I Don’t Like Volunteers…

…the word, not the people.

We regularly use the word volunteer in the church and non-profit world. We use this word to refer to anyone who does work for the sake of the mission, but does not get paid. You hear about volunteers all the time. “How do we get more volunteers?” “Our volunteers are awesome!” “We need more volunteers.” “We really appreciate all of our volunteers.”

Most of us, however, should stop using the word volunteer.

Webster defines a volunteer as “a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking.” Every once in a while we can legitimately use the word volunteer to describe someone. More often than not, though, people who are providing a service in a local church or non-profit organization are actually recruits. Although there are some who truly have a servant’s heart and step forward to say, “What can I do to help?”, the majority of those who serve did not hear of a need and then voluntarily step forward to say, “I’ll do it.” Occasionally this occurs. Far more often than not, however, people currently serving were enlisted by another.

Most people who are engaged in a particular role were asked to help. There was a direct request. An opportunity was presented to an individual specifically and he or she accepted the call to serve. Churches and non-profits who are exceptionally good at engaging unpaid servants know this. They might still use the language of volunteer, but they have incredible recruitment systems in place. They don’t simply have “better” volunteers. They have better systems through which people are asked, educated, and equipped to serve.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the 80/20 rule. People regularly say, “80% of the work around here is done by only 20% of the people.” I tend to run in the opposite direction when I start to hear this kind of chatter. Actually, I’ve suggested we cut the work load by 60% if that’s the case. Those who harp on the 80/20 rule tend not to appreciate that suggestion. After all, to remove the work would also remove their opportunity to play the martyr.

In 801South, we try to coach people away from the language of volunteer. One of the phrases you might hear me use is “the United Way has volunteers; the church has servants.” We actually do not want people to volunteer. Instead, we want to recruit certain individuals, because we have developed relationship with them and recognize something within them—a gift, a talent, a demeanor, a passion—that we can call out and explain why that gift, talent, demeanor, passion, etc. can be used in an area of service.

Rather than tossing opportunities into the data stream and hoping for volunteers to pick them up, we are trying hard to perpetuate recruiting. We ask our servants to be actively recruiting new servants through an invitational spirit. The best way to recruit is to make new friends—not with an agenda, but simply to develop new relationships. Otherwise, you’re asking the same people to do dozens of different tasks over and over.

It has been my experience that people generally do not volunteer when you present an opportunity—especially in the form of a bulletin request—because they do not see themselves in that role and they usually think that someone else will do it. People in the crowd are more than likely not going to volunteer. But every person you see is a potential recruit.

What would it look like for the local church to stop using the language of volunteers and for all of us who serve currently to get busy making new friends—then encouraging, equipping, and enlisting others to do the same?

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