Utilizing Volunteers

At some point in time every large church asks the question, “Are we utilizing volunteers the way that we should?” The question usually emerges in the midst of a budgeting or financial planning meeting as leaders grapple with an ever expanding staff budget, or yet another request for an addition to staff. It seems that the effective recruitment and management of volunteers ought to be able to substitute for some of the hired staff of the congregation.  Sometimes the question emerges in a board meeting as lay leadership tries to figure out what the role of laity is in a congregation where the staff team operates as the central operating feature of the congregation. What, if any, meaningful role does lay volunteerism plan within the large staff-driven congregation?

Once a congregation passes a certain size threshold the complexity of running the church requires an organizational structure that centers on a professionalized staff team. After a congregation passes 450-500 people in weekend worship attendance, or functions with an operating budget of more than $1 million, the congregation begins to operate with standards of excellence in programming and worship that are almost impossible to maintain with lay leadership. It’s not that lay leaders don’t have the desire or ability to create programs of excellence; it’s that they don’t have the capacity in terms of time and/or expertise. Beyond a certain point, excellence requires the dedication of consistent and regular hours and developed expertise devoted to the ministry. Once a congregation passes this threshold laity often struggle with understanding their part in the ministry equation.

In the large church the relationship between staff and lay leadership can be characterized in these simple terms. Lay leadership is responsible for the Governance (policy making, oversight, accountability) of church life. Lay leaders are also actively engaged in “doing” the tasks of ministry. The staff team is responsible for Ministry Management (program leadership and daily administration) of the church. Together, lay and staff leadership have shared responsibility for mission, vision, and strategy. For a better understanding of these distinctions and this relationship see Governance and Ministry by Dan Hotchkiss.

Having made these distinctions, let’s explore the role of volunteerism in both governance and ministry? In congregational life the governance work is an entirely volunteer run process. The work of governance is carried out by the governing board/body and its appointed committees; all volunteer operating groups. The work of ministry is managed by the professional staff team of the church and lay volunteers who serve on committees that help to shape and support those ministries.  Volunteers also function as ministry participants (choir members, teachers, youth workers, mission project participants etc.).

When congregations begin to wonder if there isn’t a better way to utilize volunteers to reduce staffing costs, they typically aren’t thinking about adding more volunteers on the governance side of the equation, and they typically aren’t thinking about adding more volunteers as ministry participants. They are most often thinking about using volunteers in the management and administration of ministry.

So, what is the correct way to think about utilizing volunteers in the management and administration of ministry? Simply put, volunteerism on the staff team can work if the volunteer is:

  • Equipped with the full skill set required to fill the role. The large church can’t operate with multiple semi-equipped volunteers in a role that needs the devoted skill set of a professional. Willingness to help and the availability of time cannot substitute for expertise.
  • Committed to keeping regular and consistent hours in service to that role. Volunteers who have isolated pockets of time, and are looking to work only when it’s convenient within their schedule don’t work well as volunteers in the large congregation. Volunteer staff must schedule and coordinate their time away from the job just like paid staff members do.
  • Willing to be subject to accountability standards. Staff volunteers need to function with defined job descriptions, be subject to regular supervisory meetings, and receive regular performance feedback, including annual performance reviews.

When these three sets of conditions are met, volunteers can and do function effectively as members of a staff team.

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