Valuing and Protecting Our volunteers

"Our volunteers are precious individuals dedicated to serving in a myriad of ways"

Our volunteers are precious.  Week in, week out, dedicated individuals seek to serve our churches in a myriad of ways.  From the worship teams who diligently meet midweek to practice and prepare for Sunday worship, to the enthusiastic leaders who run engaging Kids Church programs or maybe the gifted hosts who serve the post service cup of coffee with a smile and a heart for service, all are incredibly valuable and deserve to be protected.  

Without the dedication of our volunteers, it is safe to say that the effectiveness of churches and ministries in our communities would be significantly held back.

In addition to serving the mission of the church and the message of Jesus, volunteering fosters several personal benefits for the individual including:

1. A deeper connection to others
2. Building a sense of self confidence and healthy self esteem
3. Positive impacts on physical and mental health
4. A sense of purpose
5. Encouraging one to become 'others' focused
6. The ability to apply skills learned into other life situations

We must ensure never to take our volunteers for granted and should actively seek to develop a culture in our churches and ministries that values and protects those who seek to serve generously and humbly.  Let us explore then ways that we can protect those who serve us.

Protecting Volunteers

Workers Health and Safety Laws

In 2012 a number of States and Territories set about harmonising their Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) laws to provide a consistent set of Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) laws that would not only protect employees, but also captured volunteers.  The legislation recognised that everyone has a right to be safe at work, including volunteers. 

It recognised that volunteers played a vital role in communities throughout Australia and made significant contributions through the provision of unpaid work for a wide variety of organisations every day.

Presently, all States and Territories (except Victoria) adhere to these harmonised WHS laws. Irrespective of which State or Territory you may operate in, it is important to understand the rights and obligations afforded to volunteers under the WHS laws.

Organisations who employ paid staff must, as far as reasonably practicable, seek to protect the physical and mental safety of all its workers, including volunteers.  This means that the volunteer who greets everyone at the door on Sunday is owed the same duty of care as the paid pastoral team member.

It should be noted that while organisations who are made up entirely of volunteers and do not employ any paid workers are not subject to these WHS laws, however it is fair to say you still have a moral duty to extend the same level of care to your volunteers.  No organisation wants to suffer crippling reputational damage because they have failed to provide a safe environment for the very people who help their organisation run.

There are many helpful resources available to explain how organisations should address their WHS obligations toward volunteers.  

Following is a link to the Safe Work Australia website and their Essential Guide to Work Health and Safety for Volunteers.


How to protect your volunteers

It is essential that as an organisation you ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, that you are protecting the safety of your staff and volunteers.

Reasonably Practicable:

This term is used to qualify or limit some work health and safety duties.  With work health and safety, if something is reasonably practicable it means it is, or was at a particular time, reasonably able to be done. Taking into account:

  • The likelihood of the hazard or the risk concerned occurring
  • The degree of harm that might result from the hazard or risk
  • What the person concerned knows, or ought reasonably to know, about the hazard or risk, and ways of eliminating or minimising the risk
  • The availability and suitability of ways to eliminate or minimise the risk, and
  • The cost of eliminating or minimising the risk

- Reference Safe Work Australia

Ways that you can meet this obligation may be through:

1. Training:

  • Do your sound technicians know how to safely operate the equipment?
  • Are your Kid’s Church Leaders trained in your child safety procedures?

2. The provision of appropriate personal protective equipment

  • Have you provided the gentleman who volunteers to tend to your church grounds gloves, eye and ear protection for when he is using mowers and line trimmers?

3. First aid facilities provided or training in the administration of first aid

  • Have you shown your volunteers where to access first aid equipment?
  • If appropriate, have volunteers been trained in the administration of first aid?

4. Info on emergency procedures and how to report hazards and incidents

  • Are evacuation plans clearly displayed and emergency exits clearly identified
  • Do you have incident reporting forms and processes?  Are these readily available for your volunteers to access?

5. Ensure the volunteer is suitable for the role and capable of carrying it out

  • Is your volunteer physically fit and able to move the chairs around the auditorium during Sunday morning set up?

Screening Volunteers

Many churches and ministries are desperate for volunteers to put their hand up to help with the numerous tasks required to keep their organisation ticking. 

It would be difficult then to refuse someone who keenly desires to get involved in your ministry.

However, we must be careful not to allow enthusiasm to cloud our assessment of whether the person seeking to volunteer is appropriate for, or capable of carrying out the required role.   

Having sound application and screening processes in place protects not only your organisation but the volunteer too.

The process may seem awkward or unnecessary to some, especially if the person volunteering has been a member of your church or ministry for a number of years, but this is a risk management exercise, and a process that will stand you in good stead in the event that something should go wrong.

Why Screen Volunteers?

  • Is the person going to be a good fit for the position? Are they competent? Will they be able to get along with the rest of the team? Do they have the skills required for the role? Are they trustworthy?
  • Failing to adequately screen a volunteer may result in your organisation being sued should it be found that you had breached your duty of care by placing that person in the volunteer role.  Consider the ramifications of engaging someone with a conviction for child sexual offences into your Children’s Ministry Program without carrying out an appropriate Working With Children Check.  In most instances’ insurance companies would completely exclude any Public Liability cover to your organisation if the person was to re-offend in the course of their volunteering.
  • The process provides some protection for the volunteer.  Volunteers can take comfort in the knowledge that all team members have been assessed and vetted on the same basis and measure up to the standard required by the organisation.
  • Legislation requires organisations to obtain certain formal screening checks particularly for work with children and vulnerable people.

Churches and ministries should develop their own Volunteer Workers Application Form which gathers key information for their screening and assessment process.  

ACS Financial have developed an easy to use template which you can use as a basis for your form. You can download this template for free below:

Download Your Free Template

Download your free easy to use Volunteer Workers Application template 

Your download will be sent to the email address provided above.
We will never sell your information to third parties.

Checking References

In addition to a Working With Children Check, if a person wishes to be engaged in work with children (or other vulnerable people), a good risk management process would also require volunteers to provide a reference. 

This should be from someone who will be able to attest to their suitability for the role or speak to the character of the applicant.  It is recommended that two references be obtained for people who have been part of your organisation for less than 12 months.  

These may be from a former church pastor, employer or other reputable source.  For people who have been part of your organisation for more than 12 months, one reference may suffice, and this could be provided by a life group leader or perhaps a member of your leadership team. 

Written or verbal references are fine, providing the information is appropriately recorded and documented with their application.

Training Volunteers

Your volunteers are only going to be effective in your ministry if you have provided them with the correct instruction and training.

Volunteers should first be acquainted with your organisations Code of Conduct.  This will set the standard from the very beginning on how they are expected to represent your organisation.  Being briefed on the Code of Conduct will also allow you to appropriately manage or discipline people if standards are not being met.

Other areas that volunteers may require instruction or training include:

  • Your organisations Child Protection Policy
  • Organisational OHS policies
  • Social media policies/expectations
  • Use and operation of specialised equipment (eg. Sound desks, computer equipment, tools etc.)
  • Identification and handling of chemicals (e.g. cleaning products)
  • Where to access necessary personal protective equipment
  • Emergency procedures
  • How to report a hazard, incident or complaint

Specific tasks may require more detailed instruction or supervision to ensure the safety of your volunteers.

Risk Management Example - Church Working Bees

  • Appropriate safety equipment and instruction provided to participants (i.e. lawn mowing – eye and ear protection, suitable clothing, clear instructions on the safe use of equipment)
  • Dangerous chemicals must be clearly labelled and secured (paint, weed killers)
  • Working at heights – ensure that proper harnessing and anchor points are present and used when working at heights.  Ensure that ladders are in good condition and are well anchored
  • Use of power tools – make sure that tools and equipment are in good condition, and that clear instruction is supplied as to their safe operation.
  • Be aware of underground asset locations if any excavation work is needed.  Contact Dial Before You Dig before beginning work.

All of the above points also apply to external community working bee events, however work should be limited to basic maintenance works (i.e. gardening, painting etc).  Any tasks requiring construction should be supervised and signed off by appropriately qualified tradesperson to verify the suitability of the job.

Volunteer Contracts

Volunteer or Employee?

In many churches or ministries, it is not uncommon for people to be engaged in positions where part of their role is paid work, but other aspects are undertaken in a voluntary capacity. 

Consider the following example – Ethan is employed by the church two days a week as an assistant to the Youth Pastor.  For an additional two days per week, Ethan volunteers as a cleaner and gardener for the church property.

It is important that workers are classified correctly.  Employees must be paid according to Fair Work/legislative requirements, enjoy the safety and standards outlined by WHS obligations and be provided with opportunity to have grievances mediated by industrial tribunals. 

In contrast, a volunteer does not have any legal entitlement to remuneration, has fewer workplace protections and can be dismissed without notice.  If you do not have clear volunteer/employment contracts in place to identify the respective roles, it could give rise to litigation, orders for back pay and penalties.

Voluntary duties are often defined where:

  • There is no intention to create a legally binding employment relationship between the parties
  • There is no obligation for the volunteer to attend the workplace or to perform work
  • The volunteer doesn’t expect to be paid for the work

Resources to help you establish if you are engaging a volunteer or an employee can be found at:

How to: Assess whether a volunteer is actually an employee:

Paid/unpaid work:

Insurance to protect your volunteers and your ministry

Unfortunately, despite our best intentions, accidents happen, volunteers may be injured as a result or in some instances the actions of our volunteers may cause injury or loss to someone else.  

There are insurance products available which may help to protect not only your volunteer but also your organisation.  Following are some examples and some scenarios to consider.

Volunteer Workers personal Accident Insurance

A Volunteer Workers Personal Accident policy will be able to provide some cover for people volunteering for your organisation.  

These types of policies will generally respond where a volunteer has been injured quite by accident, and not as a result of any negligence on your part.

A Volunteer Workers Personal Accident can often provide the following protection:

  • Death and Capital Benefit payment
  • Non-Medicare related expenses (e.g physiotherapy costs)
  • Loss of income due to temporary or total disablement
  • Domestic home help expenses
  • Student tutorial expenses

Claims Example

Whilst volunteering at church, a young man accidently dropped a crate of sound gear onto his foot.  He needed to be fitted with a “moon boot” during his recovery and was unable to attend work for several weeks whilst the injury healed.  Loss of income and out of pocket expenses such as pain relief medication were able to be covered under the church’s Volunteer Workers Personal Accident policy.

Public Liability Insurance

There is always the possibility that a volunteer has been injured because of the negligence of your organisation. 

This could be due to poor instruction or supervision, a failure to supply proper protective equipment, or requiring a volunteer to carry out tasks that are inherently dangerous and that breach standard OHS requirements. 

In these instances, it is very possible that an injured person may look to sue your organisation for their loss or injury.

Claims of this nature can be incredibly costly and would take into consideration:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Medical costs
  • Ongoing rehabilitation costs
  • Loss of income
  • Loss of future earning ability
  • Costs to renovate a claimant’s home to accommodate injury/disability
  • Investigation costs
  • Legal fees

These types of claims can be incredibly expensive and can take a long time to settle.  To pay or defend a claim of this nature, your organisation would need Public Liability Insurance in place.

Claims Example

A volunteer who was engaged to help with the management and setup of the stage for church was asked to go backstage to find a piece of equipment for one of the musicians.  The item was not where it should have been. 

The area behind the stage was dark and there was no accessible light switch.  Entering a room off one of the backstage hallways in search of the equipment, the volunteer fell into an empty baptism pool which was sunk into the floor and had been left uncovered.  

The volunteer sustained significant injury requiring surgery.  The injury was such that the volunteers future job prospects in their chosen career were negatively impacted.

Professional Indemnity Insurance

In many church and ministry settings, lay preachers, life group leaders or pastoral care roles are filled by volunteers.  In these roles they will be preaching, teaching, providing pastoral advice or directed prayer ministry.  All these activities are seen to be the “profession” of the church. 

Sometimes claims can be made against churches or ministries by an individual who may feel that the content of a sermon or life group study is discriminatory or defamatory toward them or perhaps advice given in a pastoral care or prayer ministry setting is damaging.

Often, the costliest aspect of these types of claims are investigative expenses and legal costs to defend cases.

To protect your organisation and your volunteers in these instances you would require Professional Indemnity Insurance. 

Management Liability/Associations Liability Insurance

In some cases, if it is deemed that the volunteer has been injured due to a breach of OHS or WHS guidelines, there is a possibility that your organisations board of directors or elders may be sued for breaching their responsibility to manage a safe workplace. 

To defend or protect your directors, your organisation would require a Management Liability or Associations Liability Insurance policy in place which covers OH&S Defence Costs.

It is also often the case that the directors or board members of your church or ministry may filling these positions voluntarily as well, and therefore should be appropriately protected.

Considering that so many aspects of our ministries rely on the selfless dedication of volunteers, many programs would simply grind to a halt, if not for these essential members of our teams.  We should never take our volunteers for granted. 

To that end, it is essential that we do our part to look after our volunteers through sound policies, planning and protection which actively show just how valued they are.

DISCLAIMER: The information on this website reflect some of the commercial aspects and potential risks/obligations for your Church, School or Organisation. The information is given as a guide only and does not represent a definitive list or legal view in any way shape or form. You are advised to seek your own professional advice on all your individual needs. ACS Financial Pty Ltd (ACN 062 448 122) (AFSL 247388).

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