Stepping Back So That Others Can Step Up

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Last year, I wrote about how we need to stop talking about people working for the church as if they were ‘volunteers’ and start talking about them as ‘ministers’. But whether we call it volunteering or ministry, the church often struggles to find people to do the unpaid work that needs to be done. But there’s an even bigger problem that we don’t talk about as much.

As much as we might talk about wanting to get new people ‘involved’, many times we’re actively working to dissuade people from offering their time or talents to the work of the church. Someone wants to join the Altar Guild, but they’re told ‘We do the work and cleaning on Friday mornings to get ready for Sunday.’

‘Well, I work during the day: is there any chance I could help out in the evening or on Saturday?’

‘Not really. Everyone else is retired, and that wouldn’t be convenient for them.’

Or there’s some other reason, including ‘All our teams are full.’ That’s something that I’ve actually heard, in more than one context: ‘We’ve got enough volunteers to do what we need to do’. A wise friend of mine once pointed out that there’s very little incentive for church people to ever change anything, because what’s already going on works fine enough for them. Until it doesn’t work for them any more.

A ‘pillar of the church’ suddenly dies, and no one knows how to do what they used to do, without complaining, week in and week out. A pandemic means that for a long stretch of time it’s not safe for seniors to gather with other people. The same group of people gets smaller and more burdened with work as people die or move away, and it all becomes unsustainable.

The people who are so devoted to uncomplaining ministry like this usually have all the best motivations. They stay in leadership roles because ‘I don’t want to see you stuck,’ or they have been involved with something for so long that they couldn’t imagine not being in charge next year. There is a legitimate problem when no one else seems willing to step up to the ministry that we’re doing. But I would argue that it’s an even bigger problem when people want to get involved but can’t, because we don’t want to upset the people we already have helping out.

If we can’t find ways for people who are not yet retired to share their gifts, there will be other organizations that will be only too happy to involve them. When those people retire, doesn’t it make sense to think that they’ll want to offer their newfound time to the Red Cross or the United Way, or the groups that have given them opportunities to volunteer in the past? What message does it send if you tell someone that your own comfort or convenience is more important than their willingness to offer themselves for lay ministries in the church?

This is another reason why it’s important to think about this as ‘ministry’ rather than ‘volunteering’. As soon as I’m tempted to turn someone away because their help would be inconvenient, I should be asking myself why I’m involved in this ministry. Is it for me, or for Jesus? What right do I have to take away someone else’s ministry? If we’re going to be serious about our ministries, we need to think about new people like John the Baptist spoke about Jesus: they must increase, and we must decrease. In other words, sometimes we need to step back so that other people can step up.

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