Paid Staff vs. Volunteers

One of the most dangerous distinctions we make when it comes to people who work and serve in our parishes is seeing them as either employees or volunteers.  From a technical standpoint, I certainly understand the necessity of this distinction.  But when it comes to motivating and managing them, we need to step back and see that they should be treated the same way.  Better yet, we need to start treating employees like volunteers and volunteers like employees.  Let me explain what I mean.



When I say volunteers, I mean all the people that are helping out at the parish – from music ministers, to lectors, to ushers, to Bible study leaders, to people moving chairs before an event – and everything in between.

All too often, we see volunteers as people we need to accommodate and coddle.  We believe that if we demand too much from them, they might decide to leave.  After all, they’re not being paid, so we can’t expect them to serve with the same level of commitment and excellence as paid staff members.  Looked at in a theoretical sense, this would seem logical.  But in reality, it doesn’t work out that way.  It fact, it actually increases the likelihood of having mediocre volunteers.

See, great volunteers are inspired and motivated to serve the Church, and they seek situations of responsibility and accountability, where they can make a real difference in the world.  As a result, they want to work with leaders and organizations that have high standards, and if they feel that the organization where they work allows volunteers to get away with poor work or sub-standard performance, they become discouraged.  Often they leave, in search of a place that is more serious about its mission.  I know because early in my career I tried to volunteer in a few parishes and found myself discouraged when I encountered cultures of low expectations.

The only volunteers who are drawn to an organization with low standards are the ones who aren’t terribly inspired or serious about their volunteer work.  They do it because it’s easy and flexible and won’t push them out of their comfort zones.  This is a perfect recipe for mediocrity – driving away or repelling great volunteers and accommodating less-committed ones.

Parishes are best served by lovingly holding volunteers to high standards, thereby attracting great ones and discouraging the mediocre ones.  There is nothing cruel about that.  The earliest Christians required their followers to work hard and take their work – and their faith – seriously, because the importance of their mission demanded it.  It is pretty logical when you think about it, and is just as applicable today.  Find people who love the Church and want to bring others to Christ, and give them real responsibility.  Then hold them accountable, celebrate their contributions, and appreciate the heck out of them.  They will stay with you, and they’ll draw others like them to the parish.



Now, when it comes to paid employees, we need to start treating them like volunteers.  What I mean is that we cannot simply assume that because they are being paid that they don’t need the same kind of mission-oriented motivation that volunteers require.  If we manage paid staff as though they weren’t being paid at all, we will spend more time motivating, inspiring and appreciating them, and we’ll watch their morale and productivity skyrocket.  And for those employees who don’t respond to that kind of inspiration and motivation, perhaps they really are just employees, and need to be allowed to find another job.

If that sounds harsh, consider this.  No one who works in a parish should see their work as a job.  It is a mission.  It is a ministry.  It is a calling.  The fact that they are paid should be an administrative and legal distinction, not a behavioral one.  It should be a bonus above and beyond the reality that they get to serve the Church every day.  That is not to say that paid staff don’t deserve to be paid.  It’s just to say that anyone who works in a Church simply because they need the money is probably not appreciating the meaning of what their vocation is all about.  They need to have the passion of a volunteer, regardless of their financial situation.

I should close by saying that many – if not most – of the people I meet who work in parishes, volunteer or paid staff, seem to love the Church and the Lord.  They desperately want to help others know and love God so that they too can experience His peace and promise.  But when they look around and see that others do not share their passion or their desire for excellence, their hearts break and they become discouraged.  That alone – the possibility of discouraging our best employees and volunteers – is probably enough to give a parish leader the courage to lovingly hold volunteers accountable, and to require sincere passion and motivation from employees.


 Pat Lencioni | Co-founder
The Amazing Parish

One thought on “Paid Staff vs. Volunteers

  1. Thank you so much! I needed to hear this! Very well stated! Kind of been thinking along those lines for a while, now I have your article to refer to.

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