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Who Gets to Do Ministry?

I was recently in a board meeting for a church that we’ve done some consulting with. In this meeting, we had multiple discussions about all the great things the church is doing, areas the church could make some adjustments, and how to achieve greater effectiveness.

One of things that we had spent the most time talking about was how to mobilize people from thinking of themselves as volunteers to ultimately thinking of themselves as part of a ministry team that actually does ministry. This is a common conversation that we have with churches. Local churches are structured typically in a manner that is top-down. Serving in a place like this is highly structured. It allocates responsibility for whatever the duration of services so the tasks can be done. There is good work that can be done this way, but it does not give a volunteer any authority to make changes or improvements. Individuals bring this type of thinking into how they serve in the church, and a church staff unknowingly reinforces behavior.

Volunteering VS Ministering

Most people are serving in church out of obligation — there was a need, so someone volunteered. Obligation does not have to be a bad thing; a lot of people serving don’t have bad feelings about it. Church leaders know this, and because people’s time is valuable and limited, they give people simple structured ways is to serve in order to steward their resources well. 

But there’s a factor in all of this that gets missed sometimes. The church is very different than many nonprofit places people serve. Packing up meals, boxing things up, assembly line volunteerism doesn’t work the same way in a church. Many people who serve in churches are coming from that mindset the church might be missing volunteers in the nursery so someone steps in to help. They may not be qualified for it or even care about it that much, but there’s a need so they will fill it. While there will always be needs like that present in the church, one of the greatest things a church has is its ability to teach people to do ministry, not just volunteer work. And when people are doing ministry, the opportunity to move it past being an obligation is much higher. The opportunity for it to be about something their passion and heart resonates with is more possible.

The Fear of Trusting

Church leaders carry a heavy load of responsibility in all aspects of church leadership. Whether it’s teaching on stage, leading worship, heading up children’s ministry,  or dealing with governance and board issues/decisions. All of these are time-consuming, stressful, and often times a weight of pressure that is taking church or ministry leaders away from their families, their focus, and even their health.

Churches try hard to find places for people to serve but if you ask most people who are in those volunteer roles, they never quite feel equipped or empowered with the authority and responsibility to make decisions that would ultimately be helpful to the church leaders who assign them tasks.

Most churches view the priority of ministry around a Sunday perspective and more specifically around the stage. This is the center point for the activity of a church in most churches across the country. The preparation and work is culminated and ultimately celebrated on a stage where people are in an observation/participatory role to watch. Sometimes this stage is for the entire church, a specific ministry, or entirely virtual and online. The reality is that most church attenders view the responsibility, authority, and role of ministry itself through the perspective they have watching the stage. Many volunteers in a church would say they are grateful to help out but that the real work of ministry is happening by those on staff and those on the stage.

This is a hard mindset to break. People spend years in education and higher education learning about ministry and to step into ministry leadership roles be effective. The idea of mobilizing to people and handing off responsibility of ministry to those who don’t have the same qualifications you have might feel a bit irresponsible. And in some situations that’s absolutely true. If you are a pastor, you wouldn’t just anyone counting money that went through an offering plate. You wouldn’t want just anyone to stand on stage and preach while you’re on vacation.

But there are ways to shift your thinking about moiling people towards owning the ministry work in front of them. Here are three of them.

  1. Ephesians 4:11-12, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ …” Pastors aren’t the only ministers. In fact, they’re called to equip saints for ministry, meaning the members of your church are ministers. Treat them that way. Make sure they know the difference. 
  2. Assign your ministers roles that fit a minister, not a volunteer. That’ll mean equipping them to share the gospel. That’ll mean teaching them some light biblical counseling. That’ll mean a lot of different things depending on your ministry. But remember — if there’s no difference between your ministers and assembly line volunteers, step back and re-evaluate. 
  3. Invite them to the conversation. Encourage them to make suggestions. Get their input. That person who volunteered to serve in a nursery because there was a need has powerful insight, even they’re volunteering out of obligation. Asking them how the nursery can be improved can actually help them stop looking at their service as an obligation and more as their own ministry. 

Ask yourself: if your organization a ministry or a just a place where people volunteer? Even if it is a nonprofit, does your heart actually want it to be a ministry? Whether you’re a youth pastor or the director of a soup kitchen, if you’re doing this for the glory of God, you’re more in the ministry realm than the secular nonprofit world. And knowing that might change everything.

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