Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How To Stifle Your Vision

The best way to stifle any vision is to recruit volunteers to your cause.  Most churches in the UK are run by volunteers – that is, their engagement with the wider community is facilitated by volunteers.  We work hard to recruit volunteers for children’s work, for youth work, for the distribution of food or clothes or furniture, for...And this is perhaps the most effective constraint possible on the effectiveness of that engagement.

One flaw with a culture of volunteers is the difficulty that can arise when someone volunteers for something for which they are quite unsuited.  That is to say, everyone has gifts and a role to play, but not everyone has the same gifts or is called to the same roles.  Willingness is not, in itself, enough.

But there is a far greater, indeed fatal, flaw.  In a volunteer-culture, people volunteer for whatever they believe is important, because if they don’t volunteer, the important thing won’t happen.  And, of course, people volunteer for the new thing, because the new thing has a certain excitement and energy to it.  What this results in is volunteers who serve in multiple capacities, juggling commitments, and unable to give very much time or effort to any of those things.  This gives the church barely-sustainable breadth without depth.  It results in frenetic lives, rather than fruitful lives.  And it is perpetuated by the false belief that if everyone took an equal share in volunteering, no-one would serve in multiple capacities.  They still would: because hole-plugging is integral to a volunteer-culture, which will expand the number of holes so as always to be greater than the number of people to plug them.

By volunteer, I don’t mean unpaid worker.  I am not suggesting that we replace volunteers with paying people to do things: that in itself doesn’t address volunteer-culture.  By volunteer, I mean something closer to what Jesus called a hired-hand.  The things I do as a member of my family, I don’t get paid for, but I’m not a volunteer: I’m a fully-committed stake-holder.

Sometimes in life we have to make a choice between two or more options, and the choosing of one rules out involvement in the others.  In marriage the partners make a commitment to ‘forsaking all others,’ not in the sense of abandoning community but in the sense of ruling-out their option of involvement as a marriage-partner with anyone else until released from their present responsibilities by death.  Or consider this example: for most of us, choosing to buy one house means we don’t live in several houses; though after a period of time we might sell our house and move to another.  In a you-can-have-it-all-and-have-it-all-at-once culture, there are certain things we can’t have all at once.  Beyond consumers, we need contributors: but beyond contributors, we need stake-holders.

I have observed volunteer-culture churches where commitment is measured – whether intentionally or unconsciously – by the number of different areas within the life of the church that a given person is involved in.  I have witnessed the burn-out that results.  I have seen the ability to do many things, not particularly well, and all without capacity to grow.

I have also observed a different culture, one where community is built around shared vision: where people commit to involvement in one ‘extended family’ (at a time), a ‘family’ that shares every dimension of life – loving God, loving one another, loving their neighbour – in an integrated whole.  Where team doesn’t simply plan and deliver a programme of activities, but eats and prays and has fun and cries together.

Such a culture has its own challenges, its own messiness.  It involves not simply restructuring but a paradigm-shift; and that takes a minimum of five or six years.  It almost certainly involves doing less in the short- and medium-term than we might be doing in the present or hope to do in the long-term.  It is almost unimaginably costly.  But I am absolutely convinced that the volunteer-culture on which most churches is built is the single greatest constraining factor in our seeing the kingdom of heaven take ground.


  1. Challenging and thought provoking. I think a lot of churches and church leaders would rather have a structure that looks like extended family but holds on tightly to a volunteer culture. Which I suppose leads to burn-out even quicker!

    Any thoughts on how this might affect the ministries (kids + youth for example) that are often very hungry to consume volunteers - do they shift to extended families of a mono-cultural/generational type or fold into multi-generational communities or both, or neither?

  2. Hi Ben,
    Great questions! We saw something of trying to help a church transition from a volunteer culture to an extended family - or oikos - model, where for quite a while some people wanted to be part of several extended family groups simultaneously. It was not a smooth transition, and I don't think it would be anywhere.

    Re kids and youth ministries, I think we need to build extended families as team that eats together, etc. I think it is really important that we do that multi-generationally, with 'surrogate' parents and grandparents as well as big brothers and sisters. The older folk have wisdom and experience and stories to tell; the younger team members have the energy and (closer) cultural currency the older folk lack: we need each other. I think it is really sad where older folk feel they have nothing to offer: in my experience, where you bring kids and OAPs together in love, they really enjoy and mutually benefit from the time spent together.