Have you ever…
- been in a committee meeting when there was total silence because no one in the room volunteered to help with a role/task?
- worked with a committee or board and heard someone say—with a grimace or shrug, “I’m already over-committed; I really don’t have time to do any of this!”?
- heard someone whisper to a neighbor, “I was told that this was only going to take an hour of my time each month!”?
I cannot tell you how often I have heard church members utter the phrase, “It’s only an hour each month!”—either in trying to convince someone to join a committee or recalling what they were told when they were asked to serve on a committee, or as a church officer. I don’t think we do anyone justice—the person serving, the committee or board, or the church as a whole—when we set our expectations so low. And I don’t think we’re being honest.
The church is the people! (Remember the finger rhyme? “Here is the church and here is the steeple; open the doors and see all the people!”) Pastors, educators, and other church staff cannot and should not be doing all of the work for the people. We are called to work as partners in ministry, working together to accomplish the vision and mission of the church. Often, the staff are called to train, empower, and manage the volunteers/church members, and it is the church members themselves who are called to do the work, to be the church.
I get it. Many people are over-committed. The demands on young people and their parents keep growing. We pay the staff—can’t they take care of it? In desperate times, we want to use desperate measures. But having a name on a list “to fill a spot” or a warm body in a chair is not helpful when it comes to doing the work Christ has called us to do… together… as a team. Having church members attend meetings only to pat our backs or offer praise is not really helpful. This is not what it means to be partners in ministry.
We have expectations for committee members, church officers, and other volunteers, but I don’t think we always communicate those clearly and upfront, before someone accepts a position to serve. When we “convince” someone to join a committee or serve as a church officer, we may be getting in the way of the Spirit. We may be forcing something that isn’t helpful or fruitful or honest in the long run.
What can we do differently?
- Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No. None of this is meant to blame or shame people; we need to make it clear that after prayerful consideration, an honest response to a call to service is what we want. I appreciate honesty, and I really appreciate when someone tells me after prayerfully considering a position or task that they are not able to faithfully fulfill that role at the time. Just as there is a time and place to say “Yes,” there is a time and place to say “No.” In his sermon on the mount, while speaking on vows or solemn pledges, Jesus said, “Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matt 5:37, CEB). It is ok to say “Yes” to serve when you understand what is being asked and feel called to make that commitment. It is equally ok to say “No” to serve when you just don’t feel called in that time and place. This is truth-telling, and it is a spiritual discipline.
- Committee Descriptions/Expectations. We should have clear expectations for all volunteers, and this includes committee members. It’s not fair to ask someone to make a commitment to serve if we haven’t told them up front what we actually need and/or expect. Committees should have a description form that might include: the church’s mission statement, the purpose of the committee, the responsibilities of each member (including the meeting time and place, but also including a list of tasks to be completed throughout the year), accountability, and budget. This type of description form can be a tool when recruiting new members; after reviewing the description and expectation, the person can give an honest answer about their ability to serve.
- Training. We (church leaders) need to make sure we provide training to our volunteers: teachers, facilitators, nursery staff, worship leaders, mission coordinators, ruling elders, deacons, etc. Again, we don’t set ourselves up for success if we aren’t explaining expectations, providing background information, giving examples, and laying out process.
- Empowering the Laity. My colleagues and I have often said that our goal is to work ourselves out of a job. If we are truly empowering the people to be the church, then at some point in the future, we may no longer be needed. If people took such ownership in the ministry of the church and shared the burden among the group, what a vision of the kingdom of God that would be! I think pastors, educators, and other church staff do bring a wealth of knowledge, experience, pastoral care and guidance, but the people should be empowered to be the hands and feet of Christ: to minister, to share the gospel, and to use their God-given gifts of energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.
- Let vacancies stand. This one can be really difficult for us perfectionist-types, but it can also be really important. After diligently working to fulfill a position, if a vacancy still exists, allow time to pass for people to see the vacancy and wrestle with whether or not they might faithfully commit to the position. Allow some of the tasks to go undone. This might also create space for a new vision to emerge: should we keep doing what we’ve been doing, or is the Spirit calling us to something new? Sometimes, having less people calls us to open our hearts and minds to God’s presence and to imagine what re-creation might be coming forth. This can be really, really good.
My prayer is that we seek ways to truly serve as partners in ministry. What if we start ed by saying, “It’s only an hour for the meeting each month, and then you can choose what tasks you are able to help with and what projects inspire you to lead between meetings!”?