Is It Okay to Blur the Line Between Staff and Volunteer?

No one wakes up early on a Sunday to be someone else grunt. That isn’t engaging or fulfilling. It doesn’t help one find their purpose or see their greatest possible impact. 

This leaves church leaders in a tough position. They feel guilty, convincing themselves that they are asking too much of their church by leave such large jobs on the shoulders of volunteers. At the same time though, when you see a church that has staff doing all the work, it’s likely you’re also looking at a dying church. 

So, is it okay to blur the line between staff and volunteer? 

As we were moving to a new Church Management System (ChMS database) we ran into a problem. The process we had used for years to count and track our tithes and offerings was not going to work. Forcing it would be like pounding a square peg into a round hole.

We had only a few days before the new system came online and had no choice but to come up with an entirely new process. 

Pressed with the urgency of the situation we had two options. 

  1. We could quickly pull a couple of our staff members into a meeting and come up with a solution. 
  2. Or, we could find a time to pull the key volunteers and stakeholders into a room to come up with a plan together. 

As church leaders in a volunteer organization, we are presented with these two options on a regular basis. We can have the “staff experts” decide, or have the “on the ground experts” decide. 

We can have the “staff experts” decide, or have the “on the ground experts” decide. 
— StevenJBarker

Let’s look at the implications of each choice. 

Option 1 - Staff Decide

Pros 

Option 1 helps us maintain control. We could convince ourselves that we have the most “church” experience in comparison to our volunteer team and therefore are most likely to be able to choose the best possible course of action. 

It is most likely the fastest solution as there are no competing schedules to work around (plus, most staff work in the same building anyway).

Cons

Staff aren't typically the only ones implementing the plan and most likely can’t see the problems the team will most likely uncover. Staff can tend to solve problems that aren’t really impacting the team or address issues that aren’t really broken. 

We alienate the people doing the ministry and rob them of the opportunity wrestle with the problem and to feel ownership of the solution.  

Option 2 - Stakeholders Decide

Pros

Option 2 means you have the right people in the room based on their proximity to the problem, not their title.

The team implementing the solution is far more willing to put in the work needed to make the change if they felt listened to during the decision-making process (they’re human…we all want to be listened to). 

Cons

If you’re not careful you can have too many chefs in the kitchen. Pulling in stakeholders together does not excuse you from being a good leader and helping to focus the conversation. 

They might not do what you would have done had you not asked for their help. This may mean that they are implementing a “substandard” solution in your mind. The key here is to remember why you asked them in the first place. You wanted buy-in and a viable solution…not necessarily the "perfect" solution. 

Blurring this line between staff and volunteer means we must be good listeners. We have no choice but to pay attention to the needs of our team, whether or not they get a paycheck. Honor their time, honor their strengths and honor the individual journey God has them on. 

Back to our story…we ended up going with Option 2. And we were so glad we did! We were able to make a quick and very informed decision that not only solved our problem but saved us an impressive amount of volunteer hours in the process. Finding the time was very much worth the investment. If we would have just sat down as a couple staff members we would have wasted everyone's time…I can almost guarantee our solution wouldn’t have been half as good.