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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — All Petered Out

Not too long ago, I was interviewed by Good Housekeeping magazine about what to do when you find yourself over-volunteering. Being somewhat notorious for overextending myself, I had a lot to offer the writer, though I have no idea whether she'll use the comments or not.

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


  1. Maybe some new opportunities - ask what people would like to see happening and if they can commit to it. Appreciate Inquiry is a process that might help get the juices going. Have them tell stories about a time when they though - yes - this is why I belong to this church. Gets at core values and maybe some new ideas. Rather than focussing on the "problems" it focuses on potential grown from what has worked.
    here and here for more info.

  2. Thanks for this helpful post. I am in the call process for a two point parish of two small-ish congregations. Both have voiced this concern. They are an older parish and do not see younger people coming in and they are tired. They want to "pass the torch" of some of the responsibilities, but also know that if no one signs up it won't get done.

  3. I have been using the language of congregational calling--if this ministry/program/whatever is a way that we live out our calling, then there must be people in our congregation called to minister in that way. If there are no people with the calling to this area, then we have to at least consider the possibility that it's not part of our congregation's calling.

    Oh, how I wish those conversations were as simple in real life as they are on a screen...

  4. A couple of years ago, I gave our deacons board "permission" to let go of a project that looked really good on paper, but for which very few reliable volunteers existed. It was a program that took a certain number of people to do a certain thing for a specific amount of time, on very specific days to pull it off.

    Some people in the church were dismayed that we handed the project to another, more capable group in the small community where the church is located. Of course, those people were not the ones either volunteering or trying to round up volunteers.

    You should have seen the look of *relief* on the faces of those deacons when I told them that it was okay to put the energy from the old program into something else that God may be calling them to do instead.

    Our new program involves the local battered/abused women's shelter, which is something that the deacons had been involved in years ago, but had left for awhile. They simply circled back to it with my encouragement.

  5. This is a great topic -- and, coincidentally, one we discussed at our church this week when our various committees got together for our monthly "committee of a whole."

    Our church is growing, and our demographic is changing...but, like other churches, we too have the phenomenon of maybe 10 percent of our regulars doing 95 percent of the jobs in church. In our case I think part of the problem is the newer people 1)not understanding what needs to be done; and 2)not knowing who the go-to people are in the congregation if they're interested in getting involved. In addition, we're going through the cultural change, if you will, from a very top-down administrative model -- Herr Pastor up above, then the (hereditary) church council, LOL, the Indominable Church Ladies in their own domain and then the "elves" in the pew (my pastor's term) down below -- to a more organic model.

    One thing we haven't done yet that we want to is develop a Time and Talents Bank, just to get a feel for what untapped abilities and willingess is out there in the congregation. We also just need to get out there more and specify things we need to get done -- early and often -- instead of waiting for people to show up after vague requests for "help" and then getting mad when no one does.

    We have also learned, as a congregation, to be willing to slay sacred cows if there's no genuine interest or energy on the part of the congregation in maintaining them. If the youth don't want to participate in a youth group -- then why have a youth group.

  6. I'm not in a small church but we face a shrinking pool of volunteers. We are a congregation that really is going to have to come to term with generational differences. The "greatest generation" joiners are tired, and the boomers and younger do not step up in the same way. I don't have any answers yet, but I know that we have to rethink how we involve people and the kind of commitments we ask them to make. There will be some hard choices to be made. But it is our reality.

  7. This is a timely post for our little congregation. The pool of volunteers that we can count on to step up and do the work of the church is getting older and smaller. At times it can be discouraging, but then the Spirit gets things moving along again. It does seem to be cyclicle.

  8. As a lay person who has taught Sunday school, provided music for worship, led study and mission groups, prepared communion, embroidered the communion paraments, written the liturgy, cleaned up after numerous fellowship events, visited folks in the hospital, taught confirmation class, preached when the pastor was out of town or ill, chaired various committees and mentored new committee chairs, developed new education and worship programs, sung in the choir, served on committees and task forces and boards of directors at the regional and national level, and much more while working a 60-hour week, raising children, being a spouse, and keeping house --- PLEASE, JUST SAY THANK YOU! When you've busted your butt and nobody seems to care, it does seem smarter to go home, run a bath, pour a glass of wine, and settle in for a good read. Ever felt that way?

    Those of us who are getting older and have "volunteered" (I notice it's difficult to decide if we're ministers or volunteers) for years are not necessarily tired of the work - we may be tired of being taken for granted.

    Thanks for the opportunity to vent!

  9. Thanks.

    I do think that just thinkin' is on to something.

    It bugs me when there is no appreciation or thanks ... just a lot of taking for granted. I think we in Europe have so much to learn from you across the pond in this. I've never heard of a pastor's appreciation day here, or one for teachers or ... or ... or ...

    Several years ago we had a thriving Sunday school in our local church (for kids - preschool and elementary school ages) - is it a co-incidence that the sunday school leaders (and kids) were prayed for in the service at the beginning of the school year? That they were regularly included in the prayers for the church? Moreover at the end of the year (in May) the teaching volunteers were again brought to the altar and presented with a flower (usually that the kids had grown) and prayed for.

    When Sunday school was dismissed for the summer a programme of playtime in the church yard was offered - with other people looking after the kids?

    I think not.

    No matter how good their servant's heart is - at some point being taken forgranted and feeling unappreciated starts to hurt and is one reason - at least - for quitting.

  10. Excellent stuff.

    I think that there is certainly a "life cycle" to any ministry and as generational particularities push us around, we'll see what ministries life or die...or simply nap.

    I also think that thanking people makes a lot of difference. And also reminding them that they have been called to a ministry and not simply "volunteered." As a pastor, I try to encourage people to theologize or spiritualize their volunteering. So often, I fear, people think that only the pastor has such skill or responsibility. I try to remind people that it belongs to the whole church.

  11. Mike Mather talked at our Diocesan Convention on this subject:
    Here is his book.


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