Churches Can Utilize Volunteers Without Exploiting Free Labor | Sojourners

Churches Can Utilize Volunteers Without Exploiting Free Labor

Hillsong conference in London. Jeff Gilbert / Alamy

The Secrets of Hillsong, a docuseries streaming on Hulu, traverses some wide-ranging — and alarming — ground, detailing the international megachurch’s history of sexual assault allegations, affairs, child molestation, and cover-ups. In the midst of all this, it might be easy to gloss over something a little less flashy: what one might call, to put it mildly, an unhealthy volunteer culture. But I don’t want us to miss this.

The four-part series reveals that countless young adults spent up to 60 hours each week working for Hillsong Church, unpaid. Many of these people lived in New York City and found themselves struggling to pay rent — a plight that, according to those interviewed in the series, was met with a disheartening lack of sympathy, let alone assistance, from Hillsong leadership. One young female Hillsong College graduate, Tiffany Perez, reflected, “I wanted to be a pastor, but the closest I could get to it was being a pastor’s nanny.”

This is not a uniquely Hillsong problem. I think of the year I spent working “part-time” for a college campus ministry organization in my 20s. I fundraised my own $1,000- per- month stipend for what was supposed to be 20 hours of work per week but often ended up being 30 or 40. I used most of my vacation days from my other part-time job on college ministry retreats, and I spent my breaks from campus ministry catching up on the hours I was perpetually behind at my other job.

Looking back, it seems clear that this was unsustainable. It feels wrong. But at the time, things didn’t seem quite so clear. Like the former Hillsong members who were continually told by church leadership how lucky they were to be a part of the exciting things God was doing, I felt lucky, too. I loved the college students and I loved the work.

When I once told my supervisor that I had been working 40-hour weeks — hoping that he might help me prioritize tasks and find a healthier balance — he replied that he had been working 60-hour weeks. We were all working at an untenable pace while living with financial insecurity. It seemed normal. But it should not have been normal.

Of course, finances are rarely easy for churches and ministry organizations. A 2022 study from Lifeway Research found that, among U.S. Protestant pastors surveyed who knew how much money their church had in its cash reserves, 44 percent of churches had 15 weeks or less, and 20 percent had seven weeks or less.

Church leaders make difficult budget decisions and cannot always afford to pay as many staff as they would like, or as generously as they would like. Leaders want to create opportunities for people to do meaningful ministry work but sometimes they fail to attend to the economic realities that make this work unsustainable without a livable salary. When I think about churches’ unhealthy volunteer cultures, these words from the book of James come to mind: “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you” (James 5:4, NIV). Even if the intent is not to harm, the wages still cry out.

I want to see livable wages for ministry work become the norm, not the exception. This is not to say that unpaid work isn’t also good or valuable; volunteering can be a wonderful thing when done in a way that is good for both the church community and the individual volunteer. In a world where few people have the privilege of neatly lining up their bill-paying job with their passions in life, volunteering can be a space to pursue these passions — an outlet for the interests and creativities that our paid work does not encompass. People might enjoy creating art to beautify a worship space, or planning a social gathering, or mentoring a younger person, or serving at a food distribution, or baking cookies for coffee hour after church. As the apostle Paul testifies, every person has gifts to offer for the good of the community (1 Corinthians 12). I want people to have opportunities to offer these gifts with joy.

But this free, joyful offering shares little in common with unpaid (or severely underpaid) work. The latter is a type of exploitative labor; the work is based not on what people want to offer but on what church leadership thinks the church needs. This might make sense for some paid staff roles, but for those of us who contribute our time and talents on a volunteer basis, we deserve more agency in what we offer and how — including how much time we spend.

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know one small church community in the Washington, D.C., area that has no paid staff. How do they make this work without burning everyone out? For one thing, they meet only three Sundays every month. Does a church service need to happen weekly if doing so is more wearying than life-giving for those who help make it happen? This church said no.

This same church also has a yearly whole-church gathering where, among other things, they ask everyone to consider: What gifts do I want to offer our community this year? What do I have capacity for? What do I want to do? Then they map out a plan for the coming year based on the skills, passions, and curiosities everyone brings to the table. Simply put, the church does what people are excited to do. And the yearly scheduled check-in point creates space for volunteers to reevaluate their commitments, giving them the chance to step away gracefully from any responsibilities they don’t wish to continue.

A healthy church volunteer culture requires us to accept that church may not be able to provide everything we expected or hoped for. It calls on everyone to participate actively in ways that feel meaningful and joyful. It invites us to release expectations, hold everything loosely, and be open to church looking different from how it has looked in the past. I want to see churches prioritize the wellbeing of all their people, honoring volunteers’ agency and supporting them as they offer the gifts they genuinely want to offer. A healthier volunteer culture may not always be easy, but it is possible.