Why volunteering can be a bad thing

Everyone these days seems to agree that volunteering is a good thing. Volunteering for a charity gives both you and the charity an opportunity to help others, and charities are increasingly seen as necessary to fill in the gaps in the welfare state (or indeed as a replacement for the welfare state if you live in a country that doesn’t have one). Volunteering is also said to have health benefits for those who undertake it. People who volunteer their time are happier on the whole than those who don’t and are less likely to suffer from loneliness, which probably makes them less liable to develop dementia.

But however beneficial volunteering may be to the individual, for many small groups such as clubs and churches, it can become the kiss of death. Everybody knows the syndrome. A small group of people end up doing everything, not because they want to but because nobody else will relieve them of their duties. At every AGM, the committee gets reelected en bloc because nobody else is prepared to stand. It becomes a vicious circle: because those who have the job appear to be saddled with it for life, nobody else wants it. Because nobody else wants the job, those who have it are saddled with it. Eventually all the members of that small executive group die or leave (or break down) and the organisation folds.

Parish churches often suffer from this disease. I include here non-Anglican Churches, which may not use the word “parish” but are still local groups that usually depend on a smaller internal group to do whatever needs to be done. There is always a council or committee of some kind. There are rotas for coffee mornings or for keeping the church building open over lunch, There are rotas for reading the scriptures and leading prayers at services. And when you look at these rotas, the same names keep cropping up over and over again. This is the small group of overstretched volunteers on whom the whole organisation depends.

In the case of churches, the volunteer group usually consists of retired people in their 60’s and 70’s. A high proportion of them are women. As they get older and older, some die and others go into residential care, and the rotas get increasingly threadbare. Eventually you get a church that is barely surviving and certainly making little mark on the local community. The irony is that this dependence on volunteering, which is killing the church in the long run, may be essential to keep it alive from day to day. It is rather like heroin addiction: the addict knows that heroin is slowly killing him, but right now he cannot do without that fix.

Actually one could make out a good case that the use of volunteers by any small group is immoral. Effective communal morality requires that behaviour useful to the community be rewarded and harmful behaviour discouraged, if necessary by punishing it. The reverse situation, where bad behaviour earns the most rewards, is known as “moral hazard”. The volunteering ethos applied to small groups is a perfect example of moral hazard because it systematically punishes the willing and rewards those who keep their heads down. I am not exaggerating too much when I use the word “punish”. I have seen a woman who spent many years managing the flower arrangements in her church finally begging with tears in her eyes for someone to relieve her of the responsibility because she could no longer cope. Of course this was the perfect example to everyone present of the folly of actually offering to do so.

I don’t know what the answer is for local branches of clubs and societies, but churches do actually have an alternative model available. In the New Testament, the local church is seen as a body, the Body of Christ in that place. And this is not a mere figure of speech as it so often is today. Local churches were then expected to function in much the same way as a biological body functions. Many passages in Paul’s letters make this point crystal clear. In your body, every organ, indeed every single cell, has its job to do. It is not asked if it wants to do that job. It has to do it, because the health and wellbeing of the whole body require it to be done.

The New Testament church did not depend on volunteers and it did not carry passengers. The main job of the leaders of the congregation was to determine for all new members what spiritual gift each of them had been given and what function that gift allowed them to perform for the general good. Everybody did their job and the Church flourished.

I have often heard and read that churches today do not function properly because people in full-time work and with family responsibilities simply cannot afford to give their time to the church. Only retired people can do that. They forget that most first-century Christians were slaves, who had less free time than the average employed worker today. How then was the magic performed? Probably in the same way that a biological body performs it: every organ in your body consists of many cells and many hands make light work.

If a Christian slave clearly had a gift for teaching but only 10 minutes per week free, he could be given a newly baptised convert to mentor and take through the Apostles’ Creed in weekly 10-minute sessions. By the end of the process, there would be one more convert who was fully up to scratch with what he was supposed as a Christian to believe. Then the teacher could take on a new pupil. He was not responsible for his pupils’ pastoral care; that would be looked after by someone else who was suitably gifted. Teaching other converts would be done by whoever else had the gift and the time for it. Everything that needed to be done got done because everybody was doing something.

At the same time no one, except a few travelling evangelists like Paul, had to do a job that took substantial amounts of their time, and so no one was likely to balk at taking on an assigned job because it was impossibly burdensome. Above all, no one got rewarded for being work-shy or effectively punished for being willing to help out.

Of course we all know the old joke: if I wanted to get there, I certainly wouldn’t start from here. Which raises the obvious question: once a local church or any other small group has got stuck in the volunteering trap, can it ever get out again?

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