Volunteers Who Don’t

A volunteer is someone who is under no obligation or requirement to perform a task, but freely and willingly steps forward and offers to do it. I imagine that many churches (if not all) could not get nearly as much done without the help of many volunteers. These folks often work behind the scenes, and so they do not get much recognition for their work. But they don’t do it for that reason anyway (we hope) but simply because they love to be useful, to chip in and donate their time and effort in countless ways.

Two kinds of volunteers come to mind: the first is someone who simply steps in to do things informally as they come up; the second is the one who signs up when the list is passed around or the email plea for help is sent out. Both provide valuable services to the church family or community in which they live.

So what am I getting at with all this prelude about volunteers? I am warming up to address a couple of troubles with volunteers. The first trouble is the undue pressure some feel to volunteer. They are motivated by guilt, so they say they will do something because they want to be known by others as a giving person. (Don’t we all?) But guilt is a crummy motivator, and they later regret that they committed themselves to whatever job it was. The other trouble with feeling this pressure is that it causes some to volunteer, not out of guilt, but so they will feel good about themselves. This too is a crummy motivation. And last in this category is the person who volunteers because it is too hard to say, “No.” This person may get in way over her head.

It’s best to be the volunteer who simply wants to help. Nothing fancy. No guilt. Just a person who enjoys helping out, cooking a meal, helping a friend, whatever.

So let’s move past all the crummy motivators and say that we now have an army of volunteers who signed up simply  because they wanted to. If you are the organizer of this event, you are in a very vulnerable position, and you had better pray that your volunteers are the kind who follow through. Faithful: that’s the kind you want.

This can be a dangerous position to be in, and many of you who are event planners can probably tell some gruesome stories about volunteers (even sweet Christian ladies) who flaked on you at the last minute and left you in the lurch. Can I just say, “Don’t be that person!”

When someone has volunteered freely to do something for which they will not be paid (or even if they will be paid), they sometimes feel free to drop the ball, not show up, cancel at the last minute, or simply change their mind. Oh, well, I’m just a volunteer so it won’t matter. Oh. Yes. It. Will.  “Let your yes be yes; and your no, no” (James 5:12). And don’t forget Proverbs 33 which says, “She who said she would bring cookies to the meeting and faileth to do so is as vinegar to the teeth.” Something like that. (Of course, in the event of something serious interfering, you should get a sub. Find someone to take your place and make sure they will follow through.)

When you have volunteered to babysit or clean or bring a meal or bake cookies or provide some other service, you are truly obligated to fulfill your responsibility. You can’t say, “Well I didn’t promise.” Your word is the same thing. Someone is counting on you. It is not optional. You may not be a no-show, you may not flake out, you may not change your mind because something more fun came up for you to do or because you just don’t feel like it today after all. The point is that we should be able to count on one another. We shouldn’t have to hope that everyone who said they would bring a main course to the potluck will really do it.

You might be surprised how often this happens. College-aged women are particularly notorious for this. They have an idea that they want to be involved in all kinds of things, helping out and getting to know the women in the church, so they say they will be there, and then they aren’t there. But they are not the only ones who fail to follow through.

There’s something very wrong with this. It should not be. So this is just a little friendly reminder. If you are unreliable and you know you are, do not volunteer until you are ready to follow through. Just bow out. Let the sign-up sheet pass you by. People might quit asking you anyway once the word gets out that you don’t do what you say you will do. It is much better to not obligate yourself, and then just jump in to help at the last minute, than to say you will be there and not show up. In fact, I think Jesus told a parable about this very thing.

Finally, I have to say a word about the event organizer who is left in a pickle. No one wants to be blind-sided, but sometimes you just can’t anticipate what will go wrong. Send reminders to your volunteers before the event. Prepare yourself for a curve ball by praying ahead of time. It would be nice to have a back-up, emergency plan if someone you are counting on bails out, but that entails having a double set of volunteers, which doesn’t seem realistic. But it might be wise to get more than you need, just in case. But no matter what, don’t get bitter or resentful. Let love cover it. Being irritated just spreads the irresponsibility around further. Live and learn. Heads up next time. Take it as a sermon to yourself about how important it is to do what you said you would do. Teach your children to follow through. Don’t let them grow up to be wafflers or flakes. Don’t give them excuses to be no-shows. We all have failed at some time in this area, so be humble and gracious. Living in community means there will be bumps and spills. That is life! Don’t be surprised by this. In fact, glory in it. God is over all, even over your best-laid plans.

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8 Responses to “Volunteers Who Don’t”


  • Bravo! Well-said.

  • Praise God! Who better to be in control. It is sweet how we plan, it is funny how God provides in His way despite what our plan may have been, and it is great how things always work out.

  • you know I don’t know if my motives are crummy, but I think if I have the day off and there is a need I volunteer. I may be tired that morning, but I go. I don’t put much thought into it. I have learned to set limits though. If you are helpful and volunteer trust me you will be the first to be asked when the person who doesn’t follow through cancels. After a while of this you get tired. I think I have learned much from volunteering and have always been blessed. I look forward to see what new skill I will learn, also it is a good way to meet people you may not have met before and they are usually people with your same values or interest. You never know what God has planned for you.

  • I recently volunteered to bring a meal to a new mother (my sister-in-law, no less). I made the meal several days in advance, then forgot to bring it to her on the night I was supposed to. Needless to say, I was mortified when I discovered my error.

    I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of this dilemma, and that helps me be patient when others don’t follow through. I tend to over-commit (how do you say no to bringing a meal to a new mother?!? Or anything else for that matter), so that makes me a little more understanding when others don’t follow through with their commitments.

    On the other hand, a friend of mine once drove thirty minutes to church to drop off an egg casserole for a mom’s meeting when her three kids were home with the stomach flu. She could not have foreseen her kids would be sick, she was one of several peoPle bringing food, and I think she should have stayed home. Sometimes it’s best just to make a phone call and say sorry, I can’t do it. Even if it’s the last minute and you can’t find a replacement.

  • So true what you say. I’ve had the blessing of leading a group of volunteers and it is very frustrating when one doesn’t show up, doesn’t have a back up and then you’re the one who has to step in and get the job done.

    I’ve learned (most times) not to get frustrated but also to remember that sometimes I have to say “no” also.

    I like the adage “do unto others as you would have them do unto you …” I try to apply that to my life.

  • Having been a volunteer leader and dealt with no-shows or (more often the case) not enough volunteers, I’ve learnt to trust in God and cast all my frustrations and anxieties on him, instead of mentally complaining or castigating the people. I too have to maintain the right attitude! And by trusting God to provide and enable, I’ve seen hugely understaffed events run without a hitch. Somehow, everything gets done and all bases get covered even though there are physically not enough people to do it. This is five loaves and two fish in event organization! God is truly faithful and responds when I have the right attitude as a volunteer leader. And trusting in God means I stress less about everything!

  • Christian school teachers would appreciate your description and your encouragement. It DOES matter when you don’t show up for your volunteer position or you don’t follow directions concerning the timing of your volunteer job.

    I “volunteered” for something just to myself, other people don’t know, and I am troubled by guilt. I need to get the job done!

  • Love it! SO true. I think this also reminds us to use wisdom in knowing our boundaries. There are multitudes of ways to help and volunteer flying at us from every angle. As a mom of many little ones, I have to think of what is feasible and realistic to commit myself to before I say “yes”.

    Nancy, can you share any wisdom on how to handle situations where you’re volunteered by someone else without ever really being asked? Very awkward situation to deal with!

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