13th Nov, 2009

Voluntary Value

I grew up like most Americans, wondering what I would “do for a living.” Coming from a small town where incomes were lower, I didn’t necessarily have huge aspirations by the world’s standards and looked forward to the day when I would make $30,000 a year. I knew if I could make $30,000 a year that I’d have more money than I’d ever need. I also placed a high value on earning my own way. I was taught and believed that personal value related to one’s earning power. Our culture defined value in relation to one’s earning power.

Although my yearly goals were quite small, I attained much. Having obtained an undergraduate degree and a law degree, my earning potential was high and I lived up to it. Even though I continued to live in a smaller market, our family was quite successful when measured by American standards.

Three years ago our family left our professional for profit careers and entered into a pursuit of ministry and missions. We went to work for Youth With A Mission, a non-profit missionary organization, and began our own non-profit ministry organization, FJ Ministries.

I remember meeting with one of my friends and mentors about this move, someone who had made the same move a few years before I did. He counseled me not to embrace a “non-profit mindset.” What he meant by that was not to become lazy once working in an organization that doesn’t work for a profit. He had seen many people in the non-profit and government sectors being content to accomplish very little, just so long as they got the minimum standards done. Whereas in the “for profit” arena, people are often found to work long hours and maintain high standards, because what they do directly impacts their standard of living and the amount of money (and value in our culture) they produce.

Interestingly enough, I’ve found that YWAM maintains a high standard of work. Even though what people are doing doesn’t result in a personal profit, the work directly relates to their personal passions and desires. As a result, people give great effort and go to great lengths to see amazing things done, even though it is all “volunteer.” Where this becomes a burden, for those volunteers, including me, is that often others outside our YWAM culture or outside the volunteer culture, don’t necessarily value the work being done or assume that we maintain a slow-paced, non-profit culture. Our cultural paradigms tend to devalue such work because it doesn’t produce any measurable profit. And that can be discouraging. This is especially true when I find myself falling into bed each night knowing that I’ve had a full day, more satisfied with the fullness of my day than I ever was when I was working in the corporate, for-profit world.

This short essay isn’t really about that perception, however. The concern I have is my own and my culture’s value of any work done that doesn’t result in earnings or profit. We do many activities every day that are not directly related to any earning potential. Yet, with regard to such “work,” it is often seen as second priority. Volunteer work is devalued.

What do I mean? I am thinking of our occupations of being a husband, a wife, a daddy, or a mommy. I’m thinking of the occupation of being a member of one’s neighborhood or community or social or religious organization. These “jobs” don’t produce any measurable earnings, but they are some of the most important jobs we do. Unfortunately, we sometimes view them as expendable. Because making a great living is priority one in our culture, the occupation of being a great family member gets sacrificed when in conflict with an occupation that earns money. And whereas we will often give our 110% when it comes to our salaried jobs, we believe that we can let up a bit and take a break once we get to our homes. We end up giving everything we have to our paychecks, leaving only the leftovers for our families and churches and other organizations. We feel okay about it because we simply “volunteer” for these things. But it is those voluntary things that truly define who we are and what our character consists of.

The Scripture reminds us to do all things, whatever we do, as though we are doing it unto the Lord. Colossians 3:23-24.

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