Can ministers be volunteers?

Last week I found myself part of a quite heated debate on the question of "volunteers". The context must remain confidential, but 'a person' expressed his suspicion of the idea that certain people in ministry see themselves as volunteers. He described how he gives short shrift to any self-supporting clergy who believe that they only need to do "the things that they want to" in ministry.

To a certain extent this is standard stuff, heard from Bishops and Archdeacons throughout the land. Still, this person was not simply grumbling, but expressing a theological conviction - that gospel ministry is not voluntary. Jesus said "follow me" and did not add "if you want to". So, the argument runs, those of us who are called to something in the Christian life (and this does not apply only to clergy) do not do it out of voluntarism, but obedience to Christ. The implication of this is that if you accept a particular office or role in the church, you accept all the demands of that role, and don't try to cherry-pick the good bits.

The debate that drew out this comment was about the use of the term "volunteer" to describe the many self-supporting or non-stipendiary ministers we have in this Diocese. This was roundly condemned from all sides. Some, especially those who are NSMs themselves, felt it was derogatory and gave an impression of amateurishness, perpetuating the unhelpful notion that SSMs are inferior to stipendiary colleagues. Others, representing the management end, felt that the term encouraged the kind of "pick and choose" attitude already described.

I'm not sure what I think about all this. I am quite suspicious of the language of calling in this context. The theology is sound, but in the hands of far too many Bishops, Archdeacons, and Parish Priests, this becomes nothing more than an excuse for the abuse of power. "You do as I tell you, because I am X and you are Y" is not a Christian way to conduct a professional relationship, but I know for a fact that it is a widespread strategy within the clergy. Of course there are some ministers who will try to evade their responsibilities (and not only NSMs do this), but the way to solve this is by setting up clearer expectations of what is required, rather than by a blanket exercise of power.

Altogether, if I was a self-supporting minister, I would want to preserve the term "voluntary", as a useful reminder to those who handle the levers of power that my time was given as a generous gift to the church, rather than to be taken for granted. I understand the point about calling, but it is God who calls, not the Archdeacon or the Vicar, and I don't make the mistake of imagining that they are the same.

I don't see anything derogatory about being called a volunteer, either. The voluntary sector is an increasingly professional world, of which the modern NSM is simply the church's own expression. Self-supporting ministry roles need to be properly constructed, with working agreements, line management, etc. - this removes the sense of amateurism and ensures clear expectations on both sides of what is, and isn't, expected. Then "volunteers" will be seen for what they are - a huge asset to the church and a valued reminder of the gifts God gives to his people.


Anonymous said…
Notwithstanding the fact that all our work, church-based and not, should be done as an act of worship (and not as an obligation), I think that we get too het up about the significance of wages. Whether someone is employed to do something or not is not the point. We worship because we love God, not because we get paid - that should be our attitude towards all work.

Paid or unpaid, God will provide. If God provides for NSMs without giving them a wage, then great. I've lived for years at a time without earning a salary for the work I've done; that didn't mean my work wasn't valid work (you'll have to take my word for that), just that God provided for me through other means.

Partly as a result, I've come to rate the word 'amateur' very highly, not least because it means 'lover'. We would all rather have a minister who served out of love for God than one who was in it for the generous pension scheme.
fr dougal said…
Having been both Stipendary and now "Worker Priest" (a term I find infinitely more affirming than NSM and better than "self supporting" which makes one sound like a bra!) I see where the "regulars" are coming from. I always used to get riled by the difficulty in getting holiday cover from charges with 7 NSM's - most of whom did zip outside their parish (i ended up using retired regulars, who were always more willing to cross country and lend a hand. Priesthood is primarily about service rather than status but too many NSM clergy see it as service of "their" parish and not of "the whole Church". There has to be a greater education of the NSM in their vocation to serve outwith their own locale.

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