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Home » Church Leadership, Featured

We Need More Unpaid Leaders

Submitted by James Higginbotham on August 17, 2009 – 4:28 am5 Comments

It seems to surround us. The idea that a church can only get things done if they have paid staff. In fact, many churches strive for more staff. They make it a goal from day one. More staff equals more work done.

The problem? The church can’t support the model of hiring more and more staff.Eventually, staff can’t be hired. Or worse – they have to be laid off.

As we’ve seen from the last few years, money is given less to churches and spent less by churches.  Unfortunately, the church has become more and more dependent upon paid staff. From part-time to full-time staff, the church wants to hire to get anything done. 

This model may work for churches in affluent areas, or for churches with a large base of contributing members. This model, however, doesn’t work for the majority of churches. It also doesn’t work if the economy slows down (as we’ve seen). 

The church doesn’t need more paid staff. It needs more unpaid leaders. It needs volunteers that are willing to step up and guide the church during good economies and bad. 

The church needs more unpaid leaders.

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  • Larry Baxter says:

    I’m with you on this post, James! Two things I would love to see you cover in posts, one directly related to this one and one tangentially related.

    First, if a church agrees with that need, what are the key changes in culture / attitude / development process to encourage those types of unpaid leaders?

    Related – is the primary purpose of leadership development in the church to strengthen the body and help the church be more effective in its God-given purpose, or is it to develop people to have more influence in their whole life – home, work, and ministry. Perhaps its a “both-and” thing but it seems a leadership development process would look different depending on which took priority. In one case you might offer training for ministry leaders and small group leaders to play their role more effectively, while in the other case you might offer totally generalized classes/resources open to anyone (but that would be of interest to most leaders). Would love to hear your thoughts on that :) – Larry

  • Larry,

    Thanks for your comment – you raise some good questions! I’ll try to address them here for now, but will try to write about these in greater detail in the near future.

    For a church to build in more unpaid leaders, it must make a few key changes: 1) build into its culture the ability to break large tasks/projects into smaller bite-sized tasks that can be accomplished by volunteers rather than full-time staff, 2) make these smaller tasks both easily findable and doable by busy people that work part-time or full-time at home or job site, and 3) teach and reward this process to staff and unpaid leaders, with the goal of depending less on the staff and more on the volunteer base to get things done.

    The primary purpose of leadership is to define the purpose, set a unified direction, and ignite passion. This may be at the macro-level (your local church), the mid-level (youth, children’s ministry, worship service, etc), or the micro-level (building maint/cleaning, greeting, ushering, etc).

    Throughout all of this, it must be people-centered, which means it should be a mixture of reaching inward (discipleship), outward (community), and upward (worship). This requires training at all levels, as you pointed out.

    This training is likely a mixture of generalized discipleship (101, 201, 301, 401 classes to grow their personal walk with Christ) and specialized training (small group leadership, service team leadership, becoming a leader-of-leaders, etc).

    Is this something along the direction you want to see covered in the future?

  • Larry Baxter says:

    James, thanks for responding. I appreciate your writing style, it’s very clear and concise. The answers were quite good, and helpful… from a technical perspective. What I’m wrestling with is a problem we’re facing, a strategic question, and a process question. They’re all related so let me see if I can make them more clear.

    The ‘problem’ is that people are getting increasingly busy and seem far less interested in training. Trying to gather people for a meeting for say usher training or on how to teach our 301 class better is hard. Perhaps it gets back to better vision-casting and igniting passion, but even among people excited about ministry, giving up an afternoon or night away from family is seen as a big burden. So the question this problem raises is – how do we effectively train our people for their ministry roles?

    The related strategic/purpose question: Is this even the right question to ask?! Is a ministry leader’s goal in developing leaders to train people for service in an in-church ministry role, or is it to better understand what they feel they need to serve people in whatever realm they find themselves placed by helping them more with felt needs. We say “You need to… [learn to be a better greeter]” and they think “I need to be a dad who doesn’t yell at his kids” or “I need to learn how to work with difficulty people” or “I’m working two jobs and you want more time from me? Give me a break, I need to learn how to find a job!” If leadership is influence, how can we help people be a stronger influence for Christ where they are planted? Are we developing people for the sake of getting things done in ministry, or are we developing them as people and trust that as we do more effective ministry will occur?

    Along with these is a ‘process’ question that is based on the above, plus how adults learn. They’re far more hands-on and in response to need-to-know problems they’re currently facing, rather than what most ‘training’ does – present a list of potential problems you’ve never seen but might someday. Do we need to shift away from centralized training and have more mentoring, coaching, web-based resources, and an approach where the people choose to get the help in areas they feel they need?

    I hope these questions make sense :) – Thanks, Larry

  • Larry,

    I think the answer to both of your issues is becoming a people-focused church. If your church is more focused on getting things done than ministering to the needs of those in your church, then you only end up burning people out.

    I agree with you – people won’t give more time to be trained if their lives don’t reflect the love of Christ. So, yes – you want to focus on people’s needs first and the tasks will come out of it. Training should be simple and straight forward using the “I do, you watch. You do, I watch. You do. You do, someone else watches” methodology.

    Putting it all together, your volunteers need to know that they are cared for first, that you respect their time and don’t waste their time on things they don’t need, and finally that they are making a worthwhile contribution of their time and talent to help their local church and God’s kingdom.

    FYI, my Handle With Care ebook covers much of this, from focusing leaders on becoming people-centered, to how to train volunteers, to recruiting new volunteers. I’ve used it in a small group setting to allow leaders to learn and discuss how they can grow their team and their church more effectively. You can find it here: http://www.volunteercentered.com/ebooks/handle-with-care-second-edition/

    Contact me directly using the ‘contact’ link at the top of the website if your church won’t cover the cost and I’ll help you out. I want to be sure that you have the book available to you in some way, as I think it may help answer some of these questions about church and team processes.

    Thanks for your openness and questions, and for your kind works of encouragement!


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