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The church and volunteerism

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Archives / 2001 / January



The church and volunteerism

Paul Cone, Lawrence Downing
Paul Cone, Ph.D., was head of business administration, graduate, and executive programs at the University of Southern California.
Lawrence Downing is senior pastor of the White Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Los Angeles, California.



Action depends on how we use our resources. All else is just talk. High performance and progress depend upon effective and efficient resource management. In a church setting, the most valuable resource is our members, particularly those who volunteer to extend the ministry of the church. Church managers who utilize these effective and performance-driven people will attract more like them with the result that church resources will multiply. Key components of church resource management include making projects attractive and relevant, establishing a sense of teamwork, and conducting quality training programs.

Making projects attractive

People are the only resources with the inherent ability to become more valuable with time and training. When given a sense of accomplishment, when working as a team with others, when appreciated and respected as peers, people will give significantly superior performance.

Professional businesspeople will be willing to serve on church boards and teams if they know how to fit in. The reverse is also true: Business and professional people who have volunteered their expertise have also come away frustrated, unappreciated, and cynical. Good leaders seek to reverse this.

Pastors can initiate volunteers into the inner circles of church administrative life. Every organization has developed its own protected vocabulary and methodology, which they do not readily share with those outside the circle. Business professionals have sometimes been made to feel, by some church leaders, that they do not understand that the business of the church is spiritual. However, developed skills and ethical practices used in business apply to spiritual entities. Here business professionals can be helpful to the church.

Experience indicates that religious organizations will become more effective as they thoughtfully utilize the skills available from business and management professionals. There are ways to find common ground and even a common language that will enable the church to benefit from the talents available through trained business and professional personnel. It remains true, however, that the church is much more than secular business and should be led with this in mind.

Establishing teamwork

In parish ministry, it is not uncommon for all church business matters, no matter how menial, to be left to the pastor. Typically, church officers make only token appearances at the weekly services to announce hymns, pray, or call for the offering. Elected officials usually represent 10-30 percent of the membership. In many churches, the majority of the members sit in the pews or do not come at all. The challenge is to increase participation among this majority group. Too often congregations look to the pastor to achieve this goal. The pastor's personality and preaching may get some people into the church, but this is only the beginning. The more difficult and important task remains: to incorporate the efforts of the quiet majority as the congregation seeks to fulfill its mission.

If the local minister develops skills in leading the church to design quality strategic and operating plans, there will be sufficient guidance and control to empower volunteer teams to act and perform the business of the church in a superior manner. Skills may be developed in team formation and use. Committees only discuss and recommend but are limited when it comes to implementation. However, teams can execute programs and projects.

When members become participants in mission-centered congregations, they should be invited to select a team they would like to join. New members receive training for that team responsibility. This gives new members immediate social ties and personal involvement. Conversations with church leaders who employ volunteer team-ministry models demonstrate that these congregations get significantly increased performance results, as compared to churches whose volunteers function independently one from the other. Other churches can learn from these congregational leaders. The leaders in these congregations may conduct seminars on how to incorporate volunteerism into the local parish.

Successful use of volunteers

The church, perhaps more than any other institution, is essentially a volunteer organization. In a consulting study we were involved in which we assessed the use of volunteers in a university system, it became clear that certain findings could be equally applicable to the parish. Here are some examples:

1. Involvement is the secret for initial and continued interest and support.

2. The volunteers' performance and willingness to serve are enhanced when they: (a) are freed to serve on their own terms; (b) feel they are making a worthwhile contribution; (c) see development opportunities for them selves; (d) find that the project is attractive and relevant to real needs; and (3) can customize the task to their time, interests, and commitment length.

3. Volunteers identify with a small group when (a) they know and like the leader; (b) they can see that their personal skills are needed; (c) the group can set its own goals, priorities, and plans; and (d) they can see tangible results (not mere talk or reports).

4. Volunteers are motivated to become involved when they receive public, team, and individual recognition.


So what should church leaders do to obtain the maximum help from members who can be motivated to join volunteer groups? Here are three starting suggestions:

1. Establish denominational seminars to help all ministers make effective use of volunteers and to organize the local parish into empowered volunteer teams.

2. Define focused projects where volunteers can make meaningful contributions and place volunteers where they can have maximum impact.

3. Learn to listen! Volunteers base action on their agenda, not ours.

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