One of the commonly used terms around many churches today is “volunteer.” Usually the term is used in reference to those who serve in various lay, unpaid capacities in the local church. It is not uncommon to hear volunteers thanked for their service or recognized for their contributions.
Dictionary.com defines a volunteer as one who performs a service willingly and without pay, one who offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking. For the most part, that definition pretty well describes the role of one who serves in the life of the church. However, it is what is not said in that definition that creates a desire in me to want to remove the word from the vocabulary we use in church life. Let me explain.
First of all, nowhere in the New Testament Church did people volunteer to serve in the church. Elders were appointed and given ministry responsibility, and those who were part of the body of believers were expected to use their spiritual gifts for the common good, for the building up of the church.
Further, the word “volunteer” carries with it certain cultural implications. To volunteer is often seen as doing something as time allows. There seems to be, at least to me, an underlying lack of commitment to the task for which one volunteers. When we do not clearly define the way we are using the term, it may sound as if we are giving people permission to serve when it’s convenient, or that their keeping their commitment to serve is optional, that they leave no vacancy when such commitments are not kept.
To call using ones musical abilities to enable others to worship an act of volunteerism diminishes the value of the service. Describing that one as a volunteer who leads a small group of teens into a deeper walk with Christ, in the face of the challenges today’s students face, is to undervalue that role significantly. Those who lovingly and patiently nurture our children in faith are going far beyond the scope of volunteering. When that hospitality leader enables a hurting person who found their way into the church building during a time of crisis find a sense of belonging, something more than volunteerism is happening.
In those cases above, and countless others, those we call volunteers are doing ministry. Those called to vocational ministry are charged with equipping the people of God to do ministry, not volunteer. In our culture, volunteering is easy, and it is something we do when we feel like it.
Ministry, on the other hand, calls us to give ourselves away, to do what costs us something personally, to put the needs of others ahead of our calendars, our feelings, or our wishes. That is beyond merely volunteering.
To recognize those who work and sacrifice, who touch lives with love, who share Christ, who serve food to those in need, or care for infants in a nursery so parents can worship without distraction as ministry partners and teammates seems to be a more biblical and accurate approach. After all, aren’t we all called to ministry?
It is true that none of us intentionally imply that the work of those who serve in our churches is not significant. It’s just that words matter. Volunteerism takes place in social organizations, ministry happens in the church. So, what if we talked about ministry partners, team members, or teammates instead?