Tuesday 28 January 2020

Questions your volunteers are asking (But probably not out loud!)

Let’s face it: churches and not for profits today are constantly struggling with different kinds of deficits. Volunteers are one “commodity” we never have enough of. We have great ideas, but we lack the people to implement them. If you’re like most leaders today, implementing a good idea often comes down to staring at our calendar and evaluating our own levels of energy and over-stretched commitments. So, we often turn again to that small cadre of committed folk who are always there for everything, secretly wondering if this is the ask that will push them into burnout. Or we repeatedly ask the highly talented participant in our community and they repeatedly – graciously but firmly -- turn us down. What’s going on?  Can we think about it differently? Let me add that I never really solved the challenge but the last couple of years have allowed me time and space to reflect.  Maybe, together, we can help you see a solution that I missed.
It seems that one problem is our tendency to constantly add – programs, offerings, ministries, etc. – without ever ending.  We aren’t very good at saying, “This had its season. It was wonderful and faithful and a blessing.  But its time has passed.” Rather than do that, we just add something. One of the noblest things I ever saw was a women’s group who decided that it was time to call it a halt. They recognized that their increasingly limited physical capacity was making it very difficult to do the things they felt proper for their role. They could still be friends without the organization. So, they asked to be decommissioned. We did that with gratitude and celebration. More frequently, we just keep maintaining things. Possibly because we are part of churches that have always grown (at least in peoples’ memories) and stopping things feels like failure. Look around your organization: is there anything continuing that needs honourable retirement?
Another problem is related: once something gets on the organizational chart or the governance structure, we keep trying to keep it filled. In every organization there are people who will not say “no”, especially if a beloved pastor or executive director asks them.  They don’t have an interest or the skills and often the job is not done well or even ignored. They feel badly for letting others down; the leadership feels annoyed because things aren’t happening. Probably there are certain actions and/or roles your organization is required to fill. What about others, the ones you’ve perennially struggled with? What’s the worst thing that could happen if they were left vacant or that work was left undone for a season? Is your mission shaping your organization or is your organizational structure strangling your vitality?
Would you volunteer for your organization?  Tell me the truth. And if your answer is “no” then why should anyone else? If you wouldn’t volunteer, why not?
·             Is this meaningful work? Time and energy are precious factors and if we’re going to invest them in an organization, we want to do something that has meaning. We don’t want to just fill a role in an organizational chart. Duty is quickly losing any effectiveness it ever had. So, is the work meaningful?
·             Related to that is the question of whether the meaning is evident. In a lot of organizations, even long-term participants don’t always understand what a particular role or group means to the big picture. The closer to the organizational centre we are, the more tempting it is to forget that. We know why this is important, so we assume others do.
·             Does this organization foster healthy relationships? The answer to that should be obvious, but I’m afraid it’s not. Years ago, a noted evangelical preacher published a short article about the fellowship and acceptance in the local church compared to the local bar. Guess which came off worse? If the work situation where we are employed is poisonous, at least we console ourselves with the pay cheque. In the local church, what’s the balancing factor? Increasingly I hear of congregations and organizations instituting codes of conduct or manners of behaving (by different names). That’s a good start. Now, do you enforce them or uphold them in some way? Many people may feel a deep commitment to your organization’s purpose, but they recoil from the behaviour and language of those involved. If you are a leader, how are you going to call that to account? Start with clear, direct, respectful communication.
·             One thing I regret not doing more of is helping volunteers to grow. We were usually so absorbed with the task at hand or the pressure of time, that education, spiritual nurture, skill development and so on, came far behind. If people are also receiving from their volunteering, there’s a much better chance of them sticking around and encouraging others. How are you helping your volunteers to grow?
·             Do you say, “thank you”? Regularly, routinely, sincerely? Do you praise people and find ways for others in the organization to celebrate the contributions of those who are often unsung?
·             What about training? I shudder to recall the number of times I got people to take on a role and then swept on to address the next problem, simply assuming they would know what to do. Volunteers are often good people, skilled and capable, but our organization may be new territory for them. They need some direction at the start and some ongoing attention now and then to help them improve.
·             Personally, I hate it when leaders are disorganized! That’s the biggest turnoff for volunteering I know. My time and energy are worth something and you honour it by being prepared when I show up to volunteer. Too often, people arrive and there has been no preparation for them. I regularly tell my students that the much maligned “administration” is genuinely a ministry: making sure that those in the organization have the resources they need to fulfill their calling. So, as a leader, how organized are you when volunteers answer your call?
·             Are terms of involvement clear? Many people are leery of volunteering because they’ve been burned too often. A “simple task” has all sorts of hidden hooks. For instance: if you take this task it also means you’re on this other committee. Or, we won’t tell you, but this is really a life sentence. Or, the only ways to get out of this role is to die or quit because we have no succession plan. We want you to do this but there’s no budget. Oh, didn’t we tell you that the role involved organizing this major event – and everyone feels free to criticize you? No, there’s really no one you can turn to for answers, but be careful you don’t make mistakes. Position descriptions, expectations, resources, terms of office – these are crucial for the effective care and feeding of capable volunteers.

If we struggle to find and keep high-quality volunteers, some of the solutions may be found as we wrestle with these questions.

©2020 I Ross Bartlett

Wednesday 22 January 2020


Many seminary graduates (and their congregations) complain that their education didn’t prepare them for the world in which they are trying to “do church”.  To an extent, that’s true. A large part of the problem is that the culture is shifting so rapidly that, by the time someone’s ready to teach about it, another shift has occurred. Another factor is that, especially in mainline denominational traditions, there is such a wide mix of congregations and cultures where graduates might serve. So, a responsible denominationally-related college can’t just ignore a whole class of faith communities just because they aren’t “cutting edge” – however that is manifested this month! Another major concern is that “being relevant” is not necessarily a Christian value and can lead us into all sorts of practices which promise results but may measure according to criteria that could/should make us uncomfortable. We live in a culture that loves to count things. We all know that what is counted is what becomes important. It’s worth pausing to reflect whether or not the things we count are truly what should occupy us. They may be, but Christ’s invitation is sufficiently counter-cultural that we want to ask the question rather than assuming the answer.
All that being true, the faithful church leader also wants to be aware of the cultural shifts that are impacting the community around the church. To change John’s emphasis, we may not be of the world, but we are certainly in it! If anything, the pace of change is accelerating, not slowing. The question is, can we see it and prepare for it? I guess that’s two questions.  Here are some things that might be impacting your congregation. But the overall message is that we need to keep trying new things recognizing that some of them will not meet our hopes.  Some might call that “failure,” but I prefer the vision that says we can’t know until we try.
I believe that the local church is crucial to the mission of God in this world. That’s why it’s so important that it be as vital and vibrant as possible. However, that no longer translates into “bums in pews” and “dollars in the plate.” The long-honoured model of getting people to come into a church building (the “attractional model”) has to give way to the “missional model” of aiming to get the church into places where people already are. Think of how rarely in our society we are confronted with the requirement that we be in a particular place on one day at one time to access something. That’s not to say that gathering as a community of faith is suddenly irrelevant. But rather than being the summit of our efforts it needs to be the foundation. So, if being part of your community of faith means a building, a location, a set time, I urge you to think about that.
We need to continue to work at a digital presence.  That may mean live-streaming which is surprisingly affordable. It may mean recording services and having them available for download. It certainly means that your web-presence needs to be current, up-to-date and changing.  We know that, for an increasing number of people, a website is their first point of contact. If you’re still showing the times for Easter weekend in November, there’s a problem! Similarly, with Facebook.  Then, you might wrestle with the question of how to engage the people you never meet.
“Pop-up” is a new thing in retail: pop-up stores or restaurants and so on. What would a pop-up church look like in your context? Could you take a worship experience someplace outside your building? I think the trend to take church groups outside the church – theology on tap, or coffee and conversation or other types of gatherings which make an effort to include newcomers – are great.  In a related vein, do you provide anything to your community for which people do not need or are not expected to pay? I know how important fund-raising is to the local congregation. But if every time someone steps inside your door they know they’ll have to reach for their wallet or purse that changes the relationship.
Do you ever get people together simply for the joy of being together? Seriously – do you always need to have a task or reason? It is remarkably difficult to build community when most of what I see of you is the back of your head! It is often observed that we are, concurrently, increasingly digitally linked and personally isolated. There is an epidemic of loneliness in our society that the church is perfectly positioned to address. God is both transcendent and immanent. Christ needs to be encountered in the flesh of the neighbour.

Monday 13 January 2020

People to watch our for

One of the challenges of work in ministry and other social-service not-for-profits is that we tend to want the best for people. We try to treat them seriously and honourably. We try to give them respect. Most of the time that’s a great way to be. Not only is it faithful to the invitation of most religious traditions, it just plain builds a happier world. But some people are toxic. If they are a fellow employee, they can turn going into work each day into a barefoot walk across live coals with three-inch spikes sticking up! As you open the door to the building, you can feel your stomach knotting. They have a similar effect if they are part of the volunteer body you work with. Only then, their impact can be considerably wider and lots more people feel the plague.

It’s an occupational hazard I guess: because we’re working for the good and striving to see healthful change in the world, we are – to a degree – optimists. That makes us think that these folks can get better.  And most of us have seen the results that indicate that with enough time and attention, people do heal. But some difficult people remain difficult no matter how hard we work at it. As I’ve learned the hard way, if we don’t address toxic people it gets worse. And if their influence grows, they can derail the entire mission. 

How can we identify them? I want to be careful here because any one of the following, although disturbing, may not indicate full-on toxicity. But if you get a couple or more together – watch out!  

The person who wants to be involved in everything right from the start rings alarm bells. Of course, most churches and non-profits are on the lookout for eager and willing participants. So, we enable the toxicity because of our own needs. Toxic people want to be the centre of attention – all the attention! 

Most people have opinions. I give people the benefit of the doubt that their opinions are valid. Most people will reserve their opinions until they are asked or at least until a relationship of some sort develops.  Not toxic people. They don’t just volunteer them, they pronounce them uninvited and get terribly bent out of shape if you don’t agree.

Toxic people often move frequently.  When you pick up hints that they’ve been to three or four churches or were part of a major split that caused them to leave, I’d want to look more carefully. It’s one thing if someone leaves a church because they can no longer tolerate doctrinal positions that they feel diminish a part of the population or because there’s no interest in life and growth there. Chances are, if they left a lot of other places, they’ll leave yours too. Watch out for the feeling inside you, that yours is the one true Garden of Eden they’ve been looking for, that this is the place they will finally find a spiritual home, that you are just the spiritual guide they need. We can pray that that happens – just don’t set your heart on it.

Those folks who give you advice when they first meet you, put up red flags for me. You haven’t been around here long enough to know what needs to happen. The longer their list of possible improvements, the more dangerous they are. Now, I have no trouble with advice or feedback that arises from a genuinely helpful place. Can we get better – always. Can I sharpen my skills – you bet I can. Once, when I was a guest preacher somewhere, a parishioner sailed through the lineup after worship and informed me that if I didn’t watch a specific televangelist and “give my life to Christ” I should get out of ministry. All that from one service!  Whew! 

Have you ever met anyone who makes a big deal of showing up! They can be some of the most positive and encouraging people you meet at first blush. Everything is wonderful! I try and check myself when someone tells me that something is the best (fill in the blank) ever. I’d rather they started off neutral or moderately pleased and grew into a stronger positive emotion. What happens quickly can quickly turn to the other end of the positive-negative continuum.

Remember the words of the late Maya Angelou: “When people tell you who they are, believe them!” I’m not saying that you vote them off the island immediately. But as a leader, you need to care for yourself and others.

©2020 I Ross Bartlett