“No More Volunteers”
Rev. Chris Mereschuk
June 25, 2017
As I prepared to take on this role as your Acting Pastor several months ago, one of the questions I was asked most frequently could be summarized as: “Chris, how are you going to do all of this yourself?” My response – – though usually more pastorally worded – – was: “Simple. I’m not going to do it all myself!” And the response to my response was usually some version of, “Well then, you’re going to need a lot of volunteers.”
But no: I don’t want any volunteers. Our congregation does not need volunteers.
Now, some of you might be justifiably confused, certain that we need volunteers or that you, yourself are currently volunteering here at church. Well, you might think you’re volunteering, but I believe you are doing something different. Our congregation does not need volunteers. Rather, what our Beloved Community needs is disciples.
The difference between volunteers and disciples is more than semantics. True, there are overlaps between the two. First off, you’re not getting paid in either case. Second, since you’re not getting paid, your motivation must come from elsewhere. It must come from within, and it must be an expression of your belief in and commitment to the cause or organization to which you give your precious time.
In the world outside of the church, volunteering is the right term and volunteers are a necessary part of the success of countless worthwhile efforts and causes. But when it comes to the church, we need to look at it differently. We need to consider our involvement not as volunteers, but as disciples.
In her article titled, “Your Church Does Not Need Volunteers,“ Rev. Erin Wathen recounts writing a church newsletter column where she intended to thank everyone who had volunteered at her church. But then she says she “found [herself] hitting the backspace button. Because “volunteer” is not quite the right word for what our people do at church.”
But why is “volunteer” not the right word for this kind of unpaid labor of love?
Rev. Wathen goes on to liken the “volunteer” misnomer to when her husband is with their children, and people ask if he is “babysitting” them. Spending time with your own kids is not babysitting, it is fulfilling the responsibilities and duties of parenting. This is much like your work within the church.
According to Rev. Wathen, “To volunteer means that you are an outside resource, stepping in to help an organization in need. Volunteering is what we do when we pick up trash at the park, or build a house with Habitat, or help sort food at the local food pantry. Volunteering is what I do at my kids’ school on Fridays. In other words, it’s what you do at a place that is important to you – – but not at a place that belongs to you.”
While that resonates with my view, I would change one thing. The difference between someplace you volunteer and your service within the church is not just about your involvement with a “place that belongs to you” – – it is about your connection to a place where you belong. I believe that is a critical and defining distinction, even a benchmark by which we can measure both our individual commitment to the community and the quality of our community’s commitment to each other. In fact, I think one of the best affirmations we could receive as a congregation is if someone was to say, “I feel like I really belong there.”
You know that you belong to a place when you believe that your signature on the covenant is just as essential as anyone else’s. It is a place where not only your contributions but your mere presence is as valued and valuable as anyone else’s. A place where you are seen and heard and known and can believe that you were born perfect and whole, fearfully and wonderfully made. And a place where you known that you are a critical part of the Body of Christ: “…joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped,” with “each part working properly, [promoting] the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:16)
But to attain this sense of belonging, we must become disciples ourselves and encourage others on their journey to become a disciple. Within each one of us lies a gift required for discipleship, and together our diversity of gifts combine to – – in the words of the author of Ephesians – – “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” This work does not rest on one individual – – say, an Acting Pastor for example – – nor does it fall to a small handful of people. This holy work is the blessed calling of each member of the body. This is discipleship.
Scripture reminds us of our mutual responsibility for nurturing discipleship. The author of Hebrews calls us to “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together…but encouraging one another.” Peter writes that to be good stewards of God’s grace, we must use our gifts that we have been given in service to one another. Paul encourages the Corinthians to see themselves as coworkers, working together with both God and each other, while also being God’s fertile field ripe with abundance. And so our scriptural mandate to nurture our gifts while nurturing others is ancient and clear.
Outside of scripture, some of the best modern day writing on discipleship comes from the Rev. Dr. Emily C. Heath, Senior Pastor of the Congregational Church of Exeter, UCC. In their first book, “Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity,” Heath makes plain the need for each person to work on their own discipleship while simultaneously encouraging others, stating “It is the responsibility of each person of faith to cultivate their own spiritual life. But it is the responsibility of the community of faith to give them the tools to do it.” This is the kind of work that requires and defines discipleship.
Much like Rev. Dr. Heath, I have long felt that discipleship is the only authentic and sustainable “strategic plan” – – as it were – – for church growth and vitality. A focus on the work of discipleship must inform and guide our present as well as our future. According to Heath, “[If your faith community invests] first in the work of becoming disciples…your priorities will naturally and organically emerge.” So we can hire as many consultants as we want and set as many goals as we can dream up, but our work will be in vain if it is not for the purpose of discipleship.
“But Chris” – – you might be thinking – – “there is so much work to do here. Surely it takes more than discipleship!” True, there is much to do here. But there is more to be here. We talk a lot about the things we have to do here and want to do here, but maybe not enough about what and who we want to be here. We ought not confuse our business and our busyness with our call to be disciples. Our work must be ministry and mission for the sake of discipleship, even when it is about administration. Because even administration in service to discipleship is ministry, which is more than work.
At the same time we must be very, very careful that we do not fall into the trap of only doing the work that is in service to maintaining the church as an institution, while neglecting to nurture ourselves and one another in spirituality, not nourishing and being nourished in Communion with one another, or not feeding our discipleship. Otherwise this church will just become an empty building to be sold off and turned into a quaint and quirky restaurant – – but at least then people would be fed.
Oh, there is much to do. And we need many hands to do it. But more than that we need many hearts to do it, because this work requires heart. There are myriad reasons why people come to this church and stay at this church, but I’m going to guess that one of those reasons is not that you needed to stay busy. I suspect that you came here and that you stay here at least in part because you are in search of purpose. You want to come to church and be part of this community and this covenant so you can grow in your discipleship and deepen your connection to the Divine, to yourself, to others, and to creation.
And it is the calling of this Beloved Community and my calling as your pastor to equip you to discern, live into, and live out that purpose and flourish in that growth. That is discipleship, and that is what makes us vital and growing. Again, we ignore that at our peril. Or as Heath bluntly puts it, “…we have no right to expect members to stay in churches that are not equipping them to live lives of faith and purpose.”
So, how is the Beloved Community of Haydenville Congregational Church doing on all of this? How are we nurturing and being nurtured? Growing in our discipleship and helping others to grow in theirs? How are we equipping and being equipped? One way that we do this is through our worship.
We have often said here that our church is not just about Sunday morning – – yet our time of worship together is the central part of our community where we see one another face-to-face, sing, laugh, and cry together. Get fired up and get inspired together. Think and talk together. Dream and scheme and learn and grow closer to God, closer to each other, and closer to creation together, offering our prayer and praise. At its best, it is a time when we can be renewed and revived, called in and sent out. Again, from Rev. Dr. Heath: “Worship glorifies God first by praising God, and then equipping the people of God for the work of following Christ into the world and serving the world.”
To my mind, our worship together truly has served as a means for equipping disciples and for living into and living out our discipleship.
So much goes into our Sunday worship, and it does not fall just to me and Jeff. Including today, there have been 25 regular worship services since my first Sunday as your Acting Pastor on January 8th. Within those 25 worship services, there have been over 80 parts of worship that were not led solely by me, from the Welcome to the Benediction and everything in between, plus 5 guest preachers and an entire worship ably and impressively led by our Children’s Church. Add to that 25 scripture readers. Add to that Pastor Lindsey and her Children’s Messages. Add to that the choir. Add to that 2 Deacons, 1 Trustee, 3 Greeters, 2 Ushers, 3-4 Children’s Church teachers, and the Coffee Klatches every Sunday. Add to that Anne Pratt recruiting scripture readers, Cindy Dolgoff recruiting Ushers, and Ann Loomis and Laurie Priest recruiting Greeters. Every Sunday. And add to that Norma Kellogg, Ross Bassett, Chris Perry, Nancy Winninger and often several others who show up on Sunday even before I do to stuff bulletins, put out the parking signs, and prep for Coffee Hour. This is what it takes to make our worship happen every Sunday. And that’s just for Sunday.
Then look at the boards, committees, fellowships, education and service opportunities, lawn care and snow removal, phone calls and visits to each other, rides given, meals prepared and served, prayers lifted, and on and on and on.
You don’t do it so your name can be in the bulletin. You don’t do it for fame and certainly not for fortune – – in this life or even the next. You do it because you believe in the ministry and mission of this church, because you want to be a part of the covenant of this Beloved Community, because you see yourself as one of many ligaments “joined and knit together…promoting the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” You do it because you are a disciple.
So if someone was to ask me, “Hey Chris, how is member participation going at Haydenville?” I’d respond, “Pretty darn good as far as I’m concerned.” And how is our discipleship going? Well, we’re working on it – – but that’s appropriate and not at all a bad thing, because we must always be working on discipleship. We do this not out of coercion or hollow obligation, but out of our willingness.
Rev. Dr. Heath writes “The church of the willing will always be able to go deeper than the church of obligatory attendees.” Discipleship might begin with willingness, but it does not end there. Simply being willing to do something is not the same as being equipped. I know there are those of you in the pews today that have gifts to share, and callings to answer. I see you and I’m keeping a list! And with some nudging and encouragement, you might be willing.
You’re a worship leader but you don’t think you’re ready or you’re worried that what you have to share won’t be good enough. Rely on the Holy Spirit and speak from your heart: it’ll be plenty good enough! You love to sing but you might be a little pitchy. Well, go on and try the Instant Choir this summer. You want to lead a prayer group or study group but you’re not sure how to do it. Come talk to me and we’ll figure it out together. You have financial and administrative talents to share in service to the church but you don’t want to get locked into endless meetings and flooded with emails – – well, uh – – we can still find a way for you to share your gifts!
If you are here today, then you at some point have been or will be or currently are a leader in this congregation. If you’re willing and you have not yet answered the call to be a leader, that says to me that you don’t yet feel equipped. Well, let’s change that. Because you have a place here. You matter here. You are needed here. You are the ligaments that knit together the hands, feet, and heart of God. You are a disciple.
Oh yes my friends, there is work to do. And it does and always will require many diverse people with many diverse gifts to engage in that work. But I don’t want anyone to be a volunteer at this church anymore.
By all means, please keep volunteering your time and sharing your gifts with the senior center, your kid’s school, Girl Scouts, Habitat, Grow Food Northampton, the Amherst Survival Center, Cancer Connection, and anywhere else. These people and places need you for their essential life-saving and life-giving work. But when you take on the work of our church, do not do so as a volunteer. Do so as a disciple.
So, for God’s sake and the sake of our Beloved Community – – no longer think of yourself as a volunteer. Because when you come to feel that not only does this place belong to you, but that you belong to and belong in this place, you are no longer a volunteer. You are a disciple. When you come to recognize and deeply believe that you are a vital ligament in the Body of Christ, you are a disciple. But it doesn’t end there. When you then nurture, encourage, provoke, and equip others to see themselves as belonging, to see themselves as a vital ligament, to see themselves as a disciple capable of equipping other disciples, then you are a disciple. After all, Jesus’s Great Commission was not that the apostles would go out and recruit more volunteers, but to go forth and make disciples to carry on his work in this world. This too is our Great Commission, this is our purpose, this is our calling, this is why we are here: to be disciples and to make disciples.