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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Servant Leaders who won't Serve or Lead

There are many joys and challenges involved in being a part of a volunteer-based organization like a church. Today's question relates to one of the most difficult challenges - what recourse do we have when volunteers won't do what they committed to do? Our colleague writes:
How does one handle elders who don't eld? They agreed to serve, but by and large don't take up the responsibilities in their areas, and/or don't do tasks that they themselves agreed to do ... and so things go undone for months ... and I refuse to do their work for them. (Apparently, that's what the previous pastor did). I've done the pep talk, the "awesome task of elders," the checking in periodically to make sure things are on track ... nothing. Before I became a late in life pastor, I was a working mother/wife/daughter of an aging parent AND an elder, so I totally get the "my life is so busy..." thing.
Mystified and Frustrated

Jennifer responds:
The best way I've found to address this is with peer involvement. Find a great couple of elders who would be willing to approach the "less engaged" and become more involved. Sometimes the less involved mistakenly think that it's the pastor's job to pick up the slack, and it sounds like they have had that example. Bring in a guest preacher/leader/consultant who can say exactly what you've already told them about many hands  making light work. Sometimes a new voice catches the ear. If this doesn't work, have a meeting with each one, without any shame involved and discover if it may not be the right time for them to serve. Perhaps there are others waiting in the wings who could do a much better job. Make sure that the nominating committee is being clear about the expectations of service so that people are accepting nominations to serve as elders knowing that it takes work.

And Muthah+ writes:
I am not sure if you are talking about commissioned officers in you church polity or senior citizens, so I will speak to both.
If these are commissioned officers:  It is time to have a 'come to Jesus meetin' with them.  A one-on-one meeting, whether it is a call at their home or taking them to lunch or a drink, ask why they are having trouble getting things done. Sunday's Gospel might help (Matthew 21:23-32) zero in on the issue.  They may not know how to accomplish the task, they may have forgotten, they might be afraid of failure, etc.  Try to keep the conversation on the task rather than on the personality and have some suggestions for those who might help them to get their tasks done.  Check to see if there are philosophical differences about their tasks--this in an important piece of information you need to have.  It is often helpful to let them know that others find it difficult to do their work when their tasks are undone. 
If they are seniors:  Ask if they have forgotten!  They too may be overwhelmed.  (As a senior now, I am sitting her with egg on my face because your letter has reminded me that I have forgotten to do something that I had signed up for.:-!)  Find ways that folks can admit their failings without having to lose face.  Being over 65 myself, I am finding memory loss is common among us.  We have all the good intentions in the world but often the little grey cells are not as sharp as they once were and our energy levels are not the best either.  Go read a few Maxine comics and know that you will be here sooner than you thought.8-)  But it IS incumbent on you to ASK and to provide some solutions to getting the work done.  You may have to reassign the job to someone who can get the work done if you are unwilling to do the work assigned to others. 
Third thing, check out your frustrations.  Often when I was getting frustrated because another wasn't doing what they said they would do, I was frustrated with MY job.  Others' agendas did not match mine.  Remembering that I was always working with volunteers helps, but not much.  If you can unhinge your success as pastor from others getting their work done, you may not feel so put upon.  There will always be work that does not get done.  It is one of the great frustrations of the ministry.  If you're depending on the accomplishment of certain tasks then you must be either willing to either do the task yourself or reassign the work if the one-on-one does not work. 
Fourth thing:  Are you dealing with a control issue?  Is the person who is not doing their work a person who is playing power games?  Sometimes this is a way to indicate how much power an individual has.  If this is the case, read Edwin Friedman's last book on congregational systems.  It will help you maintain a non-anxious presence in the face of power plays.  If it is a power issue, it is important to diagnose the underlying issue.  I always had a consultant friend or therapist who could help me suss out such issues over lunch or coffee.  I have always worked from the position that if I wanted something to change in my environment, then I was the one who had to change--I could never expect others would change for me.   But it is important to figure out what change in me will produce the actions that will help me accomplish my goals.
Thank you, Matriarchs, for sharing your wisdom about this very difficult issue. What about the rest of you? What would you add? Let's continue the conversation in the comments section.
And, as always, if you have a question you'd like us to discuss, send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.



  1. We discovered a big change in our elder and deacon involvement when we changed the way we "recruited" them at the beginning. In the past, people from the nominating committee would go to people and say, "we really need one more elder. Will you say yes?"
    Now the nominating committee prays for discernment, drafts a list of names of people we feel are called to serve, and when the committee goes to the recruits, they say, "we believe God is calling you to serve the church as an elder. We have prayed about this and we want you to pray about it as well. Yes, it will require something of you in terms of time, energy, and creativity, but we believe the reward is worth it. If this isn't the way God is calling you now, please say 'no' when you call us back."

    Once we gave people permission to say no, and asked them to consider the call from a position of abundance (and not scarcity!) things changed a lot. The officers who said "yes" are much more engaged.

    There are still moments when I go to them and say, "how can we help you live into your call as deacon? I've noticed you haven't been as engaged lately..." but in general, it has really transformed our leadership.

  2. PCUSA polity is awkward in this regard, since we don't technically examine elders and deacons until after they are elected.

    We hold a leadership retreat in the dark days of early February, and one component of it is a covenant devised by each elder, built around the ordination questions. Each elder writes a new covenant every year, which enables Session to make sure we've covered all the basis while responding to people's changing circumstances.

    That makes it easier to sit down with an uninvolved elder and say, "In your leadership covenant last February you said X, and it seems that your style of participation doesn't reflect that. Let's explore that."

    On the occasions when that hasn't worked, I've had to say more bluntly, "(Elder), what's going on? Do you need us to find someone to fill in for you?"

    And I admit that occasionally we've worked around someone like a rock in the river, but I don't cover for them. Hard as it sometimes is to see work go undone, we're in the business of making disciples, not making excuses for our disciples.

  3. I have much the same situation as Mystified does. And yes, it is frustrating. I wish I had great revelations to share, but I do not.

    Thanks for the great ideas from Jennifer and Muhtah+

    Here is my conversation when I was asked to be an elder (pre-seminary)

    Present Elder: Purple, will you be an elder

    P: Gosh, I've never been an elder before. What does that mean?

    PE: One session meeting a month and one committee meeting a month. That's all there is.

    I knew enough to go asking for deeper questions, but this was the mentality with which many congregations attend to nominating.

    We are a 9 member session, an "active" membership of 65, and a pool of people who able to serve in a session capacity is about 20. See our difficulty!

    I do see some "light in the tunnel" with our new form of government (PCUSA)in freeing up some of the burdens on tiny (and very aging) churches.

  4. In addition to some of the great ideas above, it seems that there is also a need for an overall culture shift. Are people emotionally connected to the vision for ministry? Is there an overall sense that people do things here, we are motivated, and everyone wants to pitch in and help? Or does it feel like a place with lots of barriers and no one creating forward momentum? Gone are the days when people will do things out of an obligation to the church (or any other organization), and drawing on their sense of duty will only go so far. People are not lazy, but they want to be involved in things with great impact that really matter. I look forward to further discussion about this!

  5. This is a good conversation, and one that is hitting home for me. In our church, we don't have elders (or even deacons, though we are Baptist and that is the typical Baptist way), but we are struggling with a noticeable downturn in the willingness/ability of people to commit to any major obligation within the church. More and more of the work that used to be carried on by volunteers is being pushed on to staff (or just not done). I think people are feeling under so much strain with the obligations in their life outside of church that they want to be spiritually and socially fed but don't feel like they have the time or energy to offer anything back.

    (I realize this is a different issue than people saying "yes" to being an elder and then not following through with the work - we are having trouble just with getting people to say "yes" to things). We have been working on reframing things as some of you have mentioned above - not trying to fill roles but really trying to discern callings, helping people see ministry opportunities as truly meaningful work as opposed to just a slot to fill, etc. But it is still a real struggle right now.

  6. thank you for this helpful conversation. Our current elders are frustrating sometimes, but now I have great tools with which to go into our first Nominating Committee meeting on Sunday after church. My bring on a new class of elders that (hopefully) "gets it" more so than our current elders, maybe our church will move forward in a positive direction.

  7. I'm chiming in as a ruling elder who has been ordained for a long time and has served in various roles in our congregation and presbytery as well as at the nation level. I agree that some of my fellow ruling elders do indeed fall down on the job, and part of the problem - as pointed out by others - is that the expectations/responsibilities are not clear at the time they accept the nomination. I'm not sure the nominating committee really understands either, so they can't reasonably be expected to communicate something they don't know.

    Some suggestions:

    Training for the nominating committee about the roles and responsibilities of the officers they nominate.

    OFFICER TRAINING!!!! I don't mean a Saturday retreat to talk about the mission vision of the congregation. Or handing out copies of the Book of Confessions and Book of Order. Or a Saturday morning to make committee assignments and talk about what committees do. I mean officer training that is similar to confirmation class. That helps future ruling elders understand ahead of time what will be expected and how those expectations are grounded in our theology. And that lets a person withdraw if that is the best choice - even if it means more nominating committee work and another congregational meeting. It doesn't necessarily need to be led by the pastor - a retired teaching elder, a ruling elder from another congregation who "gets" it, the presbytery's stated clerk would all be possibilities and would be a good example to new officers of the connectedness of our denomination.

    The ruling elders are the spiritual leaders of the congregation. It is their responsibility to involve all members in the mission, ministry, and administration of the particular church. I think participation for everyone is improved when a ruling elder's task is seen as an opportunity for ministry and outreach and not just another chore that must be done. If the session's approach to accomplishing tasks is to ask a session member to lead/encourage other members of the congregation in doing whatever needs to be done rather than asking the individual to accomplish it however he can, leadership becomes a reality instead of just a word.

    Please say "thank you." I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have worked, struggled, encouraged, and prayed my way through a project without any recognition by the pastor(s). Just a simple "thank you" would have made my day! One pastor actually took the time to write a thank you note - once the shock wore off, I was energized and inspired to move on to the next opportunity. Our moms were right - those are magic words!

    Thanks for "listening!"


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