Volunteers- To be paid or not to be paid

I’m experiencing something recently that I’ve not seen anywhere else or any other time. I keep running into “volunteers” who are being offered stipends or small honorariums for serving with youth and children. The question I keep getting asked is whether they should take the pay or not.

On one hand, they appreciate the offer and are in positions where the money could really help. On the other hand, for the most part they have already been volunteering and have a sense of their service to teens/children and quite frankly to God is being compromised. They talk of frustrations over organization and little to no training. They talk of a lack of communication. They talk of assumptions on their time (for those who already accepted the pay). They also talk of a lack of authority being bestowed to them rather that they are the paid hands meant to carry out someone else’s vision with little say and a lot of accountability. What seemed at first like a blessing (the pay) becomes a ball and chain that they don’t know how to shed. The fear is that if they ask to go back to no pay they will seem ungrateful but if they stay, they are no longer serving out of a love for ministry but obligation. That they have lost the ability to critique because the pay is always being held over their heads.

What I hear them saying most is that what they would really like is for someone to offer clear direction, guidance and training. That perhaps the pay could be used better for those who have had the blessing of ministerial education and they could pass that down rather than spreading the pay so thin to many who end up feeling underqualified and frustrated. These are good people. These are great volunteers! They sense the need for solid ministry and feel like they are getting in the way but also realize if they walk away, someone else who may care less will take that pay.

I am at a bit of a loss. I’ve never experienced this pattern before but I am seeing it in several churches. I can’t help but think of the trends we bemoan that the church is declining, that young people leave after youth group, that the adult church no longer knows the Bible or their doctrines. Is it any wonder when there are volunteers who are hungry to be trained and poured into and what they receive instead is a paycheck. As one person put it to me, “I didn’t grow up in a Christian family or youth group but I love Jesus now and want better for the teens in our church. I just wish I had someone to guide me, to let me know what the vision and lessons are going to be more than 5 minutes in advance. Maybe if they paid her more and me not at all, we’d all be doing better. I feel like the blind leading the blind and that can’t be good.” In an economy that is recovering overall, there are many not feeling this recovery and every little bit helps. But at what cost?

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About Amy Jacober

Amy Jacober (PhD, Fuller Seminary) is a youth ministry veteran with ministry and teaching experience. She focuses on practical theology, urban ministry, theology & disability, and marginalized communities. She is a volunteer youth worker in her church and community, lead consultant with Youth Ministry Architects and serves on the Young Life Capernaum national board. In her free time she can be found playing with her three young children, husband, and oversized dog.