When we speak about ‘labour’ we often think about paid work. The Labour party is the party of the workers, which came up in the past to defend the rights of the labourers and make sure they got a fair pay. If Labour Day is used for more than just a day of, it is often to celebrate or remember the advances our society has made in the position of the blue-collar workers.
However, when the Bible speaks about labour, it does not make a difference between paid work and not paid work. All our labour, whether it is to make an income, or among God’s people, or in other ways, paid or not paid, is not in vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58). The cultural mandate (“Be fruitful; and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it…”) is certainly not only about paid labour. It is even remarkable that the word ‘labour’ has an important place if it comes to filling the earth and multiplying.
Earlier this year, the church of Kelmscott celebrated the 40th anniversary of the institution of the church. During that evening, as well as in the commemoration booklet that was produced by the committee, it became clear that in the beginning years of the church of Kelmscott, a lot of work was done by volunteers. An important reason was to keep costs down. However, it also was a good time, because working together out of free will (‘voluntary’) created a bond. It was exciting, it built up the communion of saints.
In those days and for several decades thereafter, a lot of volunteer work was done. Not only work of office bearers or school boards or other organisations, but almost everyone was willing to give his energy and time for work that had to be done in church and society, without expecting pay for it.
Times are changing. With the growing abundance and importance of money within our circles, the emphasis on financial contributions has become much more prevalent in our community. Not often we are asked to donate our time and energy anymore for all kinds of activities. Thankfully, we could read in the Una Sancta that Fairhaven is actively seeking for volunteers. However, other organisations decide to hire someone for work that in the past was done by volunteers.
There is still work being done by volunteers and we can be thankful for that. In this article, I want to make a plea for a renewed appreciation for volunteer work.
People who spend energy and time supporting a cause will often be deeply invested in that cause and care about it. They will have made it their own. Nowadays, for many, money is cheap. You pay your membership fees and you have fulfilled your duties. As a result, you see yourself more as a customer who is paying for a service from an organisation (e.g. the school) and you will complain if the quality is not what you expected. This is a worldly lifestyle. Within the church, we are all members of the body and we are all needed. We all have received talents and those talents must be recognised and used. It is therefore the task of the leaders, whether it is the office-bearers in the church or board members in Christian organisations, to strongly encourage the members to voluntarily, without payment, use their talents and gifts for the body of Christ.
Sacrifice of thankfulness
We are called to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to the Lord (see Romans 12:1). This is not in the first place about donating our money. It is about giving our life to God. Some are rich and can easily afford to pay their contributions to the church and their membership fees to the schools and other organisations. Some of them might even think that with that they have fulfilled their ‘obligation’ to bring their sacrifice of thankfulness. Others who are not in the position to spread around their money and are struggling to make ends meet, will gladly donate their time for church and society and in that way offer their sacrifices of thankfulness. For God a sacrifice is not less pleasing if it is not a substantial monetary donation. By taking away opportunities for volunteer work and instead hiring people for those tasks, we take away opportunities for those members to do their part for church, school, and society.
In the past, it was a good biblical custom among Christians that married women did not have a job while they had children living at home to take care of. The form for the solemnisation of marriage also mentions this as an important duty of the wife in marriage: “take proper care of your family and household”. Staying home did not mean doing nothing. Many of these mothers were heavily involved in volunteer work in the schools, in the church or in other organisations, or they helped in the congregation wherever was a need. Now that the opportunities for volunteer work seem to be decreasing, many mothers are seeking other opportunities to use their talents, and some of them decide to get a job. Or maybe we should turn it around: because we are paying more to hire people for a lot of work that in the past was done by volunteers, membership fees increase, and some mothers conclude that they need to find a job to be able to afford those fees. I am not sure what is the chicken and what is the egg, but in both situations, it is the result of a decreased appreciation for and use of volunteer work.
Sense of belonging
Having groups of volunteers working at church buildings, school buildings, community events, and having more people involved in fundraising for schools and other good causes shows to those who are ‘outside’, how good it is that brothers and sisters live together in communion. It is a community that is alive, a community to which we ‘belong’. Belonging is a very important word in our modern-day society. People want to belong. Belonging to a group gives them a sense of security. To give an example: for the whole LGBTQI+ community this is very important. They have something that binds them together and keeps them going. Even some who may strictly speaking not belong to this group, still adopt that lifestyle because they just want to belong. If we do not recognise this, we will lose more and more of our members to that community. It is easy to point fingers at them and use Bible texts to show how wrong they are and that we should stay away from them. However, that is not the right approach. In the first place, we must realise that God created human beings to live in communion. Psalm 1 speaks about two kinds of communion: the counsel of the ungodly, and the way of the righteous. If we want to win our neighbour for Christ, also those belonging to this LGBTQI+ community, we should show in our lives and in the life of our community, how good it is that brothers and sisters live together in communion, there where the Spirit of God works.
All our members need to feel that they are needed and that their contribution is appreciated. That gives them the sense of belonging which is so important for true communion. Our members should not speak about the church as ‘they’, but as ‘we’, all being living part of the one body of Christ, having communion with Him and sharing in all His treasures and gifts.
A result of the decreased appreciation for volunteer work is also a decrease in commitment. It seems as if for many their volunteer work, whether it is as part of a committee, council or board, or helping out in many little practical things, has a very low priority. It was an eye-opener for me when I recently read that as a member of a certain board you are expected to spend only one evening per week on board or committee work. Really? In previous congregations where I served, the general rule was that a member of the school board was not able to serve as an office bearer, because both tasks were so demanding that it was deemed impossible to combine them properly if you also had a daily job. These board members were often completely dedicated to their task and much work was done by volunteers what in our circles here in Australia is done by paid workers. Many members were involved in volunteer work for school and church and other causes and generally, the work they did was of the same quality or even higher than much of the work that among us is done by paid workers. That was because they took pride in doing their work well and even though they did not get paid, it was highly appreciated by the community.
The Great Synod of Dort determined that the term for office bearers should be two years. One of the reasons was that it was a demanding and often dangerous task (persecution!). Many office bearers gave up part of their daily work to do their work as office bearers. To keep the burden for them manageable so that it would not destroy their daily business, they served for not more than two years at a time. It was a labour of love, a sacrifice which most of them gladly offered because it was done for the Lord.
The Lord does not distinguish between paid and non-paid work. Every labour done in the Lord is not in vain. Volunteer work in the church and in society is just as important and must receive the same appreciation and commitment as a paid job or running a business.