Douglas Hamilton, Probationer Minister in Lothian Presbytery and previous Head of Scotland for Save the Children UK, reflects on some of the privileges and complexities of working with volunteers.


Ending the recruitment of ‘volunteers’ in the church

A few years ago, I was chatting to a recruitment consultant interested in hearing about my sense of call towards full-time ministry. She was used to dealing with people going through a career change, but there was something different about the motivation and thought process I described. Time spent discerning the areas of service that God may be leading us into, whether in the church or other areas of life, is not something that tends to feature in regular career consultations.

A lot of learning from recruitment and HR professionals has been adopted by organisations that rely on volunteers. Over the past twenty years, whilst working and volunteering in the voluntary sector in Scotland, I have seen a massive leap in the professionalisation of voluntary roles and an increased status given to volunteers. We are now very accustomed to volunteer job descriptions, application forms, interview processes, support and supervision. Many voluntary roles look and feel almost the same as employment, with the main difference being the absence of pay.

As an organisation that relies more than most on unpaid people, the church has had much to learn from and much to contribute to good practice in this area. However, there is something uncomfortable for me about applying the term ‘volunteer’ to all those faithfully serving God and their local church in various ways. Just as there is something different about how people are ‘recruited’ into ordained ministries, there is something different about the motivation and thought process that leads people towards other areas of Christian service.

In any training or guidance about volunteer recruitment, there will generally be sections on being clear about why a specific role is unpaid and on understanding why people would volunteer to do it. The starting point in churches will be somewhat different. In helping people follow Jesus, we encourage them to serve to show their love for God and others.

In Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, we read that all members of the body of Christ have different gifts that are to be used for the rest of the body. Rather than only thinking about filling specific jobs that need doing, it is incumbent upon the church to help all Christians find ways to serve and make the best use of the gifts they have been given. Our churches ‘recruitment process’ is about supporting people to discern the area of service they are being called into, recognising gifts in others, affirming their roles as indispensable, and treating them with honour. Sometimes these areas of service may not be recognised ‘roles’ that can be packaged into a job description, but they are essential for the functioning of the body.

Serving is part of discipleship, and although service is directly connected with our relationship to Christ, it does not define our relationship to Christ. Oswald Chambers has written that ‘the greatest competitor of true devotion to Christ is the service we do for Him … Are we more devoted to service than we are to Jesus Christ Himself?’  There is something important about maintaining a sense of perspective about what we are encouraging people to do, why they are doing it, and whether it is helping them to draw closer to Christ.

The National Council of Voluntary Organisations’ definition of volunteering excludes activity carried out only for the benefit of relatives. Perhaps this resonates with my discomfort at ‘volunteer’ being used to describe people within my church family. Our roles are about serving our brothers and sisters and our heavenly parent.

It should also be noted that the purpose of this article is not to deal with the massive question of what to do when there aren’t enough people to take on some of the roles that have traditionally been required in church. However, by framing those types of discussions in terms of discipleship and service, we may be offered another perspective to view the challenges we face.

None of these factors tends to feature in the very useful volunteer recruitment and management guidance provided by organisations such as Volunteer Scotland. We do well to draw on such good practices within our churches, and I encourage you to use these resources. We would be failing our people if that was all we used. The focus of our task is about enabling others to serve as part of what it means to follow Jesus and to show His love to the world.