“Whom shall I send?  And who will go for us?” (Isiah 6:8)

Forty years ago, the Peace Corps opened the world for a new kind of volunteers. All the political wisdom of the day said world peace would only come by the professionals. There was nothing in the analysis of the generation of students that would suggest anything great out of them. But President Kennedy suggested to the world that ordinary people with passion could make a world of difference. It was a phenomenal success, so much so that President Clinton used that model to create a similar AmeriCorps to attack the growing internal issues, especially with inner city poverty and homelessness. What was it about the Peace Corps that made it such a success? Then Vice President Lyndon Johnson said they were going as American Citizens, not federal employees. Sergent Shriver, the first head of the Peace Corps, said it was just that no one had every asked for their help, and Kennedy asked.

If you want to do great things in your church, you are going to have to get ready to give away some of the jobs you’re already doing. Then you are going to have to ask for help. You have to believe that ordinary people can make an impact for the Gospel, if they are allowed to work within their gifts, abilities and passions.

I can hear the complaints from here. I’ve been in church my whole life, and have heard the generic pleas from the pulpit for “someone” to come work in the nursery, at the youth lock-in or half a world away on a mission trip. Trouble is, it’s usually work the paid leaders don’t want to do, or grunt work with no sense of whether the volunteer is appropriate for the job. It’s not the kind of job that honors the volunteer, or pays any tangible result. But you have to give them a chance at the good jobs.

As James 1 reminds us, sometimes you don’t have because you don’t ask. Bill Hybels echoes that when he notes that people will sometimes express a vague interest and then wait to be asked<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[i]<!–[endif]–>. Even for nursery duty.

I am a parent of two so-called “millenials,” with both my children born in the 1990s. Because my wife’s commute to the southside of Boston was worse than mine, daycare for Meredith – and then David – was my responsibility. Every day my work day was supplemented with making breakfast, then diapers, dressing, driving to daycare, home again, diapers, supper, bath, diapers and bedtime. I could change a diaper in an airplane bathroom, on the trunk of the car, in the back seat on the side of the road, or any other semi-flat surface that presented itself. So imagine my surprise at the new church in Virginia, where policy forbade men to change diapers. That was “women’s work,” they said. Maybe it was some obscure reading of the sexual abuse policy, but with my track record, I never understood the reasons. The only job open to me was as a helper for one of the women, to sit in that tiny chair and help the 3-year-olds with their crafts. I think I surprised them by plopping down on the floor in my suit and inviting a few to my lap for Bible story time. (I wasn’t asked back.)

It would also be strange to Ken. Ken was a college buddy, the younger brother of one of my classmates. His business degree got him a job at a bank, but it was drudgery, so he quit and started working at a daycare. That thrilled him, and he excelled at it. Slightly overweight, he nonetheless had his pick of dates with all the single mothers who knew that “Mr. Ken” was “so good with kids.”

Hybels once asked uninvolved people why they didn’t serve. Among the responses was the criticism “I served for a while because I was told that I was needed, I got there, and I really wasn’t needed, so I stopped serving.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[ii]<!–[endif]–> I saw that in action myself when we were building a new worship center, and the pastor sent out a generic call to help unload the carpet on Sunday afternoon. A dozen people showed up at the appointed hour, but those who came early had already moved all the rolls into the auditorium. From then on, it was difficult to get workers to come for more intense volunteer labor.

The Salvation Army had made recruiting volunteers an art form. They routinely get mid-career executives to give time as volunteer board members, or even to be fulltime, minimally-paid church workers, because they ask them to do something important with their lives. Past Executive Secretary Robert Watson says: “To extract the joy we crave from our efforts as human beings…we need to feel directly the effects of our contributions toward some worthy, transcendent goal.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[iii]<!–[endif]–> We want to know that what we are doing is worthwhile, and can best be done by only the ones chosen, but that there is a place for everyone to serve that is well-suited for them.


Recruiting for Gifts

Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth says that Gifts are given by the spirit of God “for the common good (1 Cor 12:7). Some are gifted for teaching, some for service, some for encouragement, some for leadership. Scripture indicates that these gifts were given for the building up of the church. Failure of the membership to use those gifts, or failure of the church to fully utilize them, is (as I read the Bible) a sign the church is not functioning as intended.

Unfortunately, research conducted by Christian Schwarz for his book Natural Church Development said that 80% of over 1600 believers questioned could not identify their spiritual gifts<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[iv]<!–[endif]–>. Even though this particular survey was conducted in Germany, indications are that this is also true in this country. I went to one small church which supposedly had had instruction in spiritual gifts, and asked about half the congregants about their gifts. The deacon had heard of Gifts, but did not know what they were, or why they would be used. Others talked of having the gift of working with young children (this in a church that had no young children).

Another church, much larger, gave spiritual gifts inventories to every member, but treated the questionnaire as a personal development tool. They didn’t have any system in place to centrally record what each individual’s gifts were, so there was no way to place people according to gifts identified. This was reflected in how they recruited volunteers, not mentioning individual giftedness, but only willingness to do the job. As a result, the church was in constant need of workers, and it appeared that a sizeable portion of the congregation did very little except attend. It was as if the only contributions they wanted were financial, to be able to hire the professional and support staff to “do church” for those that came each week. This church’s membership became stable at the same level for over 5 years, until it started to decline.

Christian Schwartz would look at both of these churches and see danger. His perspective is that it is the job of leadership to empower members to use their gifts in ministry, to “assist its members in the identification of their gifts and to integrate them into appropriate ministries.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[v]<!–[endif]–>” Bill Hybels echoes this in reminding us to use the people the way God made them. He has found that some people are task oriented and others are “high-capacity” people. If you were to give a simple task to a high-capacity person, they could do it, but often wouldn’t feel that you needed their giftedness, and would not volunteer again for fear that they would waste what little time they had available doing tasks for which they saw no value.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[vi]<!–[endif]–> Give those tasks to the detail person, who gets delight in doing each little thing well.

The ultimate result of using spiritual gifts is the maturity of the believers and of the congregation. It may be true that the rural church of 45 will never grow beyond that number because of the demographics of who lives there, but that doesn’t mean they should give up. Nor should the multi-thousand-member megachurch be satisfied with only large numbers.

Knowledge of a person’s giftedness will help place people in tasks that will validate them, rather than frustrate them. Some people are validated by delivering meals to those incapacitated at home, but tremble at speaking in front of a group. Others will talk to anyone, anywhere, but don’t know how to act around hurting people. The wise leader will identify these individuals and put them to work in tasks that validate their faith.

I had a pyrocantha bush at my first house, a bush with stiff vines, long thorns and bright red leaves. Sometime in the past, before I bought the house, honeysuckle had taken root around that bush. Honeysuckle is a climbing plant, and it vined all over that pyrocantha. The thorny bush strove to reach sunlight unhindered by the vines, but the bush only provided more upward support for the vines. It had grown unruly, blocking the light to my window. I first cut out the honeysuckle, and all that was left were long, spindly vines. When the artificial supports were gone, the seemingly strong and threatening thorn plant vines were unable to stand by themselves. Those vines had grown large, but never really matured.

This is much the same as when a winsome pastor leaves. Many who had come for the preaching, but had never integrated into the church, gave the appearance of a large congregation when in fact the organization becomes weakened, supported by the artificial supports of size and eternal fundraising. But in reality, the structure is unstable and weak. The core membership often feels they not only don’t have the permission to act in authority as mature believers. For others, there is sometimes no one there to nurture and mature them into maturity. It is often not until that pastor leaves that the damage is widely known, and unless he leaves in disgrace over a personal failing, the problem is ascribed to his successor, who has to both continue the extraordinary efforts at keeping the organization pumped up while being always compared to his predecessor.

One of the core principles of Schwartz’s Natural Church development is of empowering (not empowered) leadership, enriching the health of the church as a whole. He has observed that the presence of a dynamic pastor is often rather a hindrance to a dynamic, organically growing church.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[vii]<!–[endif]–> An “organically growing” church is one where the new members come in large measure from new conversions, and conversions of adults. Remember, of the only 15% of churches in North America which are growing<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[viii]<!–[endif]–> it is estimated that the churches growing this way is only 2.5%, and the other 12.5% are growing simply through birth rates and transfers from the stale and dying churches.

When reinvigorating a weakened church, some pruning and some shaping may be needed. The back yard of that first house had also not been tended. It held the remnants of an orchard, trees which eventually produced the best bosc pears I have ever tasted, and a prolific apple tree. But before I could harvest more than tiny apples and ill-formed pears, I had to prune away the volunteer branches which were choking the life out of the inner core of the tree. This was obvious, but I was unskilled in pruning, and radical chopping would actually have killed the tree, as happened when a subsequent occupant tried a dozen years later. I took time to learn from the experts that I had to strategically remove the interior and weak growth, and not more than a third of the total in any given year. And since trees are constantly growing, the pruning is an every year occurrence even after it returns to a healthy structure.

* Home *

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<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[iii]<!–[endif]–> Watson, Robert A, and Brown, Ben, “The Most Effective organization in the US” – Leadership Secrets of the Salvation Army (NY:Crown Publishing Group, 2001), p 211

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[iv]<!–[endif]–> Schwarz, p. 24 – note that all the participants were in Germany.

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[v]<!–[endif]–> Review of Schwartz Natural Church Development by Craig Simonian, a research paper for Alliance Theological Seminary, Fall 1999

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[x]<!–[endif]–> February 01, 2006 posting of Leadership Magazine’s “Out of Ur” blog, they took up the topic: “Exit Stage Left: Why the Spiritually Mature are Leaving the Church”. Of particular note was the posting by freeheel on February 4, 2006 04:41 PM

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xi]<!–[endif]–> Reccord, Bob and Singer, Randy. Made to Count. (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2004) p21ff

copyright 2008, Harwin House Publishing, Hampton, VA  All Rights Reserved


One Response to “6- Finding Volunteers”

  1. M.Anderson Says:

    I appreciate your blog entry. Years ago I volunteered to help my church with areas of outreach or marketing, two areas I have years of experience with. I was told all volunteers had to start in the nursery. I explained it was a valid duty but I wasn’t called to be in the nursery. I also volunteered to write a monthly check to support the efforts of the nursery. I was dismissed as an unwilling servant who wasn’t a team player. It stung. I struggled with this negative experience for years – something about the attitude and how I was treated just didn’t feel right. I recently stopped tithing and attending that church. My family and I are now exploring our local area in search of a new place to call home.

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