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


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).


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


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). 


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. 

Ugly Teams Ruin Longevity

Do you think it’s possible for your people to enjoy volunteering with you more than they enjoy their day job? That might feel like a tall order, but it’s entirely possible. The elements that make a great working/volunteering environment are the same.

But what if they don't enjoy volunteering on your team?

ugly teams

Why would anyone stay in a bad job? The answer is simple, they stay because of an great team.

Think about it. In any organization the only thing that has the potential to deeply impact your experience is your team. You will have great times and times of crisis but your team is the thing that can hold you through. It’s the same for anyone on your team.

Look at the graph below. Imagine you are on a great team. When things go well, the team high is awesome. When it goes through times of crisis you push through because you’re willing to push through it as long as you have your team.


Now imagine that you don’t really get along with your team. You could take them or leave them. Think about those highs, they aren’t nearly as exciting. They seem like a small payoff for having to deal with the team. And when you hit those times of crisis, you constantly ask yourself “Is this even worth it?”

In fact most people don't quit because they've hit a time of crisis, they quit because they don't connect with their leader or team. 

People don’t quit because they’ve hit a time of crisis.
— StevenJBarker

So how do you insure you are creating an awesome team environment? Ask yourself these 12 questions (adapted from "First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently" by Marcus Buckingham [affiliate link].

  1. Does everyone on your team know how they can best contribute?
    Everyone wants to know what you need from them, they want to know how to play their part. Feeling unsure whether your contribution matters is a sure fire way to suck anyone’s energy tank dry.
  2. Does everyone have the materials and equipment necessary to do their work right?
    It’s hard to do the work when you don’t have the right tools. You show your volunteers appreciation if you work hard at getting them the right tools. It cost money, but it’s a worth while investment.
  3. Does everyone have the opportunity to do what they do best every time they serve?
    It’s easy to look at the ministry you are trying to accomplish as a mountain that you try to throw volunteers at. In reality it's a playground you to plug gifted people into. Help them find their spot, when they find their spot it only puts fuel in their tank.
  4. Is everyone being recognized and praised for doing good work?
    You don’t have to be the only one doing this. Help your team encourage each other. Point out great work publicly, make a habit of it. Look for excuses, even if it means walking up beside someone and whispering “I just saw what you did, great job.”
  5. Do your team leaders care about each volunteer as a person?
    Sometimes all it takes is a simple question, “How are you doing?” When they say “Good” ask again. “No really, how are you doing?” Volunteers are people too.
  6. Is each person on your team being developed?
    Everyone on your team wants to get better. Are they being encouraged and equipped to do so?
  7. Do their options count?
    Do you ask the people on the front lines for their feedback and ideas? 
  8. Does everyone feel like their role contributes to the organization’s mission/purpose?
    It can be easy to feel like a small job on Sundays isn’t really making a difference. Help people see how they are fulfilling the mission. “When you do __x__ it helps people __y__."
  9. Is everyone on the team committed to doing quality work?
    If someone isn’t, maybe they aren’t in the right spot. They probably aren’t having any fun either.
  10. Do the people on your team feel like they are building relationships?
    One of the reasons people serve is that deep down they want to be known. Relationship give serving context.
  11. Are you taking the opportunity to talk about how your team members have improved over the last six months?
    When you review the last season’s goals, look for opportunities to shine a light on various team member’s growth. Did Josh take on a new leadership role? Did Cathy become more approachable?
  12. In the last year, has everyone had opportunities to learn and grow?
    Have you sent your team members to conferences? Bought them books? Offered them helpful, compelling training?

If you answered no to too many of these questions and you’re on your way to building one ugly team. And you inevitably will be dealing with turnover in your near future. Start tackling these in order. Work on questions 1 & 2 until you feel like they have turned into a yes. Then move on to 3, 4, 5, & 6 and then on to 7, 8, 9 & 10. And finally put your effort into 11 & 12. Don't bother jumping ahead to much. If your team members don't know how they can best contribute, it won't do you any good focusing on their improvement.

Answer yes to these 12 questions and you are on your way to building one awesome team!

Question of the day: Thinking about your own experience, could you answer yes to these 12 questions?

How Copying Ideas Correctly Can Keep You Out Of Trouble

“I saw this cool idea at another church, we should implement it here!” Seems like it’s working for them, why not do it at your church. Well, it could be an unintentional recipe for trouble! The problem with that good idea is that we don’t always know enough about it. Just because it looks cool, or even highly effective doesn’t mean it’s the BEST for you and your team. 

Copying an idea correctly can keep you out of trouble if you answer two very important questions. 

1. Are we trying to solve the same problem? 

Just because an idea looks cool, shiny and even effective doesn’t mean it’s solving the same problem. We can look at an idea and appreciate how clever it is BUT it’s incredibly important to examine what problem they were trying to solve with that solution. Are we having that same problem? Is that problem a priority for us to deal with right now? 

2. Do our values line up with theirs? 

For example, if your organization values simplicity, and “their” organization does not…that absolutely will impact its effectiveness. You'll spend a lot of time tryin to get your team to buy into something that just doesn't feel right, something that just doesn't feel like "us". 

Copying good ideas isn't a good strategy unless you do it correctly. 

Don't look at what Saddleback, Northpoint, LifeChurch.tv or Willow Creek are doing without asking those two questions. It might seem like a great idea, but if it's not solving the same problem you're having, it may be a bad idea in your context. 

In fact, if you've spent all your time copying everyone else's great ideas it won't be long before you can't recognize what problems your organization was actually having. And then you're in real trouble. Then you're stuck with no concrete sense of which way is out. 

The question then becomes, is the problem your facing the core issue or is it just the repercussion of implementing an idea that doesn't fit your organization? 

On the other hand, if you can answer YES to both those questions, you may have just found the perfect solution, from someone who's already proved it can work!