What’s Happened to Church Volunteers?

As church leaders, we have all heard it many times:  “I’d love to help but I’m just too busy”.  I understand that.  We can’t do everything for everyone and sometimes the best thing to do is to say “no”.    But there seems to be a growing trend in the church that matches society – volunteering is a thing of the past.

Overall volunteering numbers are down and in a downward spiral – only 25% of Americans did any volunteering in 2013.  That’s down from 29% 10 years ago.  It’s easy to jump on the Millennials for this.  But is it all their fault?  One of the statistics states that people who are educated are the biggest decliners.  Maybe that’s because they need to work three jobs to pay for their student loans.

So what is affecting the church?  When my dad was a pastor, he was almost always a lone employee over the span of 30 years.  The churches he led all paid part time janitors.  He occasionally  had a part time secretary that was paid and sometimes he had a paid part time youth leader.  Looking at churches of a comparable size today you will find a paid pastor, paid children’s director, paid youth leader, paid associate pastor, paid administrator, paid secretary plus the trusty janitor and possibly more.  A church in my town is now paying someone to care for the baby nursery because no one would volunteer to do the job.

It is probably fair to say without doing a lot of research that a large part of our church budgets have now shifted to salaries which support the needs of the congregation rather than outreach and missions.  In a time when missionaries are facing higher costs to be on the field, they are competing with financial balancing at their home churches.

So what is causing us to pay nursery workers instead of finding volunteers?  Why are we needing to pay children’s workers, youth leaders, worship leaders, sound and tech people, and other care givers?  Are we really that busy that we can’t serve or is there a shift in our attitude towards giving our time?

One of the causes in the slide is the hiring of employees at all.  A church without a pastor will push everyone to chip in to cover the need.  As soon as a pastor is hired, everyone backs off and allows the “paid” professional to do the work.  This pattern continues down the line – if a youth leader is paid, volunteers who want to work with the youth will dwindle.  Is it wrong to hire staff?  No.  In many cases it is necessary and may be the best for the church.  But, leadership needs to be aware that the more positions are paid, the more members will be hesitant to volunteer because they are not getting paid.

A second cause is additional background checks, liability and cost to volunteering.  When I was a youth leader I often drove kids home from an event.  I would be very leery of doing that today with abuse allegations being common.  Even if I was totally innocent, my life would be ruined if one youth made a claim of inappropriate behavior.  That is a terrifying thought.  Some may be willing to teach Sunday School but don’t want the hassle of doing a background check.  It’s not that they are worried about the check – they just don’t want the added responsibility to teach a few Sundays a year.

A third possible reason is that many of us grew up in homes where our parents volunteered for everything and as a result were never home.  Being a preacher’s kid I felt the pain of my dad being away most nights at meetings and other ministry needs.  When I had my own children, I said that I wanted to be home with them so that they wouldn’t say that I cared for someone else more then them.

Whatever the reasons for the decline, the church today needs to be aware of the decline and confronting it.  Hiring every need is not the answer and will make our churches even more self centered than they are already.

1 Peter 5:2  Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve.

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