I've heard it said, and tend to believe it, that voluntarism is one of the characteristics of American culture most to be celebrated. The number of hours given to religious, civil, medical, social, private and governmental causes is amazing.
I've also noticed that is often confusing as well. Why are some people in an organization paid, while others are unpaid? For example, you might find an unpaid intern in a social or governmental organization who works for hours for free than someone with a salary and benefits. In one organization you might find paid staff managing only paid staff, while in the next organization you might find paid staff managing only volunteers. But you might also find volunteers managing paid staff, or volunteers managing other volunteers. Or you might find paid staff, unpaid staff, and volunteers, with a wide variety of lines of reporting and responsibility.
I've noticed that in some institutional churches, organists and ordained preachers are paid, while pianists and lay preachers may be unpaid. In most churches, some laity are paid (eg
., sextons) while others are not (junior wardens).
In the absence
of consistency, I have adopted the following, which I hope might be helpful:
1) Whether one is considered paid staff, unpaid staff, or volunteer, everyone without exception has been called by God into some responsibility of service to others for the glory of God and the good of the world.
2) The essential nature of the Church is that it is a community of ministers who follow Jesus, and that everyone in the community has some responsibility for some ministry.
3) Some ministry is institutional, while some in non-institutional. For example, taking a mean to your sick neighbor or giving $10 to a hungry person you encounter by chance are non-institutional. Running an inner city agency that feeds and shelters the homeless is institutional.
4) Non-institutional ministry never suffers from confusion about whether one is paid staff / unpaid staff / volunteer. In non-institutional ministry
we're always volunteer ministers, answering to our own conscience, to our own heart, and to our God. It's only in institutions that the confusion arises. Hence, the question of status is not theological/moral/ministerial question: It's an institutional/organization question.
5) Thus whether someone is paid or unpaid implies nothing about the value, worth, or importance of their function to God, to the world, to the ministry, or to the Church of Jesus Christ. Rather, it implies something about their relationship to a particular institution, regardless of whether that institution is civil, religious, social, or governmental.
6) Some institutions can manage their essential tasks without any paid staff. Others cannot. Imagine the home that houses the American President. The nature and complexity of that home requires a huge staff to manage the cooking, cleaning, plumbing, communications, and security, not just during "working hours," of the President, but 24/7. That reality in inherent to the nature of the White House. In contrast, imagine the more typical, smaller, less complex home housing a typical American family (2.3 persons, statistically.) The nature of this home is that it can be run without any paid staff, although it occasionally contracts with professionals for particular situations. ("Quick!!! Call a plumber!!!")
7) Small religious congregations (numbering 50 people or fewer) can manage their essential tasks without any paid staff, and very often do that. Volunteers do everything and are most often self-managing. If Aunt Minnie fails to polish the pews next month, Uncle George isn't going to fire her or dock her pay. The small, simple congregation functions more like a family than an institution, and has little or need for institutional staff. What defines someone as a volunteer is the absence
of institutional dependency for a competent and reliable person to fulfill the role. The small religious congregation does not grind to a halt if Aunt Minnie travels to another state to visit her daughter for a few weeks. It doesn't need to hire a replacement. It is small and simple enough to function without a staff person.
8) However, as religious organizations become more complex, the institution begins to depend on roles that require more reliability and competence than what volunteers can provide. Institutions may find it essential to appoint a receptionist, a janitor, clergy, or other staff. Without securing sufficient, competent, and responsible
staff, the larger, more complex institution finds it impossible to function.
9) What defines someone as staff is the need of the institution for someone to handle this responsibility in a competent and reliable way. In some cases, the number of hours required is greater than anyone can give unless the institution secures their services. For example, when fulfilling this role for the institution prevents Person A from earning a living, then either the institution replaces that income with a competitive
stipend, or Person A cannot afford to be available. But in other cases, a member of the congregation may commit themselves to fulfilling this role as unpaid staff.
10) Thus, it is is the institutional need for a reliable person that defines whether a role is staff role or not, whether or not the committed person is paid or unpaid.
11) As congregations grow, there are generally two different kinds of functions
: institutional functions (requiring staff) and voluntary functions (requiring volunteers). As we have seen, staff are defined by the need of the institution. The institution needs someone to answer the phone, care for the plumbing, and manage the complex systems. These are institutional needs, not religious needs. However, the larger the congregation, the more likely that many people will volunteer for additional functions that are not institutional in nature. For example, a dozen people decide they want to open a soup kitchen or start a Vacation Bible School for neighborhood children.
12) It is the unfortunate tendency of institutions, over time, to focus more on the needs of the institution than on the needs of the community that it was created to serve. Institutions tend to focus on staff (paid or unpaid). Ministry, on the other hand, is more likely to be done by volunteers. Institutions can be enormously useful tools for the good of the religious community and for the good of their ministry to the world. But it is imperative that we remember always that institutions are only tools. They are means to an end, not the end in themselves. The focus of congregations must always be on experiencing God, creating
community, and serving the world. When they discover that the tool (institutional and staff) is consuming more energy than it is helping, it is time to retool!