Volunteer status – what it can mean in a church

The legal status of an employee, worker, director and/or volunteer is important, as it determines the extent of any statutory rights that they may have with your organisation. Our experience in providing HR support for churches (and when being involved in church leadership at various levels ourselves) shows that there are two main areas to consider.

First, someone who is not employed by the church i.e., does not receive any money other than genuine expenses for the ‘work’ they do, and they only volunteer. To prevent a successful claim by a volunteer (or former volunteer) stating they were a worker or employee and obtaining the relevant legal rights and wages etc. here are some practical tips for organisations to reduce the risk of implying a legally binding employment contract:

  • Provide the individual with a volunteer agreement, it is advised that agreements are flexible and phrased in terms of hopes/preferences and expectations rather than obligations or requirements.
  • Create distinctions between employees and volunteers by having separate role descriptions that are more informal and clearly state flexibility.
  • Avoid making payments to volunteers that could be construed as wages. Organisations can reimburse volunteers for their expenses, but these should be actual expenses occurred that are in connection with their duties and ideally reimbursed against receipts. This may include:
  • Travel
  • Meals
  • Uniform
  • Reduce the obligations on the volunteer and allow the volunteer the ability to refuse tasks and allow them to choose when to work and how to manage their tasks. It is important that volunteers are not managed in the same way as employees and workers.
  • In addition to the above point, volunteers do not need to book holidays, as they should inform you of their availability. They always have the option to not volunteer for whatever reason.
  • Have clear policies for dealing with problems and grievances fairly, this should also reduce the likelihood of disputes with volunteers. We advise having a volunteer handbook or guide.
  • In a similar way to the payment point above, organisations should restrict providing volunteers with benefits which could be seen as a substitute for payment.

If a volunteer does have a successful case to be classed as a worker or employee, they could be entitled to the same statutory rights as employees or workers, most importantly including the right to receive national minimum wage. This may involve the church receiving a fine from HMRC and, potentially media interest and a risk of bad press impacting the church testimony.

The second category is employees or workers who are employed by the church. This includes pastors and leaders at all levels who receive a salary/wage.

It is usual for pastors and senior leaders to do over their paid hours, and most do so gladly and would not have it any other way. To protect the church as an employer there must be no obligation for any employee to do volunteer work e.g., state “we will pay you for 4 days and expect you to volunteer on the 5th day” etc. as these change the status of the voluntary work to paid employment, with the implications stated above.

For an employee who does ‘volunteer’ – this includes any work at church that is linked to their day job, e.g., a pastor speaking at a church conference over a few days in addition to their usual work with no additional pay/time on in lieu – it should be clear what work is paid and what is volunteer work.

It is useful to have an accurate time log of volunteer work for each person to ensure it clear what is paid work and not. This can be a complex area that requires specific documentation and clear process. For information, and for clear advice specific please contact us for immediate support.

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