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Members or volunteers?

11 July 2014

We are filling in forms to apply for grants, and somehow we find ourselves arguing about whether we are members or volunteers. To some of us, at least, we are undoubtedly members; we are not volunteers to a cause. We don't think Christianity is a cause, more a way of life that means we belong.

LET us begin with the limitations of language. Most application processes do not have a word for the kind of members we are, who give everything to God, "to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves". It is similar to those who volunteer to join the army: you are not a volunteer, but a soldier - albeit the soldier is paid.

Breaking down the language to basics, we are not paid to go to church: we go voluntarily, week after week; and, as churches are classed as charities, we are best classified in the world of charities as charity volunteers. So, in form filling, we are under the general umbrella of volunteers.

We attend church to serve God with everything we have, and serve the Church as best we can. There seems to me no biblical mandate for discipleship that is expressed in caring for buildings, doing paperwork, or running the office; the biblical setting was not a bureaucratic society, but one that was focused on people, and the relationships between them.

To me, it seems that many churches are not made up of the ideal group of "volunteers": that is, having the cross-section of skills necessary for running a church well in, for example, a multi-benefice parish, an interregnum, or even a building-repair or renovation pro-gramme. That can be result of a multitude of reasons: the catchment area, the small numbers, the neighbourhood, and many more.

Often, a willing but unskilled volunteer, determined that the church should continue, takes on a task way beyond his or her experience and ability, and tries to muddle through. But we must not lose sight of the fact that each of us is present to serve God with everything, and our neighbours as ourselves.

We cannot push volunteers so far beyond their abilities that their failure to achieve tasks turns them away from the Church altogether. Our Christianity is not about the Church, but we all need the Church's support to continue in the Way. It is not appropriate for the Church to chew us up and spit us out - in a kindly way, of course.

One area in which I find that volunteers are almost always out of their depth is in the field of grant-funded repair and renovation pro-grammes. The amount of knowledge - of the language, and of the processes of fund-raising, construction, and finance - needed to oversee major works is huge. Some churches have a volunteer who worked in one of these fields, but is flexible enough to adapt his or her skills to find a way through.

In others, however, the Church collectively should look at new ways to provide the necessary skills to help volunteers. In an interregnum, there is some help provided from outside by area or rural deans, archdeacons, and others.

In the building programme, it would be good to see people available to come in and mentor or even invest their skills to help churches find their way through. Come on, dioceses: stop being obsessed with issues that have little bearing on real life in the pews, and find a way to provide essential skills.


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