Significant amounts of Church-based activities are run by volunteers. I myself have been a volunteer in many capacities in my own church and with several organisations that share Christian aims.
Recently it was pointed out to me that volunteering in church is a form of discipleship – that Christian growth is facilitated through the activities of volunteers. Not only is volunteering important to keep ministries running, but it also trains Christians in their faith.
This reminded me that Jesus’ teaching of the disciples involved having them face challenges, even where Jesus could have completed the tasks for them (see for instance, Mathew chapter 10). Jesus prepared them for their later ministries and the challenges that would come through their actions. While God is doing far more than we tend to realise, he is also incorporating us into that work.
I am often reminded that God calls us to be involved in his work, such as in the Great Commission ‘Go make disciples…’ (recorded several times in the bible, see Matthew chapter 28 verse 19). Volunteering is one of the places we can do this work that leads to growth and is obedient to God’s calling.
Additionally, in the book of James, it is clear James is concerned that Christians will not be active in their faith. Among several calls to act is this line ‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.’ (James chapter 1 verse 22, NIV translation) Further he warns, ‘What good is it… if someone says he has faith, but does not have works?’ (James Chapter 2 Verse 14, ESV translation).
So it seems clear that we ought to be actively living out the faith by doing the good deeds God has prepared for us to do. As it is said in Ephesians chapter 2 verse 10, ‘For we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’ (ESV translation).
Sometimes there are considerable obstacles to volunteering opportunities. Sometimes there is work that needs to be done to create the opportunity or make it safe to commence. Many roles require training and legal preparation to ensure that activities can be carried out. At other times, the opportunities are not known.
Few of us are good at seeing where help is needed without being called to it by someone else. Church leaders should be thinking about where others could be getting involved.
I have been at churches where you probably would not be asked to help with anything, no matter how minor, if you had not been there for at least ten years. Another church I was in would get people involved in small things quickly, carefully trying to match the roles to the maturity of the individual. It is important to put people in appropriate positions, though volunteer roles are often a challenge as they often should stretch the volunteer in new challenges that lead to growth.
This is part of why support is so important for volunteers, most volunteers starting in a new role do not have all of the skills for the role. I remember when I first started with the children’s teaching program at my current church, every lesson was very stressful to prepare and deliver. I needed support to be able to face the role, and even then got burnt out within a year. I came back later and kept learning how to do the role well, so that now I can be far more helpful.
Support can take many forms. Encouragement goes a long way for most of us. Practical help in learning the tasks of a role greatly increases volunteer capacities and lowers the load of the work. Systems that can allow for breaks are also helpful, it is great to be able to take leave when needed. For most roles, having a robust team is helpful and a large part of the support can come from within a team.
Managing volunteer expectations is also very important. Volunteers tend to care a lot about the role they are volunteering for and can get disheartened if their expectations are not met. Thinking back on my experiences starting children’s teaching I remember feeling downcast when the kids understood less than 70 percent of the lesson.
I had no idea that my expectations were too high for some time. Having this expectation contributed to the strain I felt as I struggled to learn how to teach well. When volunteers know what to expect it is easier for them to assess their growth as well as the good that they are doing in the role.
It is perhaps harder for young people like myself to effectively introspect, but I think my faith is significantly more robust from facing the challenges of volunteer roles. These positions have challenged me to seek understanding from God on matters that would not have been a part of my consideration otherwise.
They have challenged me to trust God; trusting that he will use my efforts. I have seen God’s work in the world more clearly from these positions than I often do elsewhere – a great encouragement indeed.
Many philosophers have wondered whether it is struggle that gives people strength (some even consider struggling to be the point of life), and while I am not convinced that this is a sufficient view, there is some truth to it. Volunteering tends to lead to some degree of struggle and that does foster growth.
Create opportunities for volunteers and encourage people to step-up. When they do, support them well so that they can face the challenges. I think we will have a stronger Christian community as a result. Importantly, the good deeds that we do will glorify God.
Alexander Gillespie is an Arts Honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Particular fields of interest include Nineteenth-Century migration history, conceptual philosophy, social policy and ecclesiology. He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and enjoys researching and writing.