Lessons from the Pulpit

Andy Fryar May 1, 2005 2
Lessons from the Pulpit


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar


For many years I’ve been one of those voices critical of the volunteer management practices of the traditional church movement in Australia .

Quite frankly in many mainstream denominations, membership of a local church has often come with the unspoken requirement of needing to fulfil a variety of volunteer roles in order to become a ‘fully fledged’ and active parishioner. In itself this is not such a bad thing – after all, serving others is a key tenet of most religions. However, the difficulty I’ve had has been that these ‘expectations to perform’ volunteer activities are almost a version of ‘mandatory volunteering’ we never dare speak of – with the added catch that little or no thought is often ever given to offering any practical support or training to the church volunteers themselves.

Am I being cynical? Well yes maybe – and of course I am generalising too. There are many Australian churches that do and always have given appropriate consideration to the role that volunteers play in their ranks – particularly those churches performing social outreach programs. However I stand by the observation that many traditional church bodies still have a long way to go in the support of their volunteer team members.

With this in mind, I was pleased to read reports recently about the continued growth of the modern day church movement in Australia and the ways it has had to adapt to societal changes in order to continue to attract new members and more importantly, stay relevant to a new generation.

The parallels with the volunteer movement were not lost on me.

Like many of the more established churches, many ‘traditional’ volunteer groups are also struggling to attract new volunteer team members. They are often seen as increasingly irrelevant or at least, a less attractive option, in an environment which is much more competitive and fast paced.

Consider the following statistics from the National Church Life Survey (NCLS)* :

* Overall church attendance in Australia declined 7 per cent in the past five years. * The decline was most prevalent in the more ‘traditional’ denominations. Catholic Mass attendance had dropped 13 per cent, the Uniting Church 7 per cent and Anglicans 2 per cent * These figures worsened as congregations aged. In many Anglican churches, three out of five people are now older than 70.

Notice any similarities with traditional volunteer groups?

Now here’s the interesting point. The modern day church movement (primarily Pentecostal and evangelical denominations) have made, and continue to make, the changes required to meet the needs of those looking for fulfilment in the 21 st century.

An article in ‘The Age’ newspaper recently reported that:

* Assemblies of God attendance had risen 20 per cent, the Apostolic Church by 20 per cent and Christian City Churches by 42 per cent. * Pentecostals were the religious phenomenon of the 20th century, growing from zero to nearly 500 million, or a quarter of the world’s Christians.

So what is it that the Pentecostal and Evangelical churches are doing that is different to those mainstream denominations that are declining in both attendance and the number of younger people they attract? And more importantly, what can the volunteerism movement learn from the lessons that have been applied?

A quick look at the website of Australia ’s largest church, the Hillsong church in Sydney , gives some clues. The site itself is high tech, attractive, inviting, informative and easy to navigate. More importantly, it clearly demonstrates Hillsong’s commitment to involving the broader community in its activities. Pictures on the site show (mainly younger) people enjoying themselves and for a pleasant change, indigenous Australians are well represented amongst the images.

A quick scan of their services (which attract 17,500 per week) show a vast array of worship options and ways to get involved that are sure to suit people of all age groups and with a variety of interests. Services are also offered specifically in Spanish, Chinese and Filipino. There is a clear demonstration, even from their website alone, of a climate that has been created to meet the needs of a changing world. The site also features a very nice page where interested persons can sign up to become a volunteer (Note: It is offered as an option and not an automatically assumed role)

Mark Connor, the Senior Pastor at Melbourne’s largest church, ‘CityLife’, offered further clues to the success of the modern church in the Age article mentioned above;

As well as the winning worship style, he (Connor) also mentions energy and vision and a theological shift from church growth (winning numbers) to church health (keeping them). And leadership. “A healthy leader is the key to a healthy church because you reproduce after your kind. If I have an angry style, make rash decisions, am harsh with the staff, other things may be right but we won’t grow”.

Before moving on, there is one final quote I’d like to take from ‘The Age’ article which refers to the newest emerging trend, where church really is beginning to operate outside of the traditional ‘square;

“Another group that seems to be growing are the so-called emerging churches, beloved of the Sydney Anglicans, whose members meet in cafes, pubs, workplaces or anywhere, on any day at any time, to service particular groups. According to Ross Langmead, lecturer in missions at (the Baptist) Whitley College , these churches are informal, avoid jargon and take the message into society rather than inviting society to church”.

So what do all these lessons teach us about volunteerism? Well plenty. If we take time to consider the changes that these church groups have made in order to make themselves more relevant to a generation used to living life at a faster pace, who are more informed and who are highly analytical about the use of their time, we can clearly see where good volunteer management practices may also take our volunteer programs.

To finish, I wanted to again refer to the ‘National Church Life Survey’, whose website features a list of ‘ the 12 core qualities of healthy churches’ – indicators that the NCLS have determined, as a result of their research, must be present for a church to be functioning to its maximum potential.

Below I’ve listed the 12 qualities and parallelled them with good volunteer management practices for you all to consider

Quality # 1 ~ An Alive FaithAt the heart of vital and effective churches is an alive, growing faith. Churches need faith nurturing activities, community experiences and opportunities for service that lead people forward in their faith. Volunteer programs similarly must seek out and find the reasons people volunteer in the first place and seek to emphasize these as a benefit of volunteering. More often than not these will be tied closely to the mission of your organisation
Quality # 2 ~ Vital WorshipWorship services are central to a churches life together and important to Christian growth. They are also a major factor in drawing people into church life or turning them away. Churches need to offer their rich heritage of worship practice in ways that can engage people of diverse ages, cultures and lifestyles. We must never lose sight of the social benefits that voluntary activities bring to many volunteers. We too need to be developing ways that engage people of all ages, cultures and lifestyles.
Quality # 3 ~ Sense of belongingGrowth in faith and belonging to a Christian community are intimately connected. Churches should function as spiritual families where members experience friendship, share life, struggles and hopes and contribute their gifts . Likewise, volunteer programs fulfil this role for many who are involved. We must never overlook the feelings of connectedness that volunteers gain from their involvement and we must be vigilant in looking for ways to enhance this experience for all volunteers.
Quality # 4 ~ Concern for the fringeNewcomers to parishes and congregations need to be welcomed with warmth and receive ongoing hospitality that shows their presence is valued. Volunteer programs must develop ways to support and encourage new volunteers as they enter into the program.
Quality # 5 ~ Care for young peopleChildren, youth and young adults need space and a safe environment in which to explore and discover their own faith and identity. Churches can provide this, helping them feel that they belong and that, as their needs and interests change, there are opportunities for them to contribute and shape what is happening. Statistics indicate that young people are volunteering for a wide range of reasons – and not simply to gain practical experience for the workforce as many people think! Consider the ways that you communicate with and attract young people to your program, and ensure that they too have a say in your program and how it operates
Quality # 6 ~ A focus beyond ourselvesChurches need to be missional, focused beyond themselves and their own needs, connecting with the wider community around them through corporate church initiatives and informally through the everyday lives of all attendees. The mission of volunteer organisations is often lost on volunteers in the undertaking of daily duties. Consider ways to bring volunteers back to the core business of the organization and demonstrate clearly how the activities volunteers undertake impact directly on that mission
Quality # 7 ~ Serving the wider communityOutward focus needs to have a dimension of service grounded in Jesus’ exhortation that we “love our neighbour as ourselves”. The many forms of outreach and care provided by individuals and church groups in turn may transform the church community and its life of faith. Never let your volunteers lose sight of the fact that they are working for the benefits of the broader community – whether that be for an environmental cause, assisting youth or homelessness, healthcare or a myriad of other community services
Quality # 8 ~ Discussing faith and inviting othersChurches need to be assisting attendees to feel comfortable talking about issues of faith with others in their everyday lives. They will also be encouraging them to invite others to church to hear the ‘good news’ and experience the reality of Christian community . Word-of-mouth remains the number one source of recruiting new volunteers yet how many of us encourage – or even go so far as to assist – our existing volunteers to talk to others about their volunteer work and other available opportunities we might have?
Quality # 9 ~ Integrating newcomersNewcomers not involved with another congregation or parish need to be drawn into the life of the church and helped to find their place in the life of the faith community Cultural divide remains one of the biggest obstacles to the successful integration of new volunteers into existing programs. Think of ways that your ‘old timers’ can be involved in the successful integration and orientation of new team members
Quality # 10 ~ Vision for the futureVital churches spend time discerning a clear vision for the future to which all can contribute and own. This vision inspires and guides the growth of the community of faith. Volunteer programs must do this too. Planning and vision are key factors in growing successful and responsive volunteer programs. If you haven’t done so for a while, why not encourage your Board of Management to hold a planning day and review their direction and vision for your organisation and volunteer program – and don’t forget to involve volunteers!
Quality # 11 ~ Openness to new possibilitiesDiscerning their vision for the future may lead churches into unchartered waters. Churches need to be willing to take new initiatives and risks for the sake of making connections between the gospel and the contemporary world. We must never rest on our laurels for too long. Volunteer programs need to be informed about latest research and trends, and willing to be creative in the ways they address the needs of emerging volunteer groups
Quality # 12 ~ Empowering leadershipA church that is moving forward is likely to have skilled leaders who inspire people to action while, at the same time, empower all to grow their gifts and skills and to use them for the Kingdom. A priest, minister, pastor or senior leader will be working in harmony with a range of others both employed and volunteer; they will be growing in their own faith and modeling an outward focus in their priorities. Sadly, many volunteer program managers have fallen into the trap of being ‘administrators of paperwork’ rather than inspirational leaders, empowering volunteers to take on new and challenging roles. Volunteer Managers must be willing to delegate the roles that make a difference and not just the jobs they don’t enjoy! Never forget the pivotal and important role that a VPM makes in the life of any volunteer program


Without turning this Hot Topic into a full blown article – let me just encourage you all to consider these examples and the implications they may have for you and your volunteer management environment.


The Age online, “The Hallelujah chorus”, December 24, 2004 by Barney Zwartz




  1. ozvpm_andy April 12, 2012 at 8:47 am - Reply

    Response posted on May 1, 2005 by Ruth Redford, Training / Liaison Officer, Fleurieu Volunteer Resource Centre Inc., Noarlunga, South Australia
    I have just read your article on “Lessons from the the Pulpit” Great article and much food for thought. Who would have thought that we would pull parallels from the Church with regard to volunteering. When as you state in the beginning of your article the concerns of volunteer involvement in churches. It is a great article and yes I think there are lessons to be learnt from the “New” Churches approach. We certainly need to look at how we can best involve volunteers in organisations as I believe we are on the cusp of a new evolution in volunteering – the traditional ways are not as effective as they once were, and there are many reasons and influences for this.

  2. ozvpm_andy April 12, 2012 at 8:47 am - Reply

    Response posted on May 1,2005 by Kerry Lovell, Mercy Community Care, Waitara, AustraliaWell done!
    A very interesting and informative article.

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