Weekly Edgework #99 - June 19, 2006

Volunteerism and Faith

When I recently cycled past a church I noticed the sign out front was announcing a Volunteer Appreciation Weekend coming up in a few days. My first reflex was positive. At least in this church volunteers get recognized, I thought to myself. But a few kilometers down the road I began to have second thoughts. I couldn’t put my finger on what was causing the sense of unease emerging in my heart. And when I cycled past the same church after the weekend, my discomfort was not lessened upon noticing that the sign had been changed to Thanks Volunteers!!

What is wrong with me, I mused to myself. Am I jealous that my church sometimes has trouble finding enough volunteers? Am I ashamed, perhaps, that I don’t volunteer enough? Or that people in my church take volunteers for granted while this one hands them a bouquet at least once a year? What could possibly be even remotely wrong with having a volunteer program in a church and then thanking volunteers for a job well done?

I have continued to search my heart for any clues that might shed some light on my discomfiture with volunteerism in the context of faith. I tried to imagine the Apostle Paul writing to one of his fledgling churches reminding them to give special recognition to all the volunteers that keep its programs going. I even checked a comprehensive concordance to see if I could find any reference to volunteers in the Bible anywhere. There was none. So where then does the notion of volunteerism come from?

After careful thought, I have begun to wonder whether the concept of volunteerism in our churches is one of the last concessions we have made during our long captivity to modernity. It seems to me that, even while modernity itself is floundering about in its death throes, the church has in the past few decades rushed to recreate itself in the image of its captors. And part of that process is to adopt a new language. Newly built churches, for example, now have Grand Openings, like the John Deere dealership down the road – complete with face painting and a miniature midway. Once such occasions where known as Dedication Services.

When money is needed for a special project we conduct Fundraisers – like the local garden club does. There was a time when the church simply called on its members to give sacrificially to help alleviate a financial need. Church leadership is now thought of in terms of Boards, Chairpersons, Moderators and CEOs – just as the Pharmaceutical Company across town does. Once we looked for elders, shepherds and bishops to guide the flock. And too often the Annual General Meeting (AGM) is conducted somewhat reluctantly in a rather clinical manner to satisfy government bureaucrats who have the power to rescind our charitable tax numbers – as they do for any charitable organization. In many cases the notion of congregational discernment of the “mind of the Spirit” is lost in the shuffle.

And it seems to me that the notion of volunteerism is part and parcel of the same sellout to modernity. It is clearly understood in our society that any association, club or charity needs volunteers to keep its programs running. So it has become fashionable to call for volunteers to keep the programs of the church running as well. When viewed through the lens of modernity, this is necessary, acceptable and honorable. And a Volunteer Appreciation Weekend comes as naturally as “Secretary Appreciation Week” in the business world.

Now I want it to be understood that I believe church members should be involved in their local congregations. However, a problem emerges in my mind when we think of such persons as volunteers. Such language seems to imply that the heart of the church is the programs it runs for which it will need at least twenty percent of its members as volunteers. Church programs create slots to be filled and we ask for volunteers to fill them. Then we give them an annual pat on the back and a bouquet of flowers. And in so doing we blur the lines of identity between the church and the local Lion’s Club.

One of the obvious problems with this approach to church life is that we create a class structure among us. The twenty percent who volunteer their time in church slots are lifted above those who do not hold such positions. There is even a not-so-subtle hint involved that the eighty percent remaining in the pews are less committed, perhaps even self-centered. Look what rewards you would get, we tell them, if next year you too would come out of your cocoon and fill one of the church slots still open! Thinking in terms of volunteerism has the effect of separating people into categories – the sheep and the goats.

What happens when we begin thinking of the church as a body or as a family instead programs with slots that need filling? Suddenly the notion of being a volunteer doesn’t fit very well. The Apostle Paul notes that every part of the body is important and necessary. There is no thought of some parts volunteering to be operative while others choose to live for themselves. All parts are needed for the body to function in a healthy manner. And certainly a family would be considered dysfunctional if only twenty percent of its members volunteered to do all the work to the acclaim of the remaining eighty percent.

Part of the church’s struggle to free itself from the clutches of modernity is to down-play the notion of volunteerism. That will, however, require us to think of the church not so much in terms of programs as in terms of body or family. I know many people – not a part of the volunteer group on stage – who pursue a calling of service outside prescribed church slots. While they may not be recognized as volunteers who keep the church afloat, they are in fact the unsung heroes of our faith. We must find ways of affirming all brothers and sisters in God’s family who, each in their own way, allow the light of God to shine through them – whether in church designated slots or not.