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Church Volunteer vs Paid Staff?

The Age Old Question That's Often Hard To Answer... We Can Help!

Every church doing work for the Kingdom does this delicate dance: When do you rely on volunteers, and when do you pay someone to do something?


It's a tricky subject for lots of reasons. For starters, most people are in a completely different headspace when they’re volunteering compared to when they’re working. On top of that, sometimes people can be weird about money. Add to that budget crunches, staff shortages, or flaky volunteers, and the dance gets even dicier. 


Every church has to find the right mix of volunteers and paid staff that works for them. That said, here are a few things that can help you figure out which option works best in your situation.


Let Love Guide Your Decision


This is a good place to start. The best one, really. When deciding between volunteer and staff positions, think with love. 


If you’re trying to figure out how to squeeze maximum labor from your people, start over with love. If you’re trying to get that budget in the black, no matter what the human cost, start over with love. 


Ask yourself: “Which version of this position — volunteer or staff — will bless the people of your congregation the most? Would a volunteer or a paid staff person flourish more in this position?”


Look at the health of your organization and think pastorally about the organization. You’ll be surprised how much caring for other people’s real needs will help you make this decision.


Maximize the Passion of the People


Ideally, a volunteer is volunteering because they’re passionate about what they’re doing and they’re willing to give their time for free. If switching to a paid staff position will kill the passion of your volunteers in a ministry area, think twice about the decision. 


A paid staff person shouldn’t kill the passion of volunteers. But they can unleash it further. It might be helpful to think of a paid staff person not as a replacement for a volunteer but as someone whose passion will magnetically attract even more volunteers for a growing ministry.


For instance, consider a church that’s struggling to find musicians in their all-volunteer praise band. They decide to invest in hiring a worship leader who is a professional musician. This new staff member attracts musicians from his broader network of gigging colleagues, and the praise band grows from a struggling group to a large, rotating cast of musicians.


Whatever the situation, remember: paid staffers don’t replace volunteers. They multiply them. 


Protect Against Volunteer Burnout 


One of the best reasons to hire a staff person is to protect your volunteers from burnout. A good church leader is attentive to the pulse and mood of the congregation. They can tell when the demands on church volunteers have become too grueling. They can see when a few key volunteers are shouldering too much of the core tasks of the church. 


You may anger or hurt a few volunteers in the early stages of the transition, but in the long run, they may thank you for alleviating their burdens. In best-case scenarios, old volunteers and new staff can even find creative ways to work together in the new arrangement.


Guard Against Bitterness and Jealousy


Practice “looking sideways” from every position in your church. What does each one look like compared to those around it?


If a volunteer guitarist on your worship team looks over to the bassist, will he see a freelance musician who is being paid for the same thing he’s doing for free? If your volunteer middle school leader pops in to talk with the senior high leader, will she see a paid youth minister?


Try to stay as uniform as possible between volunteer and staff positions at each distinct level of ministry. That way, people won’t have the chance to get jealous or bitter about an unfair situation. 


Remove Unnecessary Barriers to Visitors


Unfortunately, sometimes a volunteer, out of the kindness of their heart, does something for a church that creates a barrier to visitors or new people around the church. As delicate as these situations are, sometimes the best solution is to hire someone to do a more professional job with higher standards. 


It might be that a volunteer is running your website, and it looks really outdated. Or a volunteer offered to make flyers for an event, but to be painfully honest, they’re ugly. In these kinds of scenarios, it might be worth hiring someone with professional skills as a matter of hospitality to potential visitors.


Don’t Let Your Staff Become a Bubble


Pay attention to how much time your paid people are spending with other staff members. The unfortunate reality is that once a church gets a large enough staff, it can become insular. 


When this happens, many of the staff tend to excessively interact with each other instead of the people in the church they are called to serve. Keeping a good mix of staff and volunteers working together can keep your paid people grounded and connected to your congregation. 


Go Paid if the Work Just Won’t Get Done


If you’ve been trying for years to get a reliable rotation of volunteers to do custodial clean up every week and the church is still dirty, it’s time to admit it’s not working and hire a part-time janitor. If your volunteers just aren’t cutting it, don’t let idealism get in the way of a workable paid solution that allows you to focus on other areas of ministry. 


Staff positions also have the advantage of built-in job descriptions, accountability, and performance reviews. There are certain expectations, like attending staff meetings, properly documenting work, or meeting yearly goals, that are more easily baked into a job description than a volunteer position. If you are having trouble with volunteers routinely failing to follow through on their tasks, it may be worth transitioning to a paid position.


Take a Hint From Your Budget


Okay, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room forever. Yes, money is a factor in these decisions. But thankfully, there’s a quick and easy benchmark to use when considering your budget as it relates to volunteers and staff. 


As we talked about in our article on how many employees you should have based on your budget, there is a good rule of thumb to help you gauge if you can afford to transition a volunteer position into a staff position: staff expenses of an organization should not exceed 50% of the budget of the organization. If you’re hovering around this number, don’t let money get in the way of all of the other important considerations. If you need some help on componsation structures or the avarage pastors salary we've created some helpful guides to provide some context. 


Connect Your Church with Your Local Community


One of the most important (and overlooked) questions to ask when deciding between a volunteer or paid staff position is: Which version of this role will make more connections with the local community? 


For example, consider a situation where you have a volunteer event coordinator. She has tons of contacts that she taps to help with events, and she’s brought a few people to your church through these connections. Hiring an outside staff person to replace her (even though they might do a more “professional” job) would destroy all of those organic links with your community. 


On the flip side, what if your mission and outreach committee, led by a volunteer, is having trouble engaging the community? Hiring a mission pastor who also works part-time with a local community organization could plug your church into all sorts of community connections.


Paid Staff in a Highly Toxic Situations


No one wants to think about worst-case scenarios, but sometimes a church position or system has gotten toxic enough that “professionalizing” the job after the wreckage may help with healing, transparency, and trust. If you have a volunteer who has been accused of something serious like theft or sexual abuse, you may want to consider replacing them with a paid staff person who has more spiritual and professional accountability. 


Less serious (although still important …and more common) is the volunteer who builds a web of unhealthy and toxic systems that are harming people in the church and blocking ministry opportunities. As painful as these situations are, transitioning to a paid position gives church leadership the opportunity to clean the slate and put healthier systems in place.


Boldly Build Your Church’s Team


Following Jesus means giving your whole life to him. Some people follow Jesus by giving of their time and energy where they work or by pouring into the spiritual care of their families. 


But God calls some to serve the people of God directly in a local church. Ultimately, both your volunteers and your staff are serving God, just in different ways. 


Be bold! Preach a gospel of radical discipleship, and watch as both your staff and volunteers do amazing things as they build God’s Kingdom together.


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