Is the Congregation a Volunteer Organization? by Glen Piper

(Editor’s Note: This is from Glen Piper’s blog Territorial Bloggings.)

This is an interesting question. It’s also a pertinent one, that many congregations, and congregational leaders, have to deal with this time of year as voters assemblies deliberate & vote on officers & administrative boards for next year.

On the face of it, the question seems like a simple one with a simple answer. Of course, it’s a volunteer organization. Right? After all, we are a congregational polity, with supreme voters assemblies – i.e., we’re not led by professional church workers.

I contend, however, that our local congregations ARE NOT volunteer organizations, not as we have come to commonly understand the term/word “volunteer”.

I posit that the currently held understandings of “volunteer” and “volunteer organization” are such that the individual volunteering holds the position of power. IOW, they get to call the shots because they are ponying up their time.

This means that, if volunteers want to do task “X”, then they get to do task “X”. Volunteer organizations, then, are built on, and couldn’t exist without, these individuals; therefore, they are indebted to them to such an extent that they can’t/shouldn’t question the skills or suitability of the volunteer to task “X”.

I further posit that local congregations have fallen into the trap of viewing “volunteerism”, as it applies to congregational service & leadership, in this way. This is a very dangerous and detrimental thing.

Why dangerous & detrimental? Because it creates an environment wherein folks feel entitled to do what they want, and only what they want, without question or check. If Bobbi Sue wants to join Parish Ed, then who has the right to tell her she can’t? After all, she’s volunteering! She doesn’t understand teaching or curriculum? Has a beef with the current Sunday School Superintendent & the DCE? Doesn’t matter – she’s a volunteer! Bubba Joe wants to get on the Board of Elders? He’s been feuding with the Pastor? Or openly shacking up with the girlfriend that he left his wife for? Doesn’t matter — he’s volunteering!

Unfettered volunteering, and the uncritical acceptance of it, puts the local congregation at greater risk of conflict, unrest, and discontent. It’s not good practice. Worst of all, it’s not Biblical. 1 Corinthians is rife with examples of how congregational life should work. Of particular relevance is 1 Cor. 10:23-24 — while ostensibly dealing with eating meat, it also applies to the general topics of Christian freedom, love for one another, and submission to one another in the Gospel.

When we offer to serve in the congregation, it should be gladly and willingly, in full knowledge and submission to our brothers and sisters in the congregation. We may very well think we have gifts in a certain area (and, indeed, we may); however, we must submit to those congregational leaders who have a knowledge of what is needed & where, so that the proper mix can be found to best serve the congregation. If our “volunteering” would cause a weaker brother offense, then we ought not serve. And we ought not take offense ourselves when such is lovingly pointed out to us.

Leadership in a congregation is an arduous task, even in the best of circumstances. Rewarding and necessary, to be sure, but always arduous, and far too often stressful, difficult, and even painful. In this respect it’s a vocation just like any other on this side of heaven. That all said, it’s still necessary.

As such, it would behoove us to always remember that we need to carry out that vocation faithfully, even at its most difficult. Taking the path of least resistance is not an option. Neither is capitulating to societal definitions, understandings, or practices in how we go about executing those vocations.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Is the Congregation a Volunteer Organization? by Glen Piper — 3 Comments

  1. The flip side is all those necessary positions that go unfilled because no one “volunteers” for them (Sunday School teacher, Elder, Usher, Counting Committee member, President, Vice President, Treasurer, Financial Secretary, etc.) because they are “too busy” to do it or simply don’t want to. Over time, such reticence to commit has pushed many congregations into “survival mode” and lead them to accept any warm body that puts their hand up. From there, it was a small jump to the feeling of entitlement by someone who puts their hand up. Their raised hand turns into a shaking fist unless we capitulate to their will.

    On this point, I find Walther’s “The Form of a Christian Congregation” paragraph 49 instructive (Mueller Translation, CPH 1963, p. 157-158). It reads:

    All those (except the pastor) who administer an office in the congregation shall receive written regulations drawn up by the congregation, in which their duties, together with their extent and limitations, are carefully defined. However, every member, if qualified, should be willing to accept the office offered him. (1 Peter 4:10,11: “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If any man speak,let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth.”)

    Instructive also are the notes which go along with this including the quotation from the Wittenberg faculty in 1662 “Whoever neglects his civic duty despite his election and the attendant admonition, and without a single cogent reason declines such a Christian office [in this case of elder/almoner which was offered to him] instituted by the authoritative government [in our modern context, the voters assembly], indeed by the holy apostles themselves, for the benefit and preservation of churches and schools, commits sin… We therefore hold that the aforementioned Thomas cannot refuse the office of a deacon and elder with good reason, (1) partly because it is a common obligation of the whole congregation, which traditionally everyone is bound to administer on whom it is conferred by an orderly election in view of his fellowship with the local congregation …; (2) partly because everyone is duty bound to further the divine services as also churches and schools according to the divine command …; (3) partly because this cannot be done without offense, for others no doubt may use this as an example and under the same pretext seek to free themselves from so laborious a task. Thus this most necessary and useful office might be despised, and finally no on e would readily permit himself to be elected for it.”
    [[EXCERPTS FROM 1864 2nd unchanged edition translated by J.T.Mueller, published 1963 by CPH]]

    Luther uses the command of Lev 19:18 (Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself) as justification for doing what others urge upon him saying, “No man should live unto himself, but he should also serve his neighbor. This commandment is meant for all, for me and for you. If this commandment lays hold of me and is urged upon me, there is no use to refuse, unless perhaps I wanted to decline until I would incur God’s disfavor.”

    The modern idea of “volunteerism” in the congregation is a sad innovation. The REAL question is, how do we LOVINGLY and TENDERLY as SHEPHERDS guide and teach the flock that, because they were bought with a price, their lives are no longer their own? This is where it gets hard… Did the Wittenberg faculty confuse Law and Gospel when they said it was a “sin” for this Thomas to refuse his office? Did they not bind his conscience? This is a very real struggle for some of us dealing with similar situations.

  2. I’d “volunteer” a comment, but…..
    Oh well, I will anyway!
    You have made an important point in a well-constructed arguement with very critical conclusions in the last three paragraphs. The distinction in a Congregation is in the mission beginning with who is in charge (God!), the mission statement (The Word and the conforming Confessions) structure and governance (that are to be subservient to mission) of the “volunteer” organization.
    Thank you.

  3. Interesting topic, in many ways. I would agree that we have collectively destroyed the proper understanding of our duties in support of a congregational life. I am reminded of a lay trainer on the East Coast many years ago who looked at it like this.

    One volunteers to take on a task or stand for election. Once one starts to perform the duties of that position you are no longer a volunteer. You are unpaid staff and should approach your work professionally, and be trained to do it properly.

    This strongly implies that you may have a “supervisor” or two, you have prescribed duties, and you don’t get to call the shots.

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