Volunteers Are Not Free!

by Karen Kogler



Are church volunteers “free labor”? Of course they are.

By definition, volunteers perform a task without receiving payment for it. So we think of volunteers as free labor, the opposite of staff who are paid to work. When Sandra, the paid secretary, updates member addresses in the computer, there’s a cost to the church. When Helen, a volunteer, does the same task, it’s free.

Helen is a typical volunteer, serving from her heart, out of love for her Savior and love for her church. She isn’t seeking payment or any other compensation. She’d tell you she doesn’t want acknowledgement, or even a thank you.

But Helen has some needs, whether she realizes it or not. They are the same needs any of us have when we perform a task for someone else, whether we’re an employee or a volunteer, whether we’re working in an office, at church, or at home. These needs cost the person we’re working for something, a cost that is not measured in dollars and cents. What are these needs? What do they cost? Let’s see . . .

Some Basic Questions

“What do I do?” When someone asked Helen to update those addresses, Helen immediately got a picture of the task in her mind. Was it the same as the picture in the mind of the person who asked Helen? If Helen finds out later that things are far different than she pictured (“In the computer and in the paper files? Sitting way over there? Using that machine?”), it affects her attitude toward the task and particularly toward any future volunteering. If the person asking Helen sat down with her for an in-depth conversation and gave her a written job description, Helen would know what she’s being asked to do—before she accepts.

“Is this right for me?” Some people serve wherever needed because they want to be helpful. Some have trouble saying no, and will do most anything they’re asked to. Both types are frequently asked to do just about anything at church. At times, we all just pitch in and do whatever needs doing. But we’re happier, and the results of our work are better, when a job matches our abilities, interests, and even our personality. An introvert might love entering data in an out-of-the-way corner, but it would torture an extrovert. When recruiting, don’t settle for anyone with a pulse. Take the time to seek people whose gifts match the task.

“Do I have the tools I need?” Helen wants to do her job well. But the person who showed Helen what to do was in a hurry, giving Helen a quick explanation and figuring she’d ask if she had questions. Helen hates to bother people. So she muddles through, wondering if she’s doing it right. When she finishes for the day, her eyes are sore and her back hurts because she was using an antiquated computer monitor on a card table with a folding chair. The office staff is irritated because Helen isn’t updating the addresses the right way. But they don’t say anything, because Helen is “just a volunteer.” Intentional training gives Helen the information, methods, and equipment she needs, including an adequate computer, desk, and chair. It spells out expectations, allows her to try her hand at the job, and encourages her to ask questions. Helen is confident, and so is the staff, because the task is done as it needs to be done.

“Am I on my own?” Even with good training, Helen will likely have questions or encounter problems along the way. When someone makes a point of periodically asking Helen, “How is it going?” Helen knows someone cares and is available. With ongoing support, small problems are uncovered and solved. Unmentioned, those problems grow and often become the reason a volunteer quits. And no one knows why.

“With whom do I work?” Few tasks are done entirely alone. Good relationships are vital to a good volunteer experience. If Helen associates the computer updating task with boring solitude or unpleasant people, it will be difficult for her to continue. But if she has a good time with great people while she works, updating addresses will be a highlight of her week.

“Does it matter?” Helen knows her church needs updated records. And she doesn’t need a thank you. But when she receives a note of appreciation, she smiles as she reads it, and she saves it. She is touched when Pastor stops by her desk to tell her how her timely update saved him from driving out to the wrong end of town when he visited the Anderson family. And she’s energized when the secretary shows Helen how she’s able to do more for the church in her job because Helen and others are helping with routine tasks. Why give time and energy to something with no significance? Reminding church volunteers of the significance of their task, how it supports the church’s mission, and the concrete ways it benefits others, touches the core of why they are working. Many people go through life without being told that their contributions make a difference.

Counting the Costs

The costs of meeting these needs are measured in intention, planning, time, and energy rather than in dollars and cents, but they are real costs nevertheless. What is the cost when we ignore these needs? When we treat all our Helens (and Harolds) as “free labor,” we diminish their capacity to serve, we reduce their joy in serving, and many of them will simply stop serving. Worse yet, we’ll diminish our church’s capacity to be our Savior’s hands and feet, to love and serve each other and our community.

Who then gives all this time and energy? Who does all this training, supporting, and affirming? Our already-overwhelmed pastor and staff?

Staff members need to guard against the natural tendency of the urgent overrunning the important. The fullest answer lies in the beauty of the Church as the body of Christ. St. Paul reminds us that in the body, “[its] members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25b ESV), and we are “individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:5b NASB). All of us in the body can help other parts serve. Then, we will “grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15–16 ESV).

Resources for Supporting Church Volunteers

Here is a list of resources I have found useful. You might find them useful, too. The list includes the Web site I manage.


    • Servant Leadership by Dr. Jane L. Fryar, CPH, 2001. Encourages church professionals and lay leaders to develop servant leadership traits in order to improve day-to-day ministry.
    • Trust and Teams, also by Jane Fryar, CPH, 2002. Helps leaders in congregations understand the role of servant leadership in establishing boundaries and responsibilities in a team environment.
    • Me to We: A Pastor’s Discovery of the Power of Partnership by Alan Nelson, Group Publishing, 2007. A story of how church workers can avoid burnout by involving others in ministry.
    • Simply Strategic Volunteers by Tony Morgan and Tim Stevens, Group Publishing, 2005. A book of 99 bite-size practical ideas.
    • The Equipping Church by Sue Mallory with accompanying The Equipping Church Guidebook by Sue Mallory and Brad Smith, Zondervan, 2001. A comprehensive look at the whole-church picture.

Web Sites

    • The “Equipper Church Volunteerism Resources” at www.TheEquipper.org is a collection of other articles and resources by the author.
    • Energize, Inc., at www.energizeinc.com, is about volunteerism in all kinds of organizations. Resources in their library and store include items pertaining to faith-based volunteering.
    • Church Volunteer Central (http:// www.churchvolunteercentral.com) is a subscription-based resource Web site.



About the Author: Karen Kogler is director of volunteer equipping at St. Peter Lutheran Church, Arlington Heights, Ill., and manages a Web site, www.TheEquipper.org, for helping churches equip the saints for service.


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