting legacy could someone leave than to grow the kingdom of God on earth? Show the volunteers in your ministry the impact their service is making.
  • Competing Commitments“I’m so busy” – People get pulled in a million directions. When they consider your invitation to service, they are going to ask themselves how it fits in with everything else they have going on. You may have to tailor your volunteer positions to match the reality of what someone can offer you.
  • Social Networks“Is so-so going/involved?” – People get involved for the relationships. Either someone they know (family or friend) is already involved or they are looking to meet people. As the body of Christ, the community of believers, relationships are especially important. Be sure to foster relationships among your volunteers.
  • Lifestyle Changes“We’re having a baby!” – Changes in people’s lives will bring volunteers into your ministry and carry them away. Research shows that people are most open to hearing the gospel at points of transition in life – marriage, divorce, having a child, starting a new job or losing a job. Each of those transition points and lifestyle changes also are opportunities to engage new people in service and threats that could pull your existing volunteers away.
  • Personal Growth“What’s in it for me?” – For us as Christians, this is the dreaded question. We think it is selfish when people worry about what’s in it for them. But that’s not the point here. We’ve already seen that people are busy and have limited time to serve. Part of the criteria they will use to evaluate volunteering opportunities is how they will grow personally. People are looking for environments that will encourage them to grow and mature as individuals. As pastors, this is our task of discipleship. People should be growing in grace and maturing in Christ through their service. It is our task to make sure this is happening.

As Christian leaders, we are prone to thinking people volunteer because they are supposed to or because they have to. Sure, the biblical mandate upon all of us is to follow the example of Christ, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). We are commanded to serve. But even with that as the motive, people pick their where they will service based on the some primary factors. May we, as Christian leaders, be students of our people that we will recognize what factor drives them and how we can encourage them in their kingdom service.

Interact: Which of these factors is the biggest concern for you when considering a volunteer opportunity?

Volunteer Stages Model

The following model is proposed by Haski-Leventhal and Bargal (2008) as a model for understanding the organizational socialization of volunteers. It outlines the stages and transitions between stages.


A couple of days ago, I listed the stages of this model on Twitter/Facebook and received a comment that I “forgot the part about absolute burnout between established volunteer and retirement!” Unfortunately, I think the author of that comment is right on. Notice the renewal component has three outcomes – a return to emotional investment, retiring or exiting. In Christian ministry, two of those three are conditionally acceptable. If someone returns to a place of emotional investment, that will likely be an exciting and fruitful time in his/her ministry. If someone retires to move onto to a new realm of ministry, that will also be an exciting time (notice I say retire from one ministry to a new one – Christians should never retire from doing the Lord’s work, we may just be changing venues for doing so. For more on this, read Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper).

It is that third option that concerns me and concerned the author of the comment above. Too often, people leave because they are burned out and used up. They have been insufficiently trained and unappreciated. When Christians volunteer their time, they are fulfilling the very call of God on their life to minister his grace to others. That should be celebrated and appreciated and Christians leaders should do everything within our power to foster growth in that person and equip him/her for the task at hand. Unfortunately, too many people get out because they are burned out. May we as Christian leaders, grasp the life cycle of the volunteers entrusted to us and learn how to best minister to them at each stage of the cycle.

Interact: What is the best training or appreciation you have ever received from a Christian leader you served with? How did it encourage you to continue in your service?