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Are Paid Ministers or Volunteers Better for the Church?
Hiring professionals to undertake ministries in a church has value, but, like Christ, each Christian in the church must be personally involved in ministry to a lost world.

Even a few years ago, this question wouldn’t have had the same relevance it has now. However, we live in a culture of growing affluence, growing professionalism and growing litigation. Each of these, in its own way, has led to a trend among churches, especially larger metropolitan churches, to replace volunteers with paid staff who carry with them some level of professional experience and credential. The question rightly arises, “Is this necessarily a sound and healthy trend?”

Undoubtedly there is value in having professionals undertake many of the ministries of a church. Paid professionals may provide a level of excellence, efficiency and creativity beyond the capacity of lay volunteers. Certainly the church wants its ministries to be of the highest calibre. Even more certainly, if ministry is to be done in the name of Jesus, there is no room for shoddiness.

Yet despite the practical advantages the hiring of professionals may seem to have, this question has deep theological implications. The Church is called to and has a responsibility to minister in this world. The ministry to which it is called, however, is a particular one. It is not simply called to minister. It is called to continue the ministry of Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, to be true to its calling, a church’s ministry must follow in the mould of the ministry of Jesus. The goal of the ministry of Jesus Christ is to seek and to save those who are lost, to redeem humanity from the effects of the Fall. Therefore, the ministries of the church, like the ministries of Christ, must be as far-reaching as these effects.

Yet a church must consider more than the goal of Christ’s ministry. It must also consider the means. Foundational to Christ’s ministry and, therefore, at the heart of Christian ministry today is incarnation.  The eternal Son’s taking upon Himself the human condition was not ancillary to the ministry of Jesus Christ. Rather, incarnation is the God-ordained means for solving the human tragedy. 

It is through the Incarnation that the Son, in the person of Jesus, lived among the people (see John 1), identifying with them in their weakness (see Hebrews 5:2) and serving as an example for them (see John 13:15, 1 Corinthians 11:1). Without the Incarnation, the ministry of the Cross and the Resurrection is impossible. 

If a church and its members are to be involved in truly “Christian” ministry, they too must be involved in an incarnational ministry. Like Christ, the church must be present and near to its world, engaging it, not keeping its distance. The church’s ministry, like Christ’s, must be self-giving and personally involved (see John 15:13, John 10:11). While it is not to be “of” the world, it must be “in” it.

The responsibility of this ministry, however, is not merely corporate. It is not merely the responsibility of the church but the responsibility of each Christian. The gifts, talents and opportunities for ministry will vary from person to person but, like Christ, each Christian must be personally involved in meeting the needs of a lost world.  If to be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ, certainly one cannot divert from following Christ in this most fundamental of ways. If the Incarnation lies at the base of Jesus’ ministry, if personal presence and personal self-giving form the heart of His ministry, how can it be any different for those who claim to be His followers? To follow Christ means to be involved personally in ministry.

Thus the current trend to professionalism must be sure neither to dissuade nor to deprive individual Christians from being personally involved in the responsibility and privilege of ministry. Yes, the hiring of professionals has clear and compelling advantages. But for the good of the church, the Christian and the world, it must never be allowed to replace incarnational ministry. 

The professional must be the equipper and encourager of individual ministry. God did not send another, nor did He simply provide the resources for ministry. In the person of the Son, God was incarnate, ministering to the needs of people. How can the Christian who professes to follow Him do any different or any less?   

Bernie Van De Walle is an associate professor of theology at Ambrose University College and Seminary in Calgary.

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2008.




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