It was an ordinary Wednesday night, filled with the weekly hustle and bustle of young humans bouncing off each other in the church gym. A deacon in the congregation approached me, the gleam of an agenda in his eye...
"Hey there, Matt."
"Oh hey, Deacon."
"I was wanting to talk to you about the youth this summer."
"Ok, it's February though."
"I know. We were just talking about Vacation Bible School this summer."
"We were thinking the teens might not need a class this summer, you know, they're getting kind of old for it--"
"I couldn't agree more, Deacon."
"Well, you think the older teens could help out then with the younger VBS classes, you know, like be assistants and help the older teachers?"
"I was thinking the same thing! I think the teens are ready for something like that."
"So you don't have a problem making that happen?"
"Not at all Deacon, I think it's a great idea."
The next Sunday in our church was Nominating Sunday, which consists of the Nominating Committee announcing who had accepted the “nominations” for the various volunteer positions in the church for the coming year: everything from the Ushers to the Sunday School Teachers, the Senior Saints director to the Holiday Decorating Committee. This creatively stretched minority of the flock, whose sacrificial demeanor made them perennial favorites of servitude--or targets, depending on your perspective, were unveiled before the church in awkward glorious display.
The Deacon from my Wednesday night conversation was also the chairman of the Nominating Committee, and he stood on stage, shifting from foot to foot, listing name after monotonous name for their respective positions, the fuzzy-headed microphone waving in his hand like a lollipop long bereft of joy.
I sat almost dozing in my pew, when the Deacon's voice broke my trance with the following words:
"And we're real excited this year about our Vacation Bible School, our VBS director this year is Matt Orth."
Stunned, I made eye contact with the Deacon across the golden-harvest-colored pews, his look letting me know what our conversation had been about and surely I knew that, right?
I laughed, put on my ministerial game-face and shuffled out of the rows to join the rest of the assembled ministers, a mismatched crew of excitement and duping. I thought it appropriate that I stand next to the Person Who Counts The Money This Year and the Family Life Center Scheduler, thinking in my heart that perhaps their conversations were something like mine (Do you like money? Good. Have you ever used a calendar? Excellent.) and that maybe we were soul mates in the unpredictable world of volunteerism.
The Nominated turned into the Dedicated as the Deacon blessed us with a prayer chock full of KJV pronouns for the "upbuilding of the Lord's earthly Kingdom" during the next twelve months.
I directed VBS that year and I don't remember much about it. My hunch is that finger jello and popsicle sticks were somehow involved.
Over the years, the Nominating Sunday became symbolic to me of what eventually I named the "Warm Body Mentality" in many congregations. The Warm Body Mentality (WBM) is where a church decides what needs to happen program-wise in their church Body life and then they just find the Warm Bodies to make it happen. Calling, Gifting, Genuine Needs and intangibles like Faithfulness, Fruit of the Spirit, and Relevance rarely enter into the equation of acquisition. What matters is a YES and a Warm Body making the desired event or programming actually happen.
I firmly believe WBM is one of the reasons we often sense a lack of vitality in the fellowship of our churches and concurrently a reason why so many young people often leave the flock never to return…
Isn't it good that we have volunteers running those vital programs? What if we didn't have those programs and we had visitors come in and they left because we didn't meet their needs? Why do you believe the WBM is dangerous and detrimental?
I will answer those three questions asked by my hypothetical Deacon of Defensiveness:
1. Isn't it good that we have volunteers running those vital programs?
I want to respond with Jesus' words in Matthew 19 to the rich young ruler: "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Ha. Seriously, what is "good" when we're talking about church programming?
Does good mean simply functioning? Does good mean it is still operating the way it was 20 years ago? Does good mean it has a lot of participation?
I believe if we're going to use the adjective good when describing church programming it should mean the activity or program has demonstrated proven long-term results in helping folks become better followers of Jesus Christ. Some would call that discipleship or spiritual formation. It is the reason we should have a program in our church--not to just make folks happy, keep folks coming, maintain a legacy of existence, or to make places for people to get plugged in--but to create environments where healthy spiritual growth takes place.
And how do we know if a program is beneficial to the spiritual formation of its participants?
Great question and a tough one to answer, one I would answer with more questions:
Are relationships being formed that exist outside the programmed event?
Do people get there early and want to stay late?
Do people participate in the process or just spectate?
Are you seeing the fruit of the Spirit in conversations?
Can you observe increased humility, forgiveness, grace, and hope? Increased trust and vulnerability?
Do people talk specifically about Christ and knowing Him or vaguely about God and pleasing Him?
Is there a sense of commitment and faithfulness, of increased interest?
Do people come prepared, bringing their bibles or curriculum or having read the required reading?
Is it something people want to invite others to rather than being told to invite others to?
Those diagnostic questions are helpful but not perfect. They are also tough to apply to our children's programming and much of our student activities. It is a tough reality that many times our kids and teens come and get excited about our programming not because of Jesus but because they are kids and teens--and we give them a space to be that.
We beam with pride when our kids sing the songs in front of the congregation, or answer the Sunday School questions correctly about who lost their power when his hair got cut, or when our youth group is busting at the seams of their boisterously painted youth room. And all of those can be legitimate sources of pride and joy. . .believe me, no one loves a kids choir special on a Sunday morning more than this guy. . .but. . .
I don't just want our kids to answer questions about Jesus or do the nice things because they're scared of Jesus not letting them go to heaven--I want them to share their cookies because they love Jesus. I want them to say "I'm sorry" not because we make them say it but because they've seen us parents practice grace, humility and forgiveness. This isn't a blog about child psychology and age of accountability or a plea for a particular type of curriculum--but a blog about our markers, our diagnostics, for what is good often having little to do with loving Jesus and neighbor and a lot to do with the appearance of a successfully functioning religious institution.
Most teenagers want a place to be themselves, see their friends, and get a little loud and crazy every once in a while. Snacks and music would be great in that place as well. Our churches provide that exact desired environment. Is a student ministry program good just because it has teenagers in it? Is a zoo good just because it has animals in it? Is a movie good just because it has some cool explosions and attractive actors? Decades of church statistics show us that successful youth programming (having lots of students participating) often does not equate down the road to young adults who love Jesus and are committed to a local church.
Back to the original question, "Isn't it good that we have volunteers running these vital programs?"
I would say not necessarily--a program that is just being run for reasons stemming from the desire to see "apparent success of the religious institution" can often mask a lack of fulfilling the Great Commission to make disciples who obey Christ and His teachings with the whole of their lives.
Back to our imaginary Deacon’s questions…
2. What if we didn't have those programs and we had visitors come in and they left because we didn't meet their needs?
I think we make too many decisions out of "fearful hypotheticals." We create a scenario in our minds that we are scared might happen and then react as if that situation has already occurred or is a worst case scenario. There might be this visiting family who has this one 6th grade boy who doesn't play well with students outside his peer group and needs a 6th/7th grade Sunday School class but we don't have one so the family might leave. . .so let's get that Sunday School class started. This may sound exaggerated to many of you--but I've heard very similar detailed reasons given like this in many a meeting about not only volunteers, but about new ideas, and even about some theological points. (If "A" is true we're worried that "B", "C", "D" will happen so "A" obviously can't be true or we refuse to acknowledge it to be true because of fear of B, C, D.)
I think making fear-based decisions is rarely a healthy thing for a people led by the Spirit.
I also think that sometimes we’re guilty of elevating the concept of "meeting people's needs" above the concept of "called and capable" people leading a particular program. If my car needs to be fixed and I try to get a well-intentioned and willing accountant to fix it, the attempt may be made but the car will probably remain unfixed. It is hard to meet a person's spiritual needs with someone unequipped to do so. When forming our programming to meet people's needs we should ask ourselves "What needs are we able to actually meet?" as well as "Are these people's needs or their preferences/desires?"
I do not expect volunteer leaders to be perfect at their jobs, (there are no perfect mechanics that I know of), but we should expect them to be competent and have some sense of calling and passion for their position. Lastly, as for the fear of people's needs not being met because of a lack of programming and them leaving: It's OK. God is a pretty big God with a ton of local churches out there. If you're not ready for that particular family in regards to your programming: it’s okay, God can lead them to another congregation OR God can lead them to endure with your congregation until that “program” develops naturally with the right leadership. I’ve seen this happen firsthand in my own congregation. And I’m not talking about the absence of a Middle School Boy’s Sunday School class, in the beginning we didn’t have music, youth, OR children’s programs!
3. Why do you believe the WBM is dangerous and detrimental?
You can probably tell from my previous answer where this one is going. Should an accountant work on my car? Should a toddler play with matches? In most scenarios, of course not, unless said accountant is a proverbial jack-of-all-trades and the young tot is a pyro-savant. And why is the answer no? Because of the harm that comes from folks messing with stuff they don't know about.
When you have someone who is a nice person and a willing person but doesn't know Jesus real well or the Scriptures real well, you do not have a Sunday School teacher.
When you have someone who wants to direct a committee or serve on a board but doesn't have a real prayer life or hasn't demonstrated wisdom in their own personal lives, you do not have a leader.
When you have someone who has kids and shows up regularly on Wednesdays, but doesn't know how to hold a conversation with a teenager or share their personal testimony in a meaningful way, you do not have a student ministry volunteer.
I said above that making fear-based decisions is rarely a healthy thing for people led by the Spirit--I said rarely because I think there are two kinds of fear we need to have more often:
A "fear of the Lord" where we respect His desire for His children to bear His image and a "fear for the spiritual health of our sheep" that supersedes our desire to have any ole pasture (program/leader) for our sheep to graze in.
I believe much of the lack of spiritual vitality in our congregations and much of the exodus of our churched youth from further church life and involvement can be traced to putting warm bodies in positions of spiritual influence who had little to no spiritual lives themselves. They went from being nice unsaved/unchurched people to plugged-in church people rather quickly--without much training or recognition of spiritual formation in them by actively involved spiritual overseers.
If we want the meat and potatoes of the faith to be eaten by those in our care but place baby-food and milk-bottle Christians in a majority of our influential positions, then we can’t complain when our young people leave our congregations seeking steak elsewhere. When people (young people especially) don't see the fruit or the fire in their leaders, we cannot expect their faith, fruit, or fire to manifest magically on its own. In fact, when people (including myself) see the lowest common denominator being accepted it is very easy and natural to set your own standards to the same level.
I know this is not the case in all churches so do not be offended by these general observations--but I know these descriptions are unfortunately accurate for many congregations.
Now that we’ve established the existence and dangers of the Warm Body Mentality, let’s examine some positive and viable alternatives to the WBM. . .
I will start with some disclaimers:
- There are no perfect churches, no perfect programs, no perfect methods for recruiting/training/keeping volunteers, and certainly no perfect discipleship methods.
- There are no one-size-fits-all, can't-miss techniques that can be used in every church, every culture.
- I am not perfect in my principles or methods either. Nor have I always followed my own advice, particularly with volunteers. Most of my principles come from my mistakes. And none of these principles are "re-inventing the wheel".
- God's grace sustains us all and His Spirit moves in many ways--even sometimes through Warm Bodies just going through the motions.
On Recruiting Volunteers
When you ask someone to be a volunteer, give them enough time to process the requirements of the position and to pray about it. Starting with a sense of urgency like "I need to know by tomorrow if you're willing to be our Children's Director for the next 80 years because I know you love kids because you have like six of them," is not a positive first step. I recommend a face-to-face conversation first with a follow-up email with all the details of the position including:
- How long the commitment is for and when will they have an opportunity to step down or renew the commitment. Or if/how they can downgrade or upgrade responsibilities.
- What kind of accountability they will have, who they are responsible to report to, and what the evaluation process will be.
- What the time commitments are, including not just the start/end times of services/events, but what time they will be expected to be there both before and after the service/event.
- All the rest of the duties spelled out whatever they may be (teaching, running sound, getting food ready, etc.) including any intangible expectations like "building relationships with teenagers", which may mean telling them specifically things such as "Do not sit on the back row with all the other adults but sit with actual students in the rows."
- Give them a gracious way to say "NO." You're looking for volunteers who want to be there.
Also in your recruitment conversation and in your email, encourage them again to pray about the position, but also tell them the three things you look for in a volunteer. . .
- Called: Some sense of peace, calling, or passion for this position but preferably all three. You're not looking for someone to do it out of guilt, because they really like you, or any form of the "I guess I need to get plugged in somewhere" mentality.
- Committed: You consider this position a commitment and a covenant. If they say they're going to do it, then they need to do it. Whether it's tougher than they thought or whether or not they feel encouraged enough, etc. A commitment to the very end: if you sign up to lead a small group, then lead the group (according to the specific duties spelled out for them) no matter how small it gets. . .if it started with 14 and dwindles down to 4, it's just a smaller group. Same expectations apply.
- Capable: Affirm why you asked them to serve in the first place: they have gifts and skill-sets, or sources of joy that you (and probably others) noticed. You wouldn't have asked if you didn't think they were capable.
After all that and your mighty Avengers are assembled, your duties then are the following (and here's where I have often failed):
- Pray for your volunteers.
- Check in with them to see how they and the job description are lining up.
- ENCOURAGE them. Don't just use them as slave labor for the success of your ministry. Care about their spiritual development as well: suggest books to them, ask about their relationship with Christ, etc.
- Gently correct any behavior that is not in keeping with your expectations or that are in clear opposition to the agreed upon job description. Don’t just “swallow it” and unload on them at the end of the year and don’t just confront it in public right when you see it: set up a face-to-face meeting.
- Keep your end of the deal. Make sure you are providing them the tools they need to thrive: giving them curriculum or small group questions in a timely manner, making purchases ahead of time and not at the last minute, don't change their job description by adding on duties all the time, give accountability and evaluations as promised, etc.
And lastly, some miscellaneous thoughts about Warm Body Mentality and programming:
- What if you just had staff get to know their people and then discovered what Callings, Commitment-Levels, and Capabilities already existed in your people and then built your programming around them? A "Developing Unique Programs According to Your Unique People" vs. "Plugging People into Your Already Designed Programs"
- What about knowing a program will be healthy for your church but instead of starting it right away you take a year to train your volunteer leaders on what you want the program to look like? A good example is small group ministry: Instead of getting a dozen leaders to immediately start their own small groups after a one hour crash course on small groups, what about making a small group with those 12 leaders and you lead the group the way you want them to lead their groups? It is a long-view version of programming but I think it is a powerful, mature, and healthy way to really start something well.
- What if instead of looking at every program as a permanent part of the structure of your church life you thought of programs as seasons? And seasons change. Except in this case you ask yourself: In this season of our church (or particular part of our church) is this program still the best way to be utilizing our volunteers for the spiritual formation of God's Kingdom people? If it's not, change the programming.
Hope this helps, my friends. You are not alone and none of us are perfect. Trust and persevere! Grace and Peace to you,