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Part Five: How Can the Church Help?

Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Ps.100:2

When Christians find that they are serving God with little or no gladness, they need to examine their gifting and their motives, or they simply need to take a break. But what happens when the church they serve isn’t down with that?

When a need is presented to the church, it is the responsibility of the “hearer” to say no when they are not gifted or already overcommitted. But isn’t it the responsibility of the “asker” to not apply pressure or coercion?

I won’t spend time recapping my previous posts, but I will say if you haven’t read them, please do, because this post needs to be understood in context.

The Message

Remember the fictional woman I wrote about at the beginning of this series? Burned out. Exhausted. Resentful. But, still serving the Lord with a smile plastered on her face. What was the message she was getting from her church? It may have come in subtle and not-so-subtle forms, but I’m guessing it was a combination of these:

  1. If you’re not happy serving, then you need to check your heart.

  2. Serving is proof that you are a mature Christian.

  3. Serving is the path to spiritual growth.

  4. Service is necessary. Joy is optional. (this is not overtly stated, but since joy is not emphasized and service is, it’s safe to assume)

  5. If you say no, you might be missing out on God’s best for you.

I’m not suggesting that every message on this list is faulty. But, if these kinds of messages are not being balanced by concern for the spiritual health of a church’s volunteers, many will serve out of joyless guilt, and many will eventually quit in frustration.

Here are excerpts from an email exchange between me and a friend (who does not go to my church) recently.

“Lately, I realized that I've been really stifled and unhappy and felt like I was also trying to fit (or be shoved) into a mold that didn't allow me to grow and experience joy.”

She then tells me they recently left their church and started attending another more grace-filled church.

“It was surprisingly hard for me to accept that God wasn't asking me to live life in a way that was making me weary and bitter, that was all my own and my culture's expectations of what a Christian should look like. God made us the way that we are because he wants to use us the way that we are! His work through us should be life-giving and not leave us as joyless shells of people. Many churches seem to have an over-emphasis on service combined with an under-emphasis on personal growth. I think they especially miss introverts in this because we aren't going to stand up and announce our struggles. ‘Excuse me? I am joyless. I'm exhausted. Can you help me be a real person?’ We are just encouraged to grow through serving.”

This may or may not have been the message her former church intended to give, but it was the message she heard, and her critique is valid.

The Whys

Why do some churches emphasize service so heavily? Reason #1: Pragmatism. They need people, and guilt works. In some churches the people are feeling more used than loved. Reason #2: Fear. If churches were to start telling people to quit ministries where they aren’t gifted, or allow them to take breaks, a mass exodus might occur, leaving holes to fill. This comes down to a lack of faith.

Why don’t some churches seem to care if their workers are happy? Many churches believe that to God, faithfulness is more important than joy. They really do believe that God does not expect joy from his people, but he does expect faithful service. They believe and teach that it is selfish to focus on joy. This explains why many church-goers are ultra loyal, but severely unhappy.

Why don’t some churches do more to take care of their volunteers? In most cases, it is an oversight, and not intentional. But, you’ve heard the adage, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease”, right? Church volunteers will generally stay and quietly serve out of guilt, unlike in the business world where people might quit a stressful job, especially if a less stressful job pays better.

The Responsibility

Here is a short list of suggestions for churches to maintain happy volunteers.

  1. Find out how your people are doing! If a church polled its volunteers on their level of happiness in their ministries, I would venture to guess it would be unpleasantly surprised by the results. But it seems a logical first step to take if true culture change needs to occur.

  2. Rephrase the “ask”. How about, instead of saying, “Blank ministry needs workers, and you should consider serving”; you say, “Blank ministry needs workers, but please pray about this opportunity and only sign up if it is something you feel led to.”

  3. Create a process for making sure a person is a good fit. This can be personality or gift testing, or an interview before matching someone with a ministry. But there also needs to be a lifeline of communication and a “way out” if someone gets into a ministry they aren’t suited for.

  4. Create Sabbath rhythms. Make sure every ministry is set up to give their workers breaks.

  5. Model joyful service from the top down. Pastors, elders, deacons, ministry leads – everyone needs to be serving with joy. Leaders need breaks too. Leaders need to say no to ministries when they have too much on their plate, or they are not qualified to lead. It is not more noble or more spiritual to be completely drained and overworked.

  6. Say Thank You! Most churches I’ve ever been a part of do this pretty well, but we could all use a little more gratitude. Even if you’re not in leadership at your church, take 5 minutes this week to write a note to your child’s Sunday School teachers (or anyone else who serves at your church) to let them know how much you appreciate them.

Many churches are implementing some of these ideas, but there is always work to be done.

I want to wrap up this blog series with a great quote I recently ran across by Indian poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore.

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
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