Pastoring Ministry Volunteers, Part 1

Tim Burton Santa Teddy Bear Pic


Unwisely, Santa offered a teddy bear to James, unaware that he had been mauled by a grizzly earlier that year.

Receive an email titled, “concerned” or an invitation for dinner in order “to talk,” and a seasoned pastor can suddenly resemble little James in the cartoon above. So it is when someone risks making an appointment with the pastor, risks joining a small group, risks seeking a role to play as a volunteer.

Good words in themselves such as “pastor,” “committee,” “mission,” or “service for God” can dishevel us. A friend or teammate meant something good. We see ghosts instead because of past experiences.


It is rarely wise to mobilize people for mission unless we also equip these same folks with the mundane relational skills that are necessary for handling the joys and sorrows of mundane life together as a team.

The short “poem” above by Tim Burton, reminds us that people sometimes frighten when offered a good gift. Like those disciples in the boat. They look right at Jesus walking toward them and shout in fear, “Its a ghost!”  We pastors and volunteers are not unlike fictional little James or Jesus’s historical disciples. Recognizing this fact matters when we seek the spiritual formation of ministry volunteers.

Orientation Category 1: Big T and Little T, The Baggage We Bring

For this reason, the opening session of our Volunteer Orientation at Riverside Church, as well as, a section in our House Group orientation curriculum begins here.

We look at how Jesus’s disciples reacted in ordinary moments of life contrary to what Jesus had actually taught them to believe. What Jesus taught them “in class” as it were–we call “Big T Theology.”

How the disciples actually respond in a moment of ordinary life we call, “Little T Theology.” We intentionally talk about the contradiction in each of our lives–how regardless of what we rightly believe–a moment in daily life can trigger us to “see ghosts” instead of Jesus. Here is a sample.

  • The Disciples rebuked children for wanting time with Jesus (Lk. 18:15)
  • When a woman broke open an alabaster jar, they gave her grief (Matt. 26:7-10)
  • When Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman they were baffled (John 4:27)
  • When a rich man walks away, they wonder who can be saved (Lk. 18:25-26)
  • When a man is born blind the disciples assume that someone sinned (Jn. 9:1-3)

Words, events and persons that involved children, Samaritans, women, rich men, the physically disabled, tragedy, roused an emotional reaction disproportionate to the actual thing itself. Jesus taught his disciples to love their neighbor including their enemy. Jesus taught his disciples to see Samaritans as heroes in some of his stories. And yet, in a moment of ordinary life, when some Samaritans won’t welcome Jesus, those same disciples instinctively respond with a desire to actually murder these Samaritans in the name of God (Luke 9:51-55).

The point for ministry teams is clear. Regardless of what a person learns in Bible class they still are tempted to respond out of the living room heart and cultural life that they’ve previously known or currently covet. Some people refer to this as “acting out of our story.” Others refer to it as accounting for the Providences in our lives. Either way, if we’ve hung around with an angry man all of our lives, we have likely learned his ways, the Proverbs tell us, no matter how many times we’ve studied the Bible or learned the church mission statement.

Orientation Category 2: Cultural Grammar, We’ve not done it this way before

Volunteer orientation also needs categories for cultural differences, not just past traumatic experiences or sinful mentoring. We remind ourselves of Acts 14. When certain folks heard Paul and Barnabas preach, they called one “Zeus” and the other “Hermes.” They said, “the gods must have come in the likeness of men.”

These folks responded this way because this is the material of culture they had to work with. They needed reoriented to what Paul and Barnabas actually meant. Translation had to occur. Sometimes our teams will struggle because of this. Someone brings their cultural grammar, materials, stories and assumptions to what another team member says or does. They completely misunderstand and misinterpret.

Because of the previous experiences we bring and the cultural assumptions we’ve known, even the most earnest of persons can hurt and/or misunderstand each other on a team. No matter how well they’ve been taught in Jesus. A mundane moment can make them look right at Jesus and see nothing but a ghost instead. For this reason, our volunteer teams need these kinds of formational categories alongside of their mobilizing vision and mission.

A Practical Result: Getting to our Third Draft Response

We learn categories that allow us to give each other the benefit of the doubt more often–to pay more attention to our own temptation toward misguided reactions in a given moment of time.

At Riverside, we use the language of “allowing someone enough time to get to their second and third draft response.” We assume that we are no different than Jesus’s disciples who did not always respond well the first time they encountered a situation, confrontation or person. We want to give each other and ourselves time to seek Jesus and to find His grace empowering us to respond wiser and with more grace in a few days.

We also use the language of “recognizing a response that isn’t someone’s norm.” Like a person who is always fair, steady and calmly wise who reacts uncharacteristically to a particular decision, moment or event. Rather than immediately reacting ourselves, we want to give room to recognize if “little James and Santa’s teddy” are at work here. If a “Little T” ghost of a reaction was just triggered. A piece of cultural grammar went awry.



Author: zeswine

Zack (Dr. Eswine) is often spoken of as a "Pastor to Pastors." He serves as Pastor of Riverside Church in Webster Groves Missouri and Director of Homiletics at Covenant Theological Seminary. To learn more about his books and other resources, go to

One thought on “Pastoring Ministry Volunteers, Part 1”

  1. Thanks for clarifying for me the contradiction between belief and life. In my experience church culture tends towards being critical rather than compassionate. I like the way your article identifies our need (contradiction) and how we can help each other grow.

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