Christians in Practice?
Ian Jones reviews an article on whether church members should be thought of as volunteers.
In Christians in Practice we’ve been tempted by the language of volunteering. Some of the impetus for our work came from CUF’s finding that 95% of parishes said they needed more volunteers in order to develop their community work. Volunteering is an established concept in UK society, so it’s not surprising that churches also reach for that language when thinking about their community work.
But many volunteers in church community projects are also church members. As such, they may have a different kind of relationship with the organisation they ‘volunteer for’ than most volunteers.
We’ve been helped in thinking through these questions by a 1999 article in Voluntary Action Journal by the practical theologian Helen Cameron, entitled: ‘Are members volunteers? An exploration of the concept of membership drawing upon studies of the local church’ (Voluntary Action 1:2 (Spring 1999).
Helen’s article explores some of the differences, beginning with the sense of identity. She cautions against translating research evidence about volunteers directly onto church members, because people themselves often use different language, to outline a different perspective on what they do. One of her interviewees put in succinctly: ‘I’m not a volunteer; I’m a member!’
One particular difference between a ‘volunteer’ and a ‘member’ relates to the balance of control and empowerment. As a generalisation, Cameron says that organisations tend to want to be able to direct their volunteers’ time and energy, whereas ‘membership’ implies at least a stake in the governance of the organisation. While unpaid work is seen as the essence of volunteering, with ‘membership’, volunteering is optional (p. 55).
Cameron draws on two studies of membership and volunteering in local church contexts. The first, by Margaret Harris (1), suggests that there are three critical differences between members and volunteers: first, members tend to have a greater sense of identification and ownership of the organisation than volunteers – many see sustaining the organisation as their responsibility, and may have a greater tendency to over-commit as a result. Second, members expect the organisation to take their views into account, more than do volunteers (it would be interesting to know to what extent this has changed since volunteer voice is much more of a live issue compared to when Harris undertook her original work). Third, Harris notes that congregations have added expectations of their clergy which give those clergy additional authority (which, she implies, a manager in a voluntary organisation would not have).
In the second study, her own, Cameron herself adds three further distinctions between members and volunteers. First, members have a greater sense of reciprocity than volunteers, ‘that is, members see their relationship with the congregation as an exchange where their contribution builds up an organisation on which they themselves rely’ (p. 57). Second, members tend to have a greater overview of the work of their organisation than volunteers; and third, members are less inclined to distinguish between their public and private roles and commitments than volunteers do. However, Cameron acknowledges that to some extent all of this is a matter of degree, and that distinctions are not clear-cut. Nevertheless, she suggests that whereas the classic ‘volunteer’ occupies a place somewhere between the world of the ‘bureaucracy’ and the world of the ‘association’, members operate more at the interface of the ‘personal’ and the ‘associational’ worlds.
To some extent this is already echoed in our early interviews and focus groups. When we ask people about the commitments inspired by their faith, we have found so far that they move rapidly across formal volunteering, neighbourliness, family care, worship and personal Christian devotion and development, sometimes including paid work.
In summary, here are the generalised distinctions that may be made between active church membership, and volunteering for a ‘secular’ organisation:
Each partner organisation is looking at this emerging research for slightly different reasons, and a number of implications arise – including: that tactics organisations use to engage, motivate and deploy volunteers may not work in a ‘membership’ setting (most church members would not expect a job description, although some might say that greater clarity of role would be no bad thing!); members may be less inclined to take direction about what they do; and may also feel differently about being thanked or rewarded for their efforts (p. 62). There may also be particular tensions where members and volunteers work alongside each other; for example, in a church community project (p. 63).
The questions raised by Harris and Cameron highlights a wider question regarding membership: what is the interplay between individual and collective action? In a society which places a high premium on personal authenticity, is collective action less appealing? A study of volunteering in the Finnish church, by Anne Birgitta Yeung (2), suggests this is not necessarily the case:
…compassion and acts of altruism, such as participating in social work volunteering, do not need to conflict with the values of freedom and individualism. Volunteering is often in fact experienced as broadening one’s individuality – developing skills, acquiring fresh experiences and facilitating inner growth.
From this literature a few points emerge for our study:
(1) Margaret Harris, ‘An Inner Group of Willing People: Volunteering in a Religious Context’, Social Policy and Administration 30:1 (1996), 54-68.
(2) Anne Birgitta Yeung, ‘Free to choose – so why choose volunteering? Exploring independence and social action in the Finnish Church’, Voluntary Action 9:1 (2008), 36-45, p. 42.