Most churches run on the fuel of volunteers. As I’ve alluded to before, working with volunteers can be one of the unsung pressures of the paid church leader. It’s often hard to shake the feeling in your gut that because volunteers are … well … volunteers you can’t expect them to be as committed to the church as you are. Or you feel guilty about asking things of them. You may have moral or spiritual authority, but there’s very little actual positional authority to draw on in relation to volunteers. You live with that nagging sense that they can leave at any time; and sometimes they do.
Which is why church life often gets so busy, with programmes and courses and events which need volunteer hours to run. Give people a target to work towards, then people are more likely to buy in and give their time and energy and money. In addition, the more good stuff your church runs the less likely your fickle church members (and thus your pool of volunteers) are to head off to the slick, busy, mega-church down the road with a large staff team.
All this needs vision. Vision is good; it provides a clear sense of where we’re going, as well as where we’ve been. It gives direction and momentum. People buy into vision. People will give time and money, blood, sweat and tears to vision. Keep the vision compelling, front and centre and people are more likely to stay around and get involved.
Vision is – or should be – God-given. I don’t mean by that it descends from on high like the Law, but that it’s worked out in community under God in a process. Sometimes it needs be steered to a greater or lesser extent by the leadership of the church, but it should come from God. Vision is a blessing given by God, and when it’s received and handled aright, it can be deeply significant. But it’s not God.
We people have a nasty habit of turning blessings into gods, Isaacs in idols. It’s very easy, disturbingly easy, for vision to subtly creep into spaces it shouldn’t be in. I’m sure it would be easy to write one of those ‘8 signs you’re replacing God with vision’ type of posts. That’s not really my concern here.
My concern is this. That people are burning out. That could be the clergy, it could be paid lay-staff, it could be volunteers. Frankly, the way people of all 3 of those categories burn out in church life is frightening. No wonder we have a generation cynical about church if they look at it and see bruised reeds being broken. I recently read the following in another blog: “For example, a well-known mega-church pastor once advised me to think of people in seven-year terms. He explained that people generally burn out after seven years. And if I wanted to build a big ministry for God, I would need to leverage those seven years“. You may need to re-read that a couple of times to grasp the full, disturbing nature of the statement. Not find a way to stop people burning out, but leverage the volunteers until they do so.
This doesn’t stop with volunteers. Frankly, I’ve seen employment practises for church staff (including the senior pastor) that are abusive. Sometimes this is justified by the fact that unlike volunteers, staff still need to ‘give time’. Nonsense. If church is your job, you don’t need to ‘give time’. You need to rest, away from it. If people are burning out, they are not responding to God; that may be their own brokenness causing it, or it may be driving people to a vision rather than calling people to God.
I understand why happens. For the leader, and often for other over-committed staff, church takes up so much time and energy that we have to make sure it works; whatever that means for us. So we pour into it, and expect others to do so too. If we don’t, we might fail.
It’s so hard not to do this, and it creeps into my own life, thoughts and deeds insidiously. Far too often, when someone’s unable to do something or does something in a way I don’t like, I respond with angry words in my head, moaning at lack of commitment or vision. Nothing should be that important, but that doesn’t stop me needing ‘success’ to prove myself to myself or others … and needing the overwork of others to achieve it.
When I get it right, this is what I do. I tell people to find an area of church to serve in that gives them joy and life and energy, and then to do it. If it stops becoming a joy, stop doing it. If that means we don’t have Sunday School one week, or the church is a bit messier, or the music isn’t what it has been, then so be it. God will still be on His throne and Jesus will still love us and want people to come to Him and will work through us anyway. Something about jars of clay, I think.
Of course there will be moments. Moments when we all need to chip in because there’s a crisis, or something especially unusual or occasional that needs to be done. Sometimes we do need to move outside the space of our strength and joy just to use a different muscle for a bit. But those are all the exception; no less real because of it, but the exception for all that.
There’s nothing in the Bible about being driven beyond what we’re capable of, moving beyond natural healthy human limitations, following God so recklessly that relationships, health and spiritual life suffer. Live life as God calls me to; that’s my daily challenge. The rest is God’s responsibility. Not mine.
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