Volunteers or Servants: What’s the Different?

Volunteers or Servants: What’s the Difference?
Rex Deckard

Getting people involved is one of the key strategies to disciple-making and church growth. In working with church volunteers, consider several truths:

* There is no pay involved.
* Participation happens because they want it.
* People help because it makes them feel good.
* There is an interest in being a part of the whole.

These are volunteers! However, we do a disservice to people if they don’t understand that God’s work really does not call for volunteers. Jesus called for servants. There is a big difference between a volunteer and a servant.

Consider the ant . . .

Do ants collect food, dig tunnels, and store food as volunteers? Or is it because they innately understand they are part of something where everyone has a role to play? In the ant colony, none are idle – survival depends on each member of the colony doing their part. No, they are not volunteers but serve the needs of a grander scheme. It is an idea that works on many fronts. Robert Greenleaf coined the phrase servant-leadership. He defined it like this:

“The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. He or she is sharply different from the person who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve, after leadership is established. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

The best leaders are servant-leaders. Jesus gave quite a pattern of a servant-leader. “He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form” (Philippians 2:7, NLT).

Do I develop volunteers or servants?

Those who work on an unpaid basis are volunteers. It’s a term borrowed from social clubs and nonprofit organizations. Leaders of such groups make it their business to cultivate a steady stream of volunteers because without them, the organization would not succeed. Church programs often live or die by their ability to attract and mobilize volunteers.

Pastors go to seminars or read books about how to “recruit volunteers.” A church not making good use of people is a church destined for mediocrity. To try and operate without the assistance of saints is a suicide mission for church leadership. In churches across North America, the volunteer model of ministry has been used to do wonderful things.

Now the question: is the “volunteer strategy” even Biblical?

Let’s let Jesus answer: “…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45). During His ministry, Jesus didn’t recruit volunteers; He called people to be servants.

The Greek word doulos is generally translated as “servant.” Our use of the term “to serve” can be limited to the waiter at Ruby Tuesday’s who says, “I’m Tom, and I’m here to serve you.” It’s a cheap use of “serve.” What the waiter does for you is not what the Bible has in mind. In the first century a doulos was pure and simple a “slave.”

Jesus knew how a slave was treated, “Suppose one of you had a slave plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the slave when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Would he thank the slave because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have only done our duty” (Luke 17:7-10). Notice the “slave:

* Was owned by someone else.
* Had a master.
* Was not free to do as he wished.
* Activity is based on instruction from the master.
* “Needs” or wants are not a priority.

Is it possible that we are more a volunteer church than a servant church? Paul said that we who have died with Christ in crucifixion have been freed from the bondage of sin (Romans 6:6-7). It is something to celebrate, but it is not the end of Paul’s thought. He continues: we who have been set free from sin become slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:18). When God offers freedom, it comes in the form of a choice between masters.

The Israelites could serve Pharoah in Egypt, or God in the Promised Land. We can serve Satan in the dominion of darkness, or we can serve Christ in the Kingdom of Light. Either way, as a singer said, “We’ve got to serve somebody.”

For Christians, Jesus Christ is the master. He expects obedience from His slaves. The term “volunteer” does not fit. It fits the Kiwanis Club, but not the church. Slaves humbly and obediently respond to their master’s command. When Jesus commands us to take care of the needy, He isn’t asking for volunteers. He is expecting the thing to be done! Preachers, since we are servant-leaders, we should be partnering with and coordinating the efforts of our fellow slaves, making sure Jesus’ work is accomplished as efficiently as possible.

Paul was an apostle, but knew his place. “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (II Corinthians 4:5). Let’s be clear about what we are looking to develop in the church, not a club of volunteers who give spare time to a good cause. We are raising up a group of slaves to Jesus Christ. (Preachers, being careful we never treat Jesus’ servants as though they are our personal slaves or servants. There is a difference.) Our entire lives are devoted to serving a common master. Jesus took the form of a servant. His apostles considered themselves slaves of God and the churches they served. What about me? Am I a slave?

Everyone in our church is a servant. Our people are not members of a volunteer social organization, but servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s the example He set.

Jesus never asked His followers to give up a few hours of their day off. He did call them to give up everything for the sake of His Kingdom. The distinction is crucial because in our “it’s cool to be busy” culture where spare time is scarce, most church volunteers have to be cornered, coddled, and convinced that their participation won’t take up too much of their time. It’d be different if we all thought of ourselves as His slave.

Fundamentally the difference between a volunteer and a servant is the spirit in which one approaches the need or task. A volunteer does not feel obligated, and consequently nor does not feel ownership of the task. A volunteer only does it for the organization; a servant does it because His Master said to.

Volunteers ask, “How much is required of me?” Servants of Christ, on the other hand, serve at the pleasure of their master, realizing their lives and the days by which they are measured already belong to Him. They go the extra mile; doggedly pursuing excellence because they believe their Master is worth the extra effort.

A volunteer feels gratified at a job well done. A servant feels gratified, but more than that, they feel joy for the sake of their Master. If you don’t feel joy after serving the Master, maybe you have approached it as a volunteer and not a servant.

The church doesn’t need more volunteers who give away spare time. We need servants whose lives belong to the Lord. Paul said it well, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24).

When I stand before the Lord on the Judgment Day, do I expect to hear him say, “Thanks for your time,” or “Well done, my good and faithful servant?”

Action Steps To Develop Serving Saints

1. Preach and teach the theme “Every man a ministry.” Connect ministry not just to the needs of the church, but as Bro. Deckard has instructed connect it to servant-hood.
2. Various churches continue to take strides toward involvement through the use of Fitly Framed. Email ccoon@upci.org to get this resource that works to draw people into servant-hood. Pastor Craig Fritchley from Syracuse, Indiana is teaching Fitly Framed and has developed a PowerPoint presentation to use. Available at www.HomeMissionsDivision.com/downloads.asp
3. Use Bro. Deckard’s material as a resource to move your people beyond volunteerism. There is also a PowerPoint to accompany the material in this Director’s Communique. It can be found at www.HomeMissionsDivision.com/downloads.asp.
4. Pastor – consider your own conduct. Who is master of your life? Is your service to Jesus and His church a ministry of convenience and the things you enjoy doing, or a ministry of “doing what you have got to do?” Do people see you as an example of “lordship” or “servanthood?” How have you specifically served one person this week?
5. How important is it for you (and other leaders around the church) to have the spotlight or the platform? One can tell much about whether we have a servant heart when we do our work and nobody gives us any credit. An elder was asked, “How can I tell whether or not I have a servant’s heart?” His answer: “How do you respond when somebody treats you like a servant?”

The above article, “Volunteers or Servants: What’s the Difference?” was written by Rex Deckard. The article was excerpted from Director’s Communique July/August 2009.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.