Volunteer or Servant: Which One Are You?

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. - James 1:14-18

Over the past couple of months, I’ve spent some time helping a friend launch a new small business. They needed help painting, assembling equipment, and painting, and if I was free on a day they were working, I showed up to lend a hand.

I didn’t mind volunteering to help. I was under no obligation to be there or do anything I didn’t want to do, and I could leave at any time. Volunteering your time and energy is easy, because the level of responsibility is very low.

But the word volunteer doesn’t appear in scripture. God’s preferred word is servant. A servant is not the same as a volunteer. There are 3 key differences between these two terms:

A volunteer does what they desire. A servant does what God desires.

There’s a difference between doing what you want and doing what is most helpful. To volunteer means you’re only willing to do what you’re already comfortable doing. To serve means you’re willing to set aside your personal preference or comfort to do something hard or inconvenient to you. In the church, it’s reading scripture in worship when you’re afraid of speaking in public, or helping with youth ministry even though you’re not an expert on teenagers. You contribute where you’re needed, not where you’re comfortable.

A volunteer uses time they have left over to help. A servant makes time for helping.

I tend to stay busy, which means I don’t often have a lot of free time. When I do, I need it to rest. So when people used to ask me if I would serve in a particular way, I’d often respond, “I don’t have time for that.” And it was true: I didn’t have time for it. But lately I’ve come to realize that we will always make time for the things that matter most to us. I make time for work, because it’s important for me to do a good job. I make time to run, because it keeps me physically healthy. And I make time for friends and family, because those relationships are important.

Stop saying you don’t have time for things. You will always have time for the things that matter to you. It’s because you make the time. Servants make time for helping, while volunteers will only be available if there isn’t something else going on.

A volunteer chooses how to help. A servant follows a calling by God.

When I helped my friend with his business, I got to choose what I’m willing to do and not do. I don’t like painting, so I tend to let other people do that. But I do like putting together equipment, and I like to clean stuff too.

Volunteers like to focus on their own role: when, where, and how to help is completely their choice. Servants are more focused on what needs to be done. They’re motivated less by how the work impacts them, and more on how it impacts the goal or mission. It means that for me, if I painted even though I didn’t want to, and even though it means giving up time to watch a ballgame on TV, I would be serving. That’s because I will have prioritized the goal and the mission of his new business over myself - for a couple of afternoons, anyway.

So, which are you? A volunteer or a servant? Volunteering is wonderful. But serving is what really brings glory to God.

(Many of the ideas expressed here belong to Rev. James Harnish, in the "A Disciple's Path" curriculum he wrote in 2012)

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