The recent probationers’ conference was packed with challenging and encouraging seminars. There was little that wasn’t potentially useful and even the one session I didn’t find very interesting still contained little nuggets of wisdom. And within the little nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout the sessions there were some excellent gems especially worthy of mental note and future reflection.

One such was the suggestion that all the people who do all the stuff that congregations do shouldn’t be referred to as volunteers.

And the basis for that statement is that all the things that a congregation does (and more) is actually what those who profess faith ‘sign up for’ in the first place; what they are ‘called’ for in the first place. And is that not the very essence of who we are as Christians? A people ‘called’ by God into a servant relationship with him? Volunteering makes it sound, in a sense, like an optional extra. Of course, how people contribute and how much they contribute are huge questions, as is how we instil that ‘I’m not a volunteer’ mindset.

But then that was one of the aims of the conference – to explore the whole idea of ‘enabling ministries’. And that’s a bit of hot topic itself these days. Part of the idea floating around the reduction in paid ministries within the Church of Scotland is that there is a resource within our congregations just waiting to be tapped into and put to work.

Given the emphasis at conference of the time needed to begin changing that mindset (both in ministry and in congregations) it makes me wonder if the timescale for the reduction in paid ministries is perhaps a little optimistic. Maybe not, if we are committed to it. But it also means that localised reductions really need to be managed and the axe not simply turned on the ‘easy targets’ of vacancies or financially/numerically-struggling congregations. How many gifts and skills do we risk turning away from the Church if that path is followed?

But it also means that there needs to be a ‘big plan’ for the management of any reorganisation and that plan needs to consider not just the skills of those in paid ministry but also within the current congregations. Now, it seems to me that that is a very exciting challenge (and a lot of work) for it is about growing the people of God, bringing them to a more mature understanding of their faith and purpose; enabling them and encouraging them to be witnesses to and workers in the kingdom. And surely that’s the goal of anyone engaged in ministry? So it saddens me that there are those who become entrenched, seeing this as a threat to ‘their church’.

And I wonder if that goes back to the ‘volunteer’ view of congregations? If that is the view which persists from the pulpit, then it’s about drumming up resources to do any given task, and with volunteers, skills and calling are less important than simply being an available warm body. When the view of the pew is a called people then we can frame that view in terms of our own calling. Going through the whole enquiry process and subsequent training placements is all about identifying a call into a ministry, then honing that sense of call through a deeper understanding of the gifts and experience we bring as we test them in a placement.

If we, as ministers (in-training), insist on such an approach for identifying our own service and place within the church, why should we offer anything less to ‘volunteers’?

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