Most technological advances are both a blessing and a curse when it comes to harnessing their potential for effective ministry and volunteer management. Take, for example, call display and an experience we had last summer in our church office. We were transitioning to a shiny new Voice Over Internet Protocol phone system that was supposed to effortlessly carry all our dialogue and data. Needless to say, it wasn’t a smooth transition.
There were massive service outages, wrong numbers, junk faxes, and all kinds of tumult that came in and out of our office. One thing that intrigued me was that for a time, when we called someone, the church’s phone number wouldn’t show up on the person’s call display, no matter how hard they prayed for it to happen.
It seemed like an inconsequential thing at the time, but what ensued was an intriguing lesson about volunteerism from the perspective of the congregation. We discovered that when the church number showed up on call display, people perceived that an “ask” was coming. The church must need something, or someone. There’s been a needs-assessment meeting, and now calls are going out for a fresh infusion of warm bodies.
Unhealthy volunteer recruitment
People dreaded the phone calls and the conversations, which usually unfolded something like this: “Hi there! I don’t know you, but I was just flipping through our church directory and your shining face stood out to me,” says the voice, effused with all the bubbly personality and perk of a commissioned salesperson.
“You’ve been attending our congregation for three whole weeks, so I was wondering if you’d be interested in serving with our children’s ministry so that preschoolers can find Jesus and spend eternity in heaven.”
Note the meticulous approach and calculated set-up. If you say yes, people end up in heaven. If you say you’re already working with another ministry or in a community-based volunteer opportunity … well, you get the picture.
Also notice that if you say yes, your ego gets a nice little lift. After all, it’s affirming to be asked. To be noticed and appreciated for … wait a minute, what is it that you’re being appreciated and approached for? Ah yes, for the simple grace of having a last name early enough in the alphabet and a non-grainy picture in the church directory so you “stand out” to the recruitment department.
Naturally, as a seasoned deflector of conversations of this nature, you ask the litmus test question: “What would I do with all those crazy kids?!”
“Oh, not much at all,” responds the voice. “We just need a warm body to fill a slot so that our ratios balance and naturally, your name came to mind.”
Note the classic technique of underselling the significance of the responsibilities. Paired with the lack of clarity around role responsibilities, time commitments, and desired ministry outcomes, the conversation is designed with one thing in mind: to create enough guilt to rope you into saying yes.
And once you’re in, the hope is that you’ll stick around long enough to fulfill the program cycle requirements. If not, it’s on to the next name in the directory.
The true purpose of service
Why do these types of conversations happen? What is it about contemporary church ministry that creates this kind of systemically unhealthy dialogue around volunteerism?
Perhaps we begin with the wrong end in mind. Some leaders have a theology of the priesthood of all believers that implies nothing more than a deep and wide pool of phone numbers of recruits to accomplish a never-ending list of projects. If the volunteers can help accomplish their goals and objectives, they’re in the inner circle. They get the emails, the accolades, the invites for coffee or dinner. If they have a change in output level or stage of life, they’re turfed in favour of a higher-octane, more committed model.
But the charge to leaders in Ephesians 4:12 has nothing to do with sales techniques or re-branding chronic volunteer shortages as opportunities for new people to serve. The role of a non-utilitarian leader is preparatory in nature, like a gardener who tills and fertilizes and nurtures her soil so that the pH balance is just right and can produce the intended kind of fruitful harvest. Or like a fisherman who mends his nets so that worn out areas are strengthened and the load of the next catch is more evenly distributed.
The call on those who lead in the kingdom is a uniquely non-utilitarian one: “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” A friend of mine is fond of saying that building big people, not big ministries, is the intended outcome.
Shoving square pegs into round holes
What sometimes happens, however, is that the expectations and locus of initiative subtly shift. Leaders end up being program or project managers who require regular infusions of new volunteers to keep their organizational matrix humming at peak efficiency.
The focus is on getting things done as opposed to discerning and developing the gifts, abilities, resources, and dreams that reside in every Christ-follower. I have a suspicion this is one reason why people are less and less willing to put their names into church databases or directories, or to respond to the never-ending stream of “help wanted” ads in the bulletin.
And this brings me back to our new phone system, now up and running, which allows for easy three-way calling. If I could get church leaders on one end of the line before they begin any kind of recruiting, I’d query if they’re willing to prayerfully discern and humbly do the hard work of building into the lives of those they lead. Ephesians 4:13 goes on to say that the heart of equipping is more about who we’re becoming than what we get done. This is slow, often difficult work, but the non-utilitarian leader persists “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Properly understood, volunteerism is a whole lot more about discipleship than it is about slot-filling.
And if I could use my phone to invite potential volunteers into this conversation, I’d explain to them that in the best of times, when it’s the church office at the other end of the phone line, it’s really a person who loves you and has your best interests at heart. I’d say that they know or want to learn more about your unique season of life, the gifts and abilities God has given you, the quirks of your personality, and the areas of passion and life experience that make you who you are – and that they took all of that into account before entering the ten digits of your phone number.
If and when we can get there in our conversation around volunteerism, maybe call display won’t be such a bad invention after all.
Brad Sumner is lead pastor at Jericho Ridge Community Church, Langley, B.C.