More than volunteers

If you want to waste time on the internet, put Church names into the search engine of the Charity Commission and see how many ‘volunteers’ they have. Lots of churches do what ours has done. The number of volunteers recorded is the size of the Church family - it seems that everyone who belongs to the Church is a ‘volunteer’.

Volunteering is crucial to charities and our communities. Many Christians serve their local communities in this way. Critical services are provided by those who give up their time unpaid for the benefit of others: from school governors and magistrates to food banks and sports clubs and an enormous variety of things in-between. It is beneficial for volunteers, too, as active volunteering can help with loneliness and poor mental health. But the word jars with me in the context of Church. It is not that volunteering is not important to our church life. It is vital. However, we are not volunteers in the usual sense. We are so much more than that.

The word ‘volunteer’ can communicate that Christian service is an optional extra on the side. When we think of volunteers, we think of certain types of people; those with spare time on their hands or people at a particular stage of life. We can’t avoid the word - every charity has to submit a record of the number of staff and volunteers involved with the organisation to the Charity Commission. But we should take care using it. 

Covid Church created vast amounts of work for some people who are currently understandably feeling exhausted. Others found all their areas of service abruptly stopped. Some can’t wait for things to return to normal to meet up with others, run the mums and tots groups, the outreach quiz nights, the lunch clubs, the Sunday School, youth groups, holiday clubs and camps. Others have tasted a quieter life: a Sunday routine without the mad rush to Church has been a gift. Some missed the busyness, but for others, a Sunday without setting out chairs, making coffees, lunches, washing up, and locking up has been refreshing. It was an unexpected sabbatical. Getting going with it all again seems overwhelming. They don’t want to return to the Church rota. Speaking to Church leaders in various parts of the country, many are describing the same thing. Church life in the time of Covid has created two responses; some have become more committed to their church family, but others have become more disengaged. As services have been put online and bible studies on Zoom, the emotional commitment to one another has been hard to maintain. Covid has caused distance among us.

This is my problem with the word ‘volunteer’. It suggests tasks and a hierarchy between paid and unpaid. But Church is not a gathering of staff and volunteers but God’s people,  coming together with various gifts to build each other up and reach out with the gospel. We serve not to get jobs done, run events and keep our organisations running but because we belong to Christ. And not only do we belong to Christ, but we belong to each other. 

The fallout from Covid will become apparent as time moves on. Many organisations are reporting a loss of volunteers. The Scouts are trying to recruit 5,000 adult volunteers, having lost 15,000 during the pandemic. Have our Churches lost people in the same way? I pray not. As our church families come back together, we must remember that we are not an army of volunteers filling in the gaps on our rota’s. We will need to help one another belong again. We need to prioritise time together as a family so we can grow closer. We need patience and gentleness. Let’s pray that the Lord will strengthen the weary as they hear God’s word proclaimed among his people again.  

(First published in Evangelicals Now i n August 2021)

© 2023 Karen Soole