For each individual, one's ability to give back in terms of time and talent may be tested by work and family obligations, or health issues, or burn-out. But this week's question centers on what happens when everyone stops.
Most churches rely heavily on laity taking on and committing to different tasks. What does it say about a church where, over a period of 1-1½ years, no one is any longer wiling to serve in junior church, make coffee, help with the sound deck/ worship or even take up the collection. What would your advice be to the leader(s) of such a congregation? And to its members?
We got a range of perspectives, starting with Ann, who is very familiar with the challenges presented particularly for small churches:
Small churches often have cycles of involvement. I let any program go that is not gathering volunteers. I never start programs that people cannot commit to, either. I try to stick to the boundaries of my job description and let anything else take its own course. If there are no Sunday School teachers, there is no program. If there is no one to volunteer at coffee, there is no coffee. If people feel a need for it, they will return to volunteering. If they don't care it will die off. If the Spirit is moving people will respond when they ready.
Karen also notes that in the smaller church, burnout can pose a tremendous challenge:
With few or no new members coming in, the general wisdom is that if you volunteer for something, you will be stuck with that job for the next 20 years.
But the lack of lay leadership may reflect a more serious problem. Karen pointed out several things to be on the lookout for:
- The generational stand-off: Older members feel that younger members should be taking on these tasks. Younger members are crazy busy with two-career households and a bazillion school, sports, scouts, and musical kid activities and feel that the retired folks with more time ought to be shouldering more of the burden.
- Depression: There are so many congregations in situations where transforming a declining situation is a nearly impossible task given the realities of their financial resources, available human energy, geographic location, demographic context, etc. etc. Members (and pastors!) of these churches usually realize this at some level and have a whole range of emotional responses to this reality.
- Deteriorating relationships: Has volunteering or failing to volunteer has become the arena in which resentments, hostilities, disappointments are being passively-aggressively played out?
What's a pastor to do?
Abi points out that a reminder of their baptismal vows to be ministers (rather than volunteers) can be helpful. Jan expanded on this in her own quick "what to say" note:
This is Christ's church. This is not "your church" in that we exist to serve you and your loved ones. Because of The Great Commission, not to mention our baptismal/confirmation/membership vows, we are all called to serve in various ways according to our gifts. This is our purpose and our passion, and we all get to participate. And so, how will you serve? Sitting back and watching others serve is not an option, if you are serious about your faith. We need ushers, greeters, teachers, office volunteers, bell ringers, liturgists, coffee servers....
How is God calling you and how can we sign you up?
Abi continued with a few other ideas:
It may be time to do an assessment of your worship service. Is your church growing disciples from all areas to know their gifts, passions and how they can use them in ministry? Does your church have a class in Spiritual gifts or Leadership strengths?
Who is in charge of the worship? Is there a worship team? Hospitality team? What is the vision and purpose of said worship or all the worship in the church or for the church? Who is in charge here? Are they looking to you as the chief Pastor to make a decision, shut it down, or move on? Or is there an Administrative Council? or some form of Leadership that needs to take this up? offer guidance? etc? Consider Natural Church Development or some other assessment program.
Doing so, she continues, can help you determine whether there is a bigger problem at play.
But as Karen notes, a congregation in crisis or depression may be going through something that requires a lot of sensitivity:
My own experience of walking with a church like this during its last years was that the members went through all the stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, distancing, etc. etc. Failing to volunteer could be an expression of any of these stages. If a congregation experiencing these feelings is being constantly harangued by their pastor or denominational leaders for their failure to "do what it takes" the depression deepens. It helps to address the reality directly rather than pretend it isn't there.
Or to make them feel like they are to blame for a church's decline. Find the positive, and try to help them discover what will motivate them.
How about you? Have you ever faced a situation like this, and if so, how did you handle it, or what do you wish you could have done? Share your responses in the comments, and feel free to send your challenging situations our way for an upcoming column at firstname.lastname@example.org.